Thursday, June 17, 2010

Paraíso Portátil- Portable Paradise

Paraíso Portátil - Portable Paradise

by Mario Bencastro (Arte Público Press)

A stirring collection of stories bring to life the impact of war and the need to leave one’s country due to violence and poverty

The watchman feels very fortunate to have a job in El Salvador after the civil war, when so many people are unemployed. It’s boring but easy work, taking care of a new house that belongs to a Salvadoran couple living in Los Angeles. When he thinks about his previous jobs—day laborer, coffee harvester, highway construction worker—he’s even more grateful. All he has to do is water the plants and cut the grass, and of course, keep thieves from stealing all the furnishings. And once a month, he reassures the owners that their beautiful home in their beloved homeland remains in good condition until their next visit. Then one day, everything changes.

Acclaimed Salvadoran writer Mario Bencastro examines themes of war, dislocation, and longing in this bilingual collection of stories, poetry, and one novella. Many of his characters are forced to leave their homelands because of violence and poverty. But once in the Promised Land, separated from family and friends and in a country whose language and culture they don’t understand, many find themselves overwhelmed by feelings of loss and nostalgia.

In “Dragon Boy,” a group of children orphaned by El Salvador’s civil war band together to survive, even as they are exploited by predators. In “The Plan,” a successful Swiss millionaire returns to his native El Salvador—which he left as a defenseless orphan—and executes his ruthless plan to take revenge on those responsible for the brutal killings of his family. And in “From Australia with Love,” a Salvadoran émigré plans to marry a countryman she met on the Internet, until they realize that they have met before.

Readers will not soon forget Bencastro’s moving images fueled by the horrible realities of war and the painful need to leave behind all that is dear.

Praise for Paraíso Portátil / Portable Paradise:

"By turns strange, moving, shocking, and illuminating, Paraíso Portátil offers an unflinching look at life for immigrants and their struggle to find better lives in America. In this bilingual collection of short stories and poems, the pieces are thematically arranged to show the whole spectrum of the immigration experience: newcomers who have it comparatively easy, and those who suffer at the bottom of the barrel. In both cases, Bencastro asserts, any immigrant has no power in the world—anything he has, be it money, home, family, or love, can be taken from him at any moment.

Bencastro is a prize-winning author from El Salvador, who has often written on the subject of immigration and political conflict. His passion is evident in Paraíso Portátil. He says, “Life for immigrants is divided in two…the seasons pass, the harvest ends in one place and starts in another; the immigrants come and go, forever guided by the compass of work.” He cites the terrible statistics for deaths and disappearances—how many people die or are coerced into slavery. And his characters, the men and women who struggle so hard for freedom, give a face to the numbers. A ship's captain leaves Haiti with a load of passengers, hoping to make it to Miami, Florida in three days. Their voyage ends over three months later, when the survivors have resorted to cannibalism. In another story, a boy is murdered when he refuses the sexual overtures of a stranger. In both cases, Bencastro says, justice was not served. His lines, though stiffly translated to English, ring out: “The fallen immigrants are people with no faces. The wind has erased their names, the river their dreams, the desert their bodies.”

The repetition of these sad stories is overwhelming at first; the reader doesn't want to believe that all of this is true. But the collection compels attention. The stories represent an unusual perspective in literature, and one that is not often read in North America. Far from glamorizing the immigrant's struggle—the characters are not portrayed as martyrs or saints—the stories and poems show the gritty world in which the lowest class of people live. It’s all here: how they make it to the United States, the price they're willing to pay to stay here, and how amazingly simple non-immigrant lives are in comparison—as well as the faith in a better future all immigrants hold close to their hearts."

—ForeWord Reviews

[From Arte Público Press]

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