Reviews

Language, Translation, and the Intimacy of Community

A review of Teresa Dovalpage's novel, "Queen of Bones."

Straightaway, readers are invited to join the ceremony devoted to the Virgin of Candlemas in the opening pages of Queen of Bones. The novel begins on Oyá’s Feast Day and features a scene with a character recognizable to readers of Teresa Dovalpage’s 2018 Havana mystery, Death Comes in through the Kitchen.

The focus soon shifts to two new characters: Sharon and her longtime partner, Juan. They live in New Mexico but Juan is making travel arrangements; he has not returned to Cuba since 1994, when he left on a raft and arrived in the United States barely alive. He has a “complicated relationship” with his homeland and these complications arouse Sharon’s interest steadily until she decides to accompany him.

Sharon experiences Cuba as a tourist. Relative to her, Juan experiences his homeland as a Cuban, but resident Cubans perceive Juan as belonging more to La Yuma (America). But even if his appearance and uneasiness mark Juan as an American visitor, for Sharon he occupies the role of guide and interpreter.

So readers can rely on Juan’s translations of pet phrases (like Donde hubo fuego, cenizas quedan – Old flames die hard) and because Sharon is exploring Cuba for the first time, readers share in her discovery of José Martí International Airport, Meliá Cohiba Hotel, La Dulcinea, and the Colón Cemetery.

This is the Cuba of postcards and photographs—the “faded facades, colorful buildings, wrought-iron balconies and elaborate roofs,” the almendrónes (old-fashioned and refurbished American cars), and the Malecón (the Havana seawall).

But it’s also a lesser-known Cuba, with the kind of details that make it a home rather than a holiday, so an ocean breeze can carry a tinge of exhaust fumes. And it’s a suspense-filled Cuba, in which a door closing can sound like a gun shot.

One aspect of Cuban culture depicted regularly and enthusiastically is the food. This will surely please readers of Dovalpage’s first Havana mystery, in which a key character is a food blogger. From malanga fritters to guava pastries, black beans and rice to fried plantains: descriptions of meals and beverages further immerse readers in daily life in Havana.

Juan’s facility with the language also allows him to clarify terms of thematic importance: like chochería (an “almost-affectionate term” for Alzheimers), CENESEX (the National Center for Sex Education, triumphed by Mariela Castro, which also provides state-funded gender reassignment surgeries), and mariconga (the Pride parade).

Perspectives vary on some issues and the language that characters use is significant. For instance, one says ‘drag queen,’ another ‘transgender,’ and, yet another, ‘transvestite.’ Terminology encapsulates some of their life experiences and hints at their engagement with the wider world.

Introducing a variety of characters complicates the plot, which is slow-moving. Readers’ satisfaction depends on their investment in the happiness of the key characters: without an emotional investment, the subplots and broadening cast will burden the reading experience.

In particular, there is a “parade of imaginary ghosts” that attends Juan as he moves through familiar territory (both geographical and emotional) in Havana. Elements of his past resurface as he reconnects with old friends. These “apparitions” are appropriately linked to observations in the contemporary story. For example, when Juan sees his old set of Agatha Christie novels in translation by Ediciones Huracán in a friend’s apartment, this sighting paves the way from reminiscence to full-on flashback, and memories become enmeshed with the present-day.

With Juan’s reorientation, the contrast between experiences he had as a young man with his present-day observations reminds readers of Cuba’s complex political history. The post-revolutionary years and the Special Period reverberate from small details: as with Juan’s memory of women’s perfumes, the Russian scents he remembers from when he was young, compared to the scents of Opium and Shalimar popular now.

With the popularity of José Latour’s Cuban mysteries and those by Caroline Garcia-Aguilera (who is Cuban born but sets her stories in Miami), it’s clear that Teresa Dovalpage’s setting will attract genre devotees. Readers drawn to the setting of classic and critically acclaimed novels like Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana and Rachel Kushner’s Telex from Cuba could be drawn in by the character development too. Non-fiction readers of recent volumes like Julia Cooke’s The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba and Vicki Huddleston’s Our Woman in Havana: A Diplomat’s Chronicle of America’s Long Struggle with Castro’s Cuba could appreciate the peek into everyday life via story.

Teresa Dovalpage has published a dozen books in Spanish: her Havana series is poised to flourish. The links between volumes are slight enough to allow readers to approach each as a stand-alone but solid enough to create the sense of a vibrant and credible community. If you’re keen to explore Havana, heap a spoonful of Teresa Dovalpage’s storytelling onto your plate, and dig in!

FICTION
Queen of Bones
By Teresa Dovalpage
Soho Press
Published Nov. 12, 2019

Marcie McCauley reads, writes and lives in Toronto (which was built on the homelands of Indigenous peoples - including the Haudenosaunee, Anishnaabeg and the Wendat - land still inhabited by their descendants). Her writing has been published in American, British and Canadian magazines and journals, in print and online.

1 comment on “Language, Translation, and the Intimacy of Community

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