I don’t read very much fiction nowadays, or at least not very much ‘literary’ fiction, that is, unless I’m translating it. It’s the sad reality of being an overstretched graduate student that I’ve had to narrow my reading down to poetry, contemporary poetry, contemporary innovative poetry, contemporary primarily women’s innovative poetry and even then I have a stack of books I’m unlikely to get through in the next year. Well, sad and exhilarating. But when the advance proof for Mundo Cruel by Luis Negrón, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine arrived in the mail I moved it right to the top of my list. It hits a few of my sweet spots: it’s translated by one of my all-time favorite translators; it’s Puerto Rican; and it’s queer literature. It’s published by a queer-oriented indie press, Seven Stories, Also, take a look at the fabulous/freaky puppy on the cover.
The slim volume contains nine stories all taking place within the gay world in Puerto Rico. The stories are radically transgressive, satirical, deeply distressing, and riotously funny, leaving the reader unsettled throughout, unsure whether to laugh with or at the stereotypes. These are all very short stories, and some of them left me wanting more, feeling a bit like I’d been taken on a ride so fast that I wasn’t sure how I got to where I was when the story was over. Some of them I went back and read again, trying to pick apart the movements of the narrator, or the story. That my backtracking was as engaging as the first read is remarkable; though mostly it didn’t give me the clarity I was searching for. This sense of being yanked through a foreign world by an experienced guide who isn’t going to bother to slow down and show you the ropes is dizzying, and strangely compelling.
I am an outsider in almost every way to the world of this book: I’m straight, female, and was born and raised in Boston. Though I am Puerto Rican and I recognized many of the place names as places I’ve visited family, that was the extent of my recognition of this world. And I was made to feel fully the depth of my outsiderness – an experience most authors would balk at because of the very great risk of alienating the reader. We are not invited in, shown around. And I left the world of the book feeling as though we shouldn’t be, that what I had experienced was piece of someone else’s experience, that hadn’t been sanitized or watered down or explained. I couldn’t sort the reflections of the real from the exaggerated and invented, and that doesn’t matter. It’s all real, it’s all invented, it’s all absurd, the whole thing. This world was urgent, and couldn’t be understood on anything but its own terms.
My favorite story in the collection is the first one – it’s the one I’ve found myself thinking about over and over. The protagonist is a young boy who rapidly grows into a young adult through the course of it, in a deeply religious setting. As the title, “The Chosen One” indicates the boy has some allure, that puts him as a youngster in a position of privilege within the religious community, which he treasures. What’s remarkable to me is that as he becomes sexual (which happens quickly) he doesn’t struggle at all with the relationship between his sexuality and his religion. It’s reconciled so simply it seems at first as though he must be unable to even grasp his implicit exclusion, except that he’s clearly proud of his suffering as any Christian martyr would be. Then it becomes clear that this is a far more complex character, and coming-of-age, than would at first seem possible in a story of ten pages.
The translation, of course, is brilliant. Suzanne Jill Levine makes the English clip along dizzyingly, the dialogue especially. Her ear for authenticity in English—what I mean by that is the way she rendered the slang to be at once clearly Puerto Rican, still recognizable, and best of all not silly—is unmatched. And this book needed it, it relies so heavily on the insider-ness of the world, it’s invention and possession of its own slang is absolutely the essential component. She leaves quite a bit of Spanish in the novel, a gesture perhaps towards the increasing accessibility of Spanish words in English. And she benefits from the fact that many Puerto Ricans are bilingual to some degree, and that a lot of English has been woven into Puerto Rico’s Spanish. Not because this fact has made her work any less impressive, or in fact any easier (it may have actually made it harder), but because she was able to fully exploit the intertwining of languages to shift the balance of the work into English without losing its essential Puerto Rican-ness.