Friday, July 06, 2007

As John From Cincinnati Would Say, The End Is Near

Manuel Ramos

The earth surrounding my house has been adorned with changing color: sensual reds, outrageous yellows, haughty purples, mellow pinks, much more. We sit on our porch or in the back, eating chicken salad sandwiches, drinking red Kool-Aid and pink wine, and talk about the important stuff -- one of our neighbors is worried about his Marine son in Iraq; another neighbor finally got his re-wiring finished; where are we going to dinner with old friends -- and we are immersed in the growing, vibrant life around us that Flo cultivates and nurtures and protects; my simple job is to try to quench the incessant thirst of the small plot of lawn we still maintain.

Summer time in the city: hot, dry. We can be surprised in the evening with an explosion of wind while lightening scars the horizon, but there is no rain in my neighborhood. I sit next to a very quiet and peaceful buddha and drink it all in but I seem to have to work harder at my serenity.

Here are two book reviews that relate to some of what I just rambled on about. The books have been around for a while, and so have the lessons readers can take from the books, but I guess we still got a lot to learn. As the song says, in the grand scheme of things -- we're just travelers, never kings never queens -- we're just travelers. (Big Moon Shinin' - Chip Taylor)

Mayra Montero
Harper Perennial, 1998

Haiti, that exotic and, to most North Americans, unknown country that sits in the Caribbean, is the home for a red frog that has disappeared from the rest of the world. Vanishing species of amphibians tend to end up in God-forsaken places and if they are to be found and studied by scientists so that the reason for the extinction can be understood, then the scientists must go to these places. In the Palm of Darkness is the story of two unlikely men who join forces to find the elusive red frog, and around them Montero has crafted a story of love, sex, betrayal, violence, the occult, and the all-consuming and mysterious forces of nature.

Victor Grigg is an herpetologist, a man whose entire life has been devoted to the study and classification of amphibians, particularly the frog species who every year become extinct. He has come to Haiti because his dying mentor has asked him to find the "blood frog" that has been reported on a mountain in the Haitian interior. As a final favor to his teacher, Grigg takes on the mission although it comes at a time when his wife has left him and Grigg has begun to question the very meaning of his existence. He hires a man famous in Haiti for assisting other scientists on quests similar to Grigg's. Thierry Adrien is haunted by his own demons that stem from the reign of terror inflicted on Haitians by the thugs who represent the police and military. The guide also has his own trail of wives, children and siblings, many of whom have come to resent him and, in some cases, hate him to the point of wanting him dead.

Thierry regales Grigg each day with stories of his adventurous life and the bewildering nature of the Haitian mind. He describes hunts for the living dead and the casual way in which spells are invoked and defended against. Grigg listens in amazement or complete disbelief and often wanders to his own stories such as the one about his father who risked all on an ostrich ranch, or the clues he should have recognized as his marriage fell apart. The men are so dissimilar that they have nothing in common except for their bond to find the vanishing frog.

They are chased off of one mountain by a gang in the service of the latest strong man vying for control, one of whose lieutenants is Thierry's hate-filled half-brother. When they are threatened to be chased off of a second mountain they choose to remain because they have heard the frog's unmistakable call and nothing can stop their search, not even the brutality and savageness of the men who mutilate, massacre and torture their own people.

The setting for In the Palm of Darkness is as foreign to most North Americans as a society found on a distant planet, and yet Haiti sits in our back yard, a place where Yankee troops have been sent to prop up a politician who had been given the blessing of the U.S. President. The book, of course, is an allegory for many things that we in the U.S. have to start understanding, not the least of which are the explosive political, social, and cultural forces that churn the waves of the Caribbean, the same waves that pound the shores of our country.

Alejandro Morales
Arte Público, 1992

This is not an easy book to categorize. My first reaction -- science fiction. Eventually I understood that Morales had written an impassioned plea to save Earth and the people who inhabit her from the poisons and toxins spewed daily in our reckless drive for material accumulation. Even later I recognized a medical mystery story that brought together elements of ancient Mexican history, modern tragedy, and futuristic scientific investigation. Finally, I had to conclude that The Rag Doll Plagues cannot fit snugly into a category. This is an overwhelming book that raises important questions about the existence we have carved for ourselves on this fragile piece of dirt we call home.

