Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Cabañuelas: Two Views

Review: Norma Elia Cantú. Cabañuelas A Novel. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2019. 
Isbn book/ebook 978-0-8263-6061-8 / 978-0-8263-6062-5

Michael Sedano

Cabañuelas doesn’t mean “there’s no place like home,” in Cristiano, yet the English expression paraphrases the attention-getting title and floral cover that, hopefully, leads a browser to pick up Norma Elia Cantú’s novel in the form of a scholar’s travel diary, Cabañuelas from academic publisher University of New Mexico.

A local form of managing time, "las cabañuelas" won’t be entirely clear--to me they're not-- but ni modo. Not knowing things isn’t what the book’s about. Maybe gente from Laredo get it. The story itself comes to readers smoothly through narration and conversation, unfolding quickly from a happy Fulbright settling into her Madrid digs, into a love story.

“Love story” needs an adjective. Setting down the book after a couple days’ steady enjoyment, readers can supply their own adjective. 

Might women say Cabañuelas is a sweet summer romance, and leave it at that? A male reader might sit there agape at what Nena does to Paco. Nena was always going to leave at the end of her Fulbright-Hays, while Paco believed she would relent. Might some broken-hearted swain see Paco as just Nena’s latest?

Doomed love story. Futile love story. Bittersweet love story. Tragic. Summer dalliance. Adjectives like that fit, depending on how you read this interesting story told from a woman’s point of view. Taxonomists will find Cabañuelas fits comfortably on the shelves of Chicana feminist United States fiction. It’s a conclusion the author emphasizes in the final paragraph of the book where the narrator says Nena is “happy with the Chicana feminist work she is doing now. Her teaching. Her writing. Her beloved borderlands. Laredo. It’s all as it should be. But.”

Cantú writes the effortless prose of a travel writer or memoirist reporting contemporary events, a diarist. The writing is supposed to appear effortless and Cantú controls her art with excellence.

The author Cantú fleshes out her plot of the relationship’s path, reporting Nena’s scholarly pursuits in la Biblioteca Nacional and those of her fellow medievalists poring through aging histories. The scholar Cantú tracks down contemporary expressions of her historical findings, giving the book a geographical structure tied to the Catholic Church saint-day calendars. No Cabañuelas  time here. In fact, Nena's religious foundation irks agnostic Paco.

Nena is a liberated woman of the 1980s. Paco, Nena’s love, replaces a guy back home with hardly a pause between men in her bed, from jazz to opera in this case.

Paco works in the art department of a publishing house, and does freelance work. He’s an intellectual with a car. Nena semi-moves in. But she keeps up her share of the rent with the roomies as a safeguard against homelessness.

La Chicana scholar comes loaded with attitude, and gets disarmed. It may be occupational propensity to fall in love with a studied cultura. Nena manages to do that with her scholar’s eye. Nena's sense of history leads her to see how traditions become themselves in every annual expression. Change not only is inevitable, it’s what happens every year. 

Folklorists reading Cabañuelas will enjoy Nena’s observations linking New Mexico and Texas fiestas and traditions like matachines, or precariously balanced statues paraded into someone’s back yard, to root expressions continuously practiced in Spanish villages.

Similarly, readers will find interesting how Spanish regionalisms lend distinct identities and language to one’s view of a no-longer monolithic “Spain” and Spanish culture. Most readers know about Basques and Catalan separatists, Nena explores regional folklore, not just Valencia but a particular village in that region. Then another in Asturias. Then another, and on and on through the scholar’s quest for authenticity.

There’s lots of code-switching in Cabañuelas, and a distinctive style. The author, or her editor, resist the technique of appositional translations. She/they allow Spanish to express its own meaning, rarely adding that following translation. I don’t remember seeing an italics anywhere.

Linguists will enjoy forays into dialect. A Chicana grows up multilingual, English, Spanish, Tex-Mex. In Spain, people continue to speak local idioms like Gallego, Valenciano, but they're not mutually understood. The essentially monolingual boyfriend enjoys Nena's linguistic color, but remonstrates Nena for her Texanism, “mande” which some gachupines would take literally and order her around.

