By Juan Toledo
We review the recently published Harutu Woman by Paloma Zozaya Gorostiza in an impressive translation by Juan Julian Caicedo. It is a tale of a woman’s intimate and transformative journey and the hard discoveries she encounters in her emotional and geographical search for paradise
Like any other idiosyncratic reader, Jorge Luis Borges was prejudiced. Among his many literary dislikes was Gustave Flaubert, of whom Borges criticised his French decimononic tendency of having to describe even the furniture whenever any of his characters entered a room. Closer to him but perhaps equally misunderstood was the Mexican magician Juan Rulfo and particularly his novel Pedro Páramo. Misunderstood in the sense that a fragmented novel narrated by dead people is without doubt far from the literary sensibility of the Argentinian poet and short story writer. The newly published Harutu Woman by Paloma Zozaya Gorostiza seems to inhabit a world between those two writers.
Initially published in Spanish under the title Redención, Harutu Woman is its rendition in English -and probably a more definitive version than the original. And if the Spanish title refers to the name of a fishing village on the Caribbean coast of an unnamed Central American country, the English one makes reference to the word “white” in the Garifuna language. And it is precisely the different manifestations of “whiteness” what permeates the narrative of this novel not only symbolically but also historically and politically. It is also a novel of long gestation but with a lot of care in the recreation of a region and its way of life rather than of a specific place. And place and geography do matter in Latin America. Mexico, for instance, is a country caught between a bigger northerly neighbour that looks down on them, while Mexicans do the same with their southern hermanos. In fact it seems that North and Central America -at least until it reaches Costa Rica- is a list of countries despising their southbound neighbours. The Canadians do it to the United States and this sentiment is replicated as we go down all the way to Nicaragua. It is like a geo-political fault from Hudson Bay until Lake Nicaragua.This novel deals face to face with that prejudice and discrimination.
In Tradition and Individual Talent, TS Eliot starts his famous 1919 essay saying “In English writing we seldom speak of tradition”. Exactly the same is applicable to the Spanish language more than a century later. But what kind of tradition does Paloma Zozaya evoke in the pages of her novel? Well, no other than Juan Rulfo’s. In the recent and much celebrated novel Desierto sonoro by the Mexican Valeria Luiselli we encounter the idea that places and landscapes retain the spirit and the souls of its previous inhabitants. It is almost a pre-Christian, pagan world where animals and plants act like totems, particular the latter. Here we ought to remember that pagan creeds -much more than the ones imposed by monotheistic religions- had a much closer relationship with the natural world. A world view that somewhat disappeared with our ethnocentric beliefs. Around one third of the novel we find the two main characters, Felipe and Selene, carrying along flooded fields their white mare, La Blanca, to give her burial.
“La Blanca was dead. Sunrise had caught the poor mare lying still on her side with bluegreen flies fluttering around the gash in her forehead. -She needs a resting place, but where -Up there, above the forest, in the bend by the orchard with the mango trees. Said Felipe. And then -for what felt like forever- with the water somehow easing off the task, between wafting and tugging they carried her over and along the flooded cassava fields…As they made the way forward, following the beat of their breathing in tandem to dovetail the pushing and the pulling, she felt a chill climbing up her back all the way to the the nape of her neck as minute fingers tugged at her hair. A zinging heat ran over her lips, her eyelids, her cheeks, her forehead, and right way she felt the presence of the ancestors – the same ones that by now she’d grown accustomed to live with”
Harutu Woman is full of sensuality and the physical presence of plants, food smells, people speaking patterns and numberless descriptions of lights as a poetic reminder that light is the true skin of our world, and an ever changing skin for that matter. Yet, for all its sensual depictions, the book is also a denunciation of the false idea of paradise we associate with small villages in the Caribbean. Almost parodically, Redención is described as a town of three “parallel promenades” -probably too humble to call them streets. “La Pícara -The scoundrel’s way- named for being the darkest one, closest to the beach and thus frequented by those who wanted to go unnoticed; La Principal -Main Street- which was the widest; and La del Monte, a vaguely meandering row that disappeared now and then amidst thickets of gardens” Like any small place, Redención is a bit of a big hell with unresolved social issues, endemic political corruption and long and problematic racial and misogynistic issues that surface now and then. After the hurricane “Ramona” changes the actual geography of the village, Felipe declares almost nonchalantly that the destructive power of the hurricane is due to the fact that “it is a woman”
Who the hell said that The Caribbean is a paradise?
Among the unresolved racial and political issues is that of the Garifuna people, tribes from the Arawak family who were expelled by the British from the Island of St Vincent and Dominica at the end of the XVIII century. The language with its melodic intonation is present in the novel. The malefic “whiteness” of the British colonists, the corrupt politicians and the cocaine trade contrast with the much more benign ones of the female protagonist; Selene, whose name is the Greek for “moon”; the mare La Blanca and also the delicious whiteness of the ever present cassava. It is a world of contrasting colours in more than one way. It is also the chronicle of a journey, that of a woman, who needs somehow to lose herself before finding her own redemption. A trip that takes her to “the other side of everything” and back. It is a beautifully doomed existence of a perpetual hand to mouth reality. A forgotten idyllic place where central American gangsters go on holidays. “Who the hell said that the Caribbean is a paradise?” Curse me if I ever come back to such a place again” says Selene in a moment of sheer desperation.
As a reader, it is impossible not to imagine that this was a story that her author needed to tell. How much of it is autobiographical, is mere speculation. The translation by Juan Julian Caicedo into American English makes it a book for easier consumption and degustation across the pond. Paloma Zozaya is the first to acknowledge that this rendition in English has a tang of Flaubert in it and probably rightly so since the descriptions of the interior décor are replaced by that of landscape, flowers, food, animals, light, the sea, people and vegetation. «Impudent cacti» we read in one of its pages.
There are moments of sheer hilarity like when we learn of “the reasons for mosquitoes to exist” according to Mayan mythology or a fully charged erotic moment that becomes a coitus semi-interruptus with a character named “Patatiesa” (Stiff-leg) bringing a plate of food to the fornicators. I wonder how intentional that really was. Another moment of sheer joy is the line “No one nowhere had ever been so happy, not even them.” It is absolutely brilliant as a thought and as a phrase because it keeps the double and triple negations of the original Spanish sentence.
For all its delicate moments, including those which some readers might consider digressions, the care put in this translation and the choice and symbolic value of the characters names plus the conjuring of a whole culture and region, Harutu Woman is a novel to be read and appreciated not too different from the way we enjoy the sunset light in a Caribbean beach while on holidays.
Harutu Woman by Paloma Zozaya Gorostiza is published by Victorina Press, London 2021, £10. Translated from Spanish by Juan Julian Caicedo. Image: Los caballos, María Izquierdo, 1938