Book I begins in 1788 in Mexico City. Doctor Gregorio Revueltas has been sent by the King of Spain to modernize the health care of the colony as part of a plan to nip in the bud the revolution of the colonized peoples. Don Gregorio arrives in Mexico with all the racism and superiority he was taught in Spain. However, he must battle a strange plague that is decimating the country, a disease known as La Mona -- the doll -- because it leaves a corpse that resembles a rag doll. After years of working with the people of Mexico, struggling to save lives from the ravages of La Mona, he comes to love his new country and to respect her people, so much so that he rejects his fiancée and never returns home.

Book II takes place in 1980 Los Angeles. Doctor Gregorio Revueltas, young and ambitious, falls in love with the beautiful Sandra, an actress. They begin a torrid love affair that drives Sandra away from her rich, white family and propels Gregorio on a surreal, mystical and spiritual trip to understand his roots and his connection to Mexico. But soon his medical skills and training are put to the ultimate test.

Sandra, a hemophiliac, is infected with AIDS from a contaminated blood transfusion. They travel to Mexico where she receives the revered care of a curandera. The curandera tells Gregorio that Sandra suffers from La Mona, an ancient epidemic that appears and disappears, without notice or obvious reason. This part of the novel takes on a highly personal tone. Gregorio details the failure of his medical training to help Sandra and the different attitude towards death that the native people show him as they prepare him to accept Sandra's eventual demise. Book II also graphically portrays the hypocrisy and prejudice suffered by AIDS victims.

Book III takes place late in the Twenty-First Century. A confederation of California and Mexico has created Lamex, a rigidly stratified and technocratic society. Civilization has progressed, if this future can be called progress, to the point that the Earth has become a giant sewer, a dump for all of the waste and trash that we can produce. The air is deadly, the water is poison, and the garbage turns into living mounds of death and destruction that periodically attack the cities and generate plagues that kill thousands in a few hours. Doctor Gregorio Revueltas, grandson of the second Doctor Revueltas, is a physician in the official bureaucracy who is ordered to do something about the latest plague. He discovers a cure that calls on the strength and endurance of his people, the Mexicans. He understands that the mestizos who won over the first Doctor Gregorio and who inspired hope in the second Doctor amid the tragedy of his life, also offer the only hope for survival of the doomed civilization.

The first meeting of El Laboratorio: Thinking en Público, a Latino arts and cultural center housed within The Lab at Belmar, here in Denver, took place on June 23. Several Colorado-based writers (Tony Garcia, Sheryl Luna, Emma Pérez, Tim Hernandez, Angel Vigil, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Aaron Abeyta, Manuel Ramos) discussed a variety of topics related to Latino/a writing, while John-Michael Rivera, the Creative Director of the project, presented an ambitious and intriguing vision for El Laboratorio.

The highlight of the day was a performance by Lorna Dee Cervantes, preceded by a conversation between her and Professor Rivera. I intend to report more on this project as we move ahead with some of the plans and ideas.

Tim Hernandez will read from his 2006 American Book Award collection Skin Tax on August 4, reception at 6:00 PM, main event 6:30 PM. Angel Vigil, award-winning storyteller and children's book author may join Tim in this event.

Meanwhile, a few photos from the first meeting.

Sheryl Luna, Tim Hernandez, Angel Vigil smile about the vagaries and mysteries of the publishing world.

Tony Garcia and Emma Pérez work up a thirst.

Aaron Abeyta feelin' good about his debut novel.

Lorna Dee Cervantes makes a point.

John-Michael Rivera listens to that point. (Sorry for the "artistic" photo but I had to fix-up my sloppy camera work.)


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great books, thought provoking, too!

And I loved seeing and hearing more about Laboratorio...gente seems engaged and I look forward to more updates as to what will be your projects and the kind of discussions you'll have.

Lisa Alvarado