Feminists will enjoy—men will learn from it—how Nena doesn’t like being objectified as “Flaca” nor PDA, public display of affection, of Paco wrapping his arm across Nena’s shoulders like he owns her. “But you’re mine,” Paco innocently protests. Men don't get it.

“But.” That’s the writer's stylistic idiosyncracy. Cantú employs the conjunction as a dysjunction, building a logic into a narrative then bringing it full stop. "But." suggest there’s more, an ellipsis, but the author usually doesn’t explore what’s left out, if it doesn’t fit the paragraph, even though we all know there's more here.

He must really love me, she ponders. And he was upset, and hurt, but by his actions he forgave me. What possessed me? She wonders. Can’t be just jealousy. Or can it? He is right; I destroyed his property. And she imagines a book with her letters to him. And his letters to her. Must be in the future when she writes about this part of her life, this is part of the story. No. What’s done is done. But. Perhaps she will write it all. Who knows who will read them? No. I’ll see him or call him occasionally, she vows but no letters. That’s all. But.

Nena has searched Paco's home to find and destroy all the cards and letters she mailed from her forays into the country. She's erasing evidence of herself from future lovers of Paco's. There's irony in a scholar of literary ephemera destroying her own ephemera. 

Set in 1980, Cantú updates Nena's and Paco's story to 2000 at the Madrid Operahouse, when Nena and Paco see each other a final time and readers can put that adjective in front of “love story.” 

Nena’s friend Martha has heard Nena’s memories of her Fulbright, her research, the passion that tempted her, the man who wanted her. Nena introduces that man to Nena's best friend.

Martha thinks Paco’s a wimp. And ugly.

Why would the author do this to Nena’s dewy-eyed memory of her summer man?

It’s “literature as equipment for living” for dewy-eyed lovers. Events like Nena’s and Paco’s affair, happen when they’re supposed to, when you’re young, and only one time. After this, a woman matures out of the motives that guided her path to that point. She continues along the trail, more woman for it. As it should be.

You’re going to love Cabañuelas with its several layers of academia, tourism, language and dialect, Chicanidad, smooth easy-reading style. But.

But in the story of a woman’s amorous adventures, there’s another side.

My View
By Paco Fulano

She broke my heart, la flaca. You hear those stories from los universitarios, how these norteamericanas come to do research in la biblioteca nacional, and while they’re here they find a lover, use him, and at the end of her Visa, vuela vuela chicanita back to your tierra and never think of me.

Well that’s what happened to me. I saw her at a fiesta and looked for her all day only to meet up with her back home. I loved her way of mixing Castellano with Ingles, and how she recognized her homeland in nuestras costumbres. Always curious, my Nena, making friends in villages—hasta con gypsies—finding stories behind the stories.

Nena’s love for the traditions are part of her emotional make-up. Academic scholarship is a gift of self-interest, she can spend all the time in the world thinking, looking up information, writing books and monographs other scholars read. She loved the regional dialects that are fused with the local customs, but she never got over her distaste for Gachupines like me. But. I’m Asturiano.

What a reward for me that she’d eventually come out with a book about that time when we were young. Ronald Reagan and the Republicans had just taken over that country. We were at that age when our careers were taking off. Me, production artist in the publishing house, her a Fulbright year and a sabbatical from teaching in the University.

I liked the book. Some of it I didn’t know she was aware, like that time I invited her just to show her off to my friends. And she just didn’t get some stuff. There’s nothing wrong with the weekly tertulia but some of her gilipolla friends I didn’t care for. I would prefer to use a free afternoon hearing different performances of an aria than sip tepid espresso in the back of that bookstore. I did a lot of things she didn’t notice, like using my car to take her and her roommates sight-seeing all over the country. Notice she never mentions who paid for gasoline? But she had a good time and that was how I wanted it. Forever, vale?

I hope everyone in Spain doesn’t read Cabañuelas and think she played me. I was young and she was my jewel. I needed her. New Orleans was a ritual we played but I asked her to come back. That last night, when I saw her again, I was with my Alicia, and still me. But la flaca, she was not who she used to be, not my flaca any more. So it goes. I hope mi chicanita sells a lot of books with my story.

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