31 January 2008

Lost in New York

One of the (many) reasons I love living here is all I'm learning about Colombian literature and film. Ever since seeing Rosario Tijeras, Jorge Franco has been on my TBR list and I've finally been able to read both Don Quijote de la Mancha in Medellín and Paraíso Travel. Although I had been aware of this latter work, it wasn't until I read Scott's interview with translator Katherine Silver that I bought the novel (in its original Spanish). (Of course, hearing that a film adaptation was in the works helped too.)

I finished reading it on the road to Cartagena (with A. striving valiantly to not tell me too much--he considers the last spoken line to be one of the best he's ever read) and we went straight to Teatro Heredia in the old city (after checking in) for the first event we were able to attend at this year's Hay Festival.

In the novel, Marlon and Reina are a young couple that immigrate illegally from Colombia to the U.S. and get separated in New York City, lost to each other among the millions. Marlon’s narrative alternates between three different parts of the story, which dissolve into a single strand once the reader realizes where Marlon is going and to whom he’s actually speaking. (I was reminded of Laura Restrepo’s more complicated structure in Delirio.)

As I got further into the book, I remembered what Katherine Silver had to say about Marlon, “whose subtly idiosyncratic voice—part idiot savant, part idiotic innocent—gives the novel unity and depth.” She’s certainly right about the “unity and depth,” but I was a little surprised to find my perception of Marlon to be so different from her own. He is young, scared, slightly superstitious, and in love—for the first time in his life. He is also helplessly (and illegally) lost in a foreign country where he doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t realize that tossing a cigarette on a sidewalk could, say, get you unwanted attention from a couple of nearby cops. He wanders the streets for days without food or shelter; the fear and utter exhaustion cause a nervous breakdown, which will fill him with self-doubt later on (“Le eché la culpa al cansancio, hasta pensé que los días en que no fui yo me habían causado un daño cerebral, o que definitivamente era imposible entenderse en Nueva York.”).

As Junot Díaz says, there is nothing to compare it to: the immigrant experience (particularly the illegal immigrant experience) is so far removed from the typical frame of reference that the only thing that can really even come close is science fiction. But Franco isn’t writing science fiction, simply the thoughts and experiences of a bewildered young man, lost in a foreign country. (As Marlon’s friend Giovanny tells him, “Aquí lo que funciona es la observación: tenés que mirar y seguir, mirar y luego imitar, y obedecer, así creás que no te están vigilando, porque siempre están mirando.”) It isn’t even until much later in the novel that he is finally able to articulate his fear and confront himself and truth of his situation.

Yet he is innocent (in a sense), filled with idealism, blind faith, and, yes, obsession when it comes to Reina. As far as he's concerned, she's alive, lost, and waiting for him to find her. Perhaps saying he is “idiotic” is really just something he’d say of himself:
Ahora estoy seguro de todo lo que uno tiene que ver con su propia suerte. Si de algo he de lamentarme no es de mi mala estrella sino de mi estupidez: seguir a alguien por enamorado tiene más de torpeza que de honestidad o de ceguera.
But idiotic or not, he expresses the tragedy of the immigrant/exile (self-imposed or otherwise) and the misapprehensions of the homeland that can lead to a devastating confusion:
Cargaban en su expresión la desesperanza y el cansancio de haber agotado todas sus posibilidades en este país. Este país, así lo llamamos todos, con una pronunciación despectiva que acompañamos siempre de una mueca desagradable. Como si este país fuera un trapo sucio, ajeno, y no lo que todos hicimos de él. [...]

Se van mermando las esperanzas, se va uno acostumbrando a la prisa, uno comienza a ser desleal con sus sueños, se deja de llorar pero también de reír y finalmente termina uno padeciendo la maldición del emigrante: uno no se quiere quedar pero tampoco quiere volver.
His insight into his own plight extends into an awareness of wider issues:
También hubiera querido decirle que la infamia no era una exclusividad de los colombianos, que todos los seres humanos, sin excepción, somos infames y que por eso es que estamos irremediablemente perdidos.
Ultimately, he goes from glimmers of understanding (“Reina, Monterrey, Reynosa, todo tan monárquico”) to knowing what it is to “mortgage [one's] existence to another’s will.” He learns what identity and patria really mean, summing it up in a beautiful passage (whose impact I won't spoil by posting here) that will leave you wanting to pass this book on to someone else.

