Thursday, February 03, 2005


I had intended to post briefly yesterday in honor of James Joyce's birthday, but--drat it--that thing called "work" cried out its need, reared its ugly head. But at the moment I'm reading a novel that is about Joyce's grand theme of exile, so a belated birthday reference to him serves as a neat segue into a little book chat for today.
As you've seen if you've glanced over at my "Current Reading" list on the right side of this page, one of the titles up is Ana Castillo's novel Sapogonia (1990). I had the pleasure of meeting Castillo years ago, when I was in college and she and Sandra Cisneros came to my college for a reading. Both were well-known in Chicano literature circles then (the early '80s--Cisneros, then as now the more prominent of the two, had by then published The House on Mango Street); I and some of my fellow students felt like the hippest white kids around for hearing these fine writers before a larger audience learned of their work.
I'm not quite halfway through Sapogonia, but it became clear early on in my reading that my description of it over in the aforementioned list isn't accurate. Far from being set in the mythic country of Sapogonia (located somewhere to the south of Mexico), the novel is (so far) about it's protagonist's being alternately drawn to and repulsed by this land. He (Maximo) would usually rather be gone from than drawn to his homeland, but because his family still lives there, he (so far) cannot escape its orbit (assuming he wants to).
In its plot, it most closely resembles that earliest of Spanish-novel genres, the picaresque; the setting for this one, though, has been the Americas and Europe, thus reminding me of a soberer version of that French picaresque novel, Candide. Maximo had been fathered by a man who abandoned his mother before Maximo was born (he'll rather improbably encounter his father later in the novel); he's fairly naive about the world and usually about flat broke, but he's smart enough and just unscrupulous enough to be able to live by his wits. He becomes a flamenco guitarist, and though he's not the greatest player, he's possessed of stunning good looks. It's this latter that allows his to get girl upon girl upon girl. At some point, though--I know this because the jacket blurb promises this . . .would it lie?--he will meet "Pastore Ake, a woman of his native blood whom he can never control." Not yet in my reading. But Pastore HAS been introduced. So, I wait.
I'm reading this novel to see if it might contribute further to my idea of the New World as heterotopia and examining the tensions between that idea and that space of history I am calling the Americas. I also thought that there might be something here that I can throw into the mix regarding the Chicano/a mythic(?--depends on whom one talks to) homeland called Aztlan. So far, nothing to report on any of that. But I did want to mention a nice little textual moment that happens right at the end of the novel's Part One:
The narrative point of view shifts back and forth between a 3rd person privileged to Maximo's thoughts and Maximo himself. At the end, Maximo relates the story of how his grandfather had come to marry his lover, a full-blooded Maya woman. A couple of years after they married, the grandfather has to take to the hills when a strongman named Romero takes power. Someone wrote a corrido (a story-song) about him, which Maximo sings.
Then the text ends with this sentence: "Maximo put down his guitar and waited for you to turn the page." This is the first meta-textual moment in the novel, and its effect was that I indeed did have to wait a bit, it had so caught me by surprise. But I of course did eventually turn the page. And poor Maximo will have to wait for a so far undetermined amount of time, his narrative in suspended animation, because for the moment we're learning about Pastore.
So far, it's a nice novel; I'm doing it something of a disservice in reading it for solely utilitarian reasons. But I still will have had the pleasure of reading it.

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