Ballad of Johnny Sosa

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"The Ballad of Johnny Sosa depicts an ordinary man trying to live out his dreams in a dreary provincial town in central Uruguay while suffering in the tentacles of military oppression. Every night, Johnny Sosa, a poor, young, black musician, sings melancholic soul music in the small bar in the town's brothel, dreaming of a life beyond his confining world, and for a few hours each day ignoring the secretive and oppressive military regime - a dictatorship not so much seen as felt - that has taken over his country." He attracts the attention of the
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Overview

"The Ballad of Johnny Sosa depicts an ordinary man trying to live out his dreams in a dreary provincial town in central Uruguay while suffering in the tentacles of military oppression. Every night, Johnny Sosa, a poor, young, black musician, sings melancholic soul music in the small bar in the town's brothel, dreaming of a life beyond his confining world, and for a few hours each day ignoring the secretive and oppressive military regime - a dictatorship not so much seen as felt - that has taken over his country." He attracts the attention of the local military leader who uses Sosa for his own political ends and, for a while, Johnny is permitted to sing and to imagine that he will perform at the national festival, where discovery and success may well be waiting for him. However, as his friends mysteriously start to disappear, Johnny begins to realize the price of his dream, and he must decide if he will pay it.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Set in a small town in Uruguay, Apara!n's gracefully written parable-cum-novel offers some telling, allegorical commentary on the effects of tyranny. Johnny Sosa is a struggling musician in the tiny village of Mosquitos. He longs to hear his blues interpretations played on Uruguay's most popular radio station, and his dreams seem about to come true when a chance encounter with a prominent radio announcer leads to a meeting with orchestral arranger Maestro Di Giorgio. But Di Giorgio is in league with an ominous military figure known as the Colonel, whose forces have just taken charge of the ragtag country. The Colonel is willing to sponsor Sosa's musical career, but that sponsorship comes at a steep price. A trip to the dentist for a set of teeth transforms Sosa's appearance; soon afterward, however, several of his friends and associates are harassed or arrested. Sosa becomes further disillusioned when he learns that Di Giorgio and the Colonel plan to make him into a commercial singer, and when he expresses his doubts about the project the Colonel comes calling, seeking to take back Sosa's teeth as well as his guitar. Apara!n tells his story in a fast-moving and spare prose style that works well considering the familiarity of the story line, although the lack of details about the oppressive regime makes the novel seem sketchy in places. That quibble aside, this is a well-rendered version of a tale that remains a central Latin American narrative. (Oct. 21) Forecast: Apara!n's novel is a small hit in Europe and Latin America (it has been sold in 10 countries to date), but competition with other, more substantial works on the same theme-most recently, Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat-may limit its reach in the U.S.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781585672240
  • Publisher: Overlook Press, The
  • Publication date: 11/11/2002
  • Pages: 128
  • Product dimensions: 5.64 (w) x 8.24 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Read an Excerpt

The Ballad of Johnny Sosa

A NOVEL
By Mario Delgado Aparaín

THE OVERLOOK PRESS

Copyright © 1991 Mario Delgado Aparaín
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1585672246


IT WOULD HAVE BEEN ON ONE OF THE LAST NORMAL days when Johnny Sosa, the Black, was still able to get excited looking through the chink in the adobe wall to wait, anxious as a child, for The Fertile Hour in the Early Dawn.

Those were the times when, torn between sleep and the tiny crack, he would divine more than actually see the blue silhouettes of the last houses of Mosquitos. Lined up along the road north to nowhere, and shaken by the wild swaying of the eucalyptus trees, these dwellings might well have been wrapped in invisibility, so formless were they that Johnny had to force his eye in the hole and ask himself in the gravelly voice of the just-awakened, whether the scene swinging out and snapping back before him was composed of houses, shadows, or trucks.

Sometimes the darkness was so thick that, try as he might, he could see nothing more through the hole than familiar dogs outlined by their barking, which, for him, was just as well. When things were like that and the weather truly bad, he'd settle into the tiny chair, his hands around the fresh hot mate, kettle near his toes, and pass the time with one eye dreamily closed and the other probing mysteries through the hole, as to whether the shadows be houses or trucks, until at lastit came time to turn on the two-battery Spika radio and shake himself out of his daydreams.