Another aspect of the work that I enjoyed were small, revealing details that Franco included. Marlon is hopelessly besotted with Reina, but even though there’s plenty of mention of his attraction to her and the physical aspect of their relationship, it isn’t until page 180 that a particular phrase is used...
Yo no sabía si agradecerle o reprocharle que me hiciera contarle mi historia. Me sentía cansado y liviano a la vez, como si acabara de hacer el amor.
...and he isn’t talking about Reina.

Something else I loved was his inclusion of a character whose loss of identity is mirrored in the letters lost from his name—from Rogelio Peña to Roger Pena:
—¿Usted no se llama así? —le pregunté.

—Primero perdí la eñe. Aquí esa letra no existe.

Hubiera querido preguntarle cómo se podía hablar sin una letra en el abecedario y cómo se decía coño en inglés, pero él estaba decidido a contarme sólo cinco segundos de su historia.
What Marlon doesn’t mention is that “pena” is also a word for shame, sorrow, and hardship in Spanish. Could this have something to do with Roger’s past?

Roger was also a pretty steady source of amusement:
—¿Y para dónde nos vamos? —le pregunté mientras trataba de recoger lo mío.

—I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street with my hair down, so.

—¿Qué está diciendo, Roger?

—Yo, nada. El que lo dijo fue Eliot.
Back in Cartagena, we stood in line outside the theatre, the wind off the sea chilling us (or at least me) on this festive night. Although the film had opened in theatres the week before, it felt like a premiere—especially with the perambulating newspaper boys announcing it and the aproned (theme-appropriate) women pretending to mop the floor in and around the line of people. (We joked with one of them that it was all part of the experience, and she agreed.)

In the Q&A session after the screening, Jorge Franco and Juan Rendón took questions from the audience. Franco explained how he became attracted to the immigrant story and how a “what if” idea led him to imagine certain scenarios and explore different types of people and the reasons behind their choice to leave one country for another.

Most of the questions were pretty dull or obvious (“by people who haven’t read the book,” as A. observed), but I liked the last one. Someone asked why he tends to have such strong female characters (referencing both Rosario Tijeras and Paraíso Travel) set against weaker male counterparts. He acknowledged the trend, but thought that things changed considerably with Marlon. He sees him as a more developed character who “emancipates” himself throughout the novel.

I plan on seeing the movie again, but I was a little disappointed with how sure of himself Marlon was in the film. It was a tougher read of the character than I was expecting. One of the questions asked about certain differences between how the characters were written and how they were portrayed onscreen. Franco said it was true that some actors changed certain aspects of their characters, but added that this was their art and their contribution to the form.

The film itself is an excellent production. Some of the changes were improvements (emphasis on the tragedies of the border crossing) and others diluted the experience (the absence of Marlon’s mental breakdown and extreme suffering—he doesn’t even have beard by the time he finds shelter at Mi Tierra Colombiana). The three narrative threads are pared down to two, two characters are conflated into one, and the ending doesn’t have the emotional depth and clarity of the original. But the actors did excellent jobs and (just barely) kept John Leguizamo from stealing the show (his Spanish has improved considerably as well!). I can now forgive him for Lorenza Daza (almost).

I also really liked the depth the filmmakers added to the character of “La caleña” and how they emphasized the differences between herself and Reina.

Just today I thought of the question I should’ve asked. Orlando is a character in Franco’s novel that reminded me exactly of the character of Don Fernando in María Full of Grace. Turns out that Orlando Tobón who plays Don Fernando is the associate producer of María and is also "known as 'The Mayor of Little Colombia' in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York." Although another actor portrays him in the Paraíso Travel film, I found it moving that Franco uses his actual name in the novel. It would’ve been interesting to hear if he’s met Orlando Tobón and how he came to put him into his novel.

Thus ends the account of Friday night at the Hay Festival. On Saturday morning, A. went in search of parts for his electric guitar and I spent two hours in one bookstore (hence my lovely finds). Our next event was Saturday afternoon with Anne Enright. (The Irish were definitely well represented in the audience—we were surrounded!) My notes may be slow in coming, but I am determined to post on each event throughout the coming week. And if you’ve made it this far, my sincere congratulations!

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