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In ‘Velorio,’ Hurricane Survivors Form a New Society. It’s No Paradise.


VELORIO
By Xavier Navarro Aquino

“Velorio,” Xavier Navarro Aquino’s debut novel, is set in Puerto Rico in the immediate aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria. The book follows an assortment of characters as they struggle to find their way through a world that has been completely upended by the storm, focusing on six survivors: Camila, a young girl whose sister was killed during the storm; Banto, an overweight mama’s boy; Moriviví, a young, tough, knife-wielding woman; Bayfish, a street kid; Cheo, a fisherman and poet; and Urayoán, a self-styled visionary who attempts to establish a new society in the countryside after the government fails to provide adequate disaster relief. As each character responds to the storm, the novel explores how a natural disaster can bring out both the best and worst in human nature.

Though the hurricane — referred to as Maria, la monstrua or simply she/her — strikes before “Velorio” opens, the storm itself is, in many ways, the main character of the story. On every page we are confronted with the devastation left in Maria’s wake. The portrait Navarro Aquino paints is of a storm so violent it is almost incomprehensible.

As the characters attempt to make sense of the destruction, the narrative occasionally takes on a sort of concussed dreaminess. In one scene, for instance, Bayfish and Banto are fishing in a river still swollen with floodwaters. At first they catch nothing; then they begin to hook a series of strange objects — a wig, a blazer, a boot — until eventually they spot dead bodies coming downstream, heads bobbing in the current. At their best, these dreamlike sequences have a Murakami-esque flavor, albeit darker — here, the characters have surfaced from a bad dream, only to find themselves in a living nightmare.

From the beginning, Navarro Aquino establishes a visceral, lyric tone that frequently rises to a fever pitch. “The ocean, how she consumes desire and sets me dreaming, like flame and fire, burning darkness away until you learn to speak our names,” a character thinks. But there are also sentences where one can practically taste the putrefaction in the air. For instance, Camila, unable to accept the death of her sister, Marisol, carries Marisol’s body on her back for days until there are “white things, like grains of rice, collecting and wriggling in her sores.” It’s foul, but Navarro Aquino doesn’t shy away from unpleasantness. Instead, he dwells in this post-hurricane liminal space, where death is almost a thing of the past and decomposition begins to reign supreme.

Eventually, the characters give up hope that the government will help them repair their lives. But they’ve heard rumors of a better place: Memoria, an idyllic society that Urayoán is forming in the mountains. Each character sets out to reach this so-called utopia, traveling through a blighted landscape and wrestling with despair, unsure of what he or she will find but clinging to the hope that it can’t be worse than the conditions at present. Once the pilgrims arrive, however, it becomes clear that Memoria is far from paradise — the society is sadistically run by Urayoán, who leads a small army of chanting, red-jumpsuit-wearing child soldiers.

Urayoán has the potential to be a remarkable character. He takes his name from the legendary cacique who ordered the conquistador Diego Salcedo to be drowned to prove that the Spaniards were not gods. Urayoán is positioned to be an equally complicated figure — he’s an idealistic, troubled cult leader who is grappling with government failure to respond to Maria, as well as the horrible echoes of colonialism. However, after he burns several elderly people alive, crucifies one person and sends another out to sea and certain death, it becomes hard to attach even a thin layer of idealism to his actions. Unfortunately, as the novel reaches its climax, Urayoán begins to resemble an almost comically villainous, one-dimensional plot device, prone to such musings as, “No one lashes out at me and gets away with it.”

Cult leaders, even twisted ones, need a certain amount of charisma, and the smirking, petty Urayoán has none. La monstrua could have been villain enough. In “Velorio,” Navarro Aquino, an incredibly talented young writer, is still finding his way.


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