Religiously from that moment on, from seven to eight o'clock, with nothing and no one to bother him, while blonde Dina slept on the other side of the sackcloth curtain talking in her sleep, Johnny gave himself over to listening to the biography of Lou Brakley and guessing how long it might take for his life to unfold into a similar story.

Spurred by incidents in the latest episodes, Johnny had been thinking that in certain respects the two childhoods did indeed resemble each other. It hardly mattered that he had not, at age eight, won a guitar in a contest on the theme of summer, as had the great one from Austin in the face of the cruel indifference of his father, a cross-eyed man devoted to drink and to the Bible, who, according to the narrator, would fritter away the working day and then get soundly beaten up in bars, while his wife, that is to say the mother of Lou, waited for him in vain, ironing furiously, long into the night.

Johnny supposed such lives took shape only in a country like Lou Brakley's. He suspected that here, hard as he might have tried for it when he was ten or twelve years old, he would never have been given the chance to perform in recording festivals or on one of the Gold Coast beaches, such as The Titans or Shangrila, distant resorts inhabited by the sons of Gary Grant, about which he had heard when coast-to-coast festivals began to be popular, and with them also the names of the winners.

Nor was it likely that a music scout would land in Mosquitos, inquiring in the Euskalduna bar, his mouth full of milanesa, for the whereabouts of one Johnny Sosa, whose reputation as an angel with a golden throat had reached the ears of the scout. If only it were, it would be easy for Johnny to fit himself into the legend that ran through the city of Austin, according to the narrator Melías Churi, about how Lou Brakley was discovered by a man who had spent two years looking for someone with a Black man's dreams, a Black's sentiments, the voice of a Black, but who, of necessity, had to be white.

"That will never happen in Mosquitos," he'd laugh and scold himself, alone in his kitchen. Simply because he was black. And from then on, nothing to do with Lou Brakley. And even less probable was the chance of a recording of his own. He supposed it would be a couple of centuries at least before it occurred to anyone in the little town to set up one of those do-it-yourself studios, the spot where apparently the scout had come upon the lucky Austin boy rehearsing a wicked version of a blues tune by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, called "That's All Right (Mama)."

According to what the announcer of The Fertile Hour in the Early Dawn had said, that was exactly what the veteran star-catcher had been looking for. And just like that, while Johnny listened with his mind aswim in a parallel life, the announcer had taken a great leap into the empty space of time, yanked the boy out of his pathetic anonymity, and placed him in the time in which Lou Brakley became, before the eyes of the world, nothing less than Lou Brakley.

"Nevertheless, 1956 had to have been a hard year for the singer," Melías Churi had declared in the previous episode. "But that stage in the life of the author and interpreter of "The One-Star Motel" we shall hear tomorrow, dear listeners, God willing, at seven o'clock on Radio Mosquitos."

At five minutes to seven the road was still dark under its plaster of cold mud, and trees were beginning to take on the crazed profiles of early dawn, thanks to a wind savage enough to make dogs take off howling in all directions.

Johnny strained to make out an actual shape. For all he forced his eyes, it made him nervous not to be able to tell at exactly what point they stopped being shadows or trucks and became what they truly were. A dark line, both movable and static, invariably reduced him to a dull stupor abated only by the hot mate and was gone altogether as soon as he turned on the little radio and closed up the crack in the wall.

Then he cast a last glance at the old figure of Cronos, standing like a fat sawmill foreman on the label of the mate can. He set the mate gourd carefully over the open mouth of the kettle and then, with a few brief sips as preludes to the morning's pleasure, he turned on the small red Spika.

His face quickly lost that mild expression anticipating a pleasant start to the morning. Music burst into the quiet kitchen, cockroaches scuttled under shelf linings, and Johnny blinked. He thought he had turned the dial to the wrong station or that Dina had changed the time on the big clock, or maybe Melías Churi had overslept and in the crisis this inexplicable music was substituting for his Fertile Hour in the Early Dawn.

It also might be otherwise, that the musical barrage had to do with an unforeseen episode in the life of the great one from Austin, such as occurred on the sad Christmas when Lou Brakley was beaten to a pulp by his father and the announcer began the program one morning in March with the sound of sleigh bells in a beautiful string arrangement of "Jingle Bells" performed by native Hawaiians.

While the band grew ever louder with heroic intrusions by the trombones, Johnny took a deep breath and returned to casting his eye through the hole. He waited patiently, supposing with growing certainty that it all might be related to the amazing episode of Lou Brakley's life, when at the end of '57 the singer from Austin joined the Eisenhower boys, and newspapers world-wide showed the outrage committed on his splendid mane as it was mowed by a Green Beret barber to get him ready for whatever war on the planet he might be called to, while outside the barber shop a group of girls wept as if they were witnessing the beheading Lou Brakley in San Quentin.

But actually that story had been announced by Melías Churl for two or three episodes farther ahead, and there had not been the slightest indication of what would be happening in the life of the splendid boy on this particular day, when the military march was turning into a cacophony that would never stop.

So Johnny came to accept as fact that the music had no relation to the life of Lou Brakley, but rather reminded him of the afternoon The Bridge on the River Kwai was shown in the Daguerre movie house, and Capozoli had hung a chain of loudspeakers the length of the block so that townspeople would hear the movie's military march and come at a quick-step to the five o'clock showing.

But the theater owner had been so dazzled by the famed intransigence of the English prisoner that he sat on a stool on the sidewalk against the first loudspeaker and devoted himself to drinking warm beer and listening to the endless march, arms across his chest, as if waiting, with dignity worthy of Alec Guinness, for the Japanese to come storming down Ellauri street, bayonets between their teeth. That night, after the last show was over and Capozoli still sat surrounded by beer bottles, the police had to tell him to turn off the infernal racket, because from the River Kwai to Mosquitos, no Christian would be able to sleep.

In the meantime, while all this was going through Johnny's head, Dina appeared in the kitchen with her sideways glance and flowered panties and put a stop to the mad quivering of the two-battery radio. In an icy tone she asked whether the Battle of Las Piedras was being re-enacted, or on this freezing morning in June had Capozoli taken over the Mosquitos radio station?

But Johnny neither reacted to her half-nude state, her skin rough with goosebumps from the cold draft seeping through the cracks, nor did he say, "Good morning my blondie," as he always did, nor even appear to listen to whatever she had been saying. He remained absent, concentrating his single eye at the chink in the adobe, only without seeing the confusing shapes that he was used to seeing.

"They are not houses," he said without surprise.

And because Black Johnny was truly looking, and what he was seeing really was occurring, he removed his eye from the crack and opened the other the better to take in Dina's state of undress.

"Go get dressed," he said. "This time they're trucks."

THE ARMY TRUCKS DID NOT ENTER THE LITTLE TOWN. They remained in the same place where the dark clouds of that morning in June had drawn them, lined up under the row of eucalyptus. They stood there, cold as monuments, mysterious, without anyone's getting out of them to modify the scene.

Then at dawn on the second day a clutch of enormous gray tents appeared, as though brought from a sorry Brazilian circus about to give its last performance, and almost concealed the vehicles.

Startled by the early morning bugle call, on the first days residents on the edge of town went out to their patios and scratched their ribs considerably earlier than was their habit. Mates in hand, they crowded against the fences and pointed at the strenuous maneuvers of soldiers climbing the frozen hill over thorns and on their bellies and commented nervously about the furious shooting, astonished to think battles could be arranged to begin at nine in the morning and finish exactly at dinner time. Actually, people were only guessing, exchanging imprecise calculations as they tried to fathom what those men were up to, acting as if they were alone in the middle of a desert heedless to the puzzlement they left in their wake. Nor could the residents come closer than a couple of blocks from the encampment, thanks to the cordon of stern guards in green ponchos and battle gear encircling the field, shouting to each other and oblivious to anything else.

"Each chooses the life that suits him," Dina said one morning, in a practical turn of mind, as she abandoned the wire fence and went back to her kitchen.

While no one was allowed to cross the area nor even felt they were due an explanation, residents of Mosquitos were paying an unfairly high price. More than once, Johnny Sosa had to give up his place between Dina's legs and blow out the candle, because soldiers were adventuring among the shacks, slithering along the walls, to pop a gap-toothed face at the windowpane and frighten the inhabitants.

Then they'd leave, disappearing into the darkness without having knocked on a single door, never saying why they were trampling through gardens with their enormous boots.

"The next one that shows up at the window or sticks his hoof in the flower beds, I'll crack his head open with an ax," Johnny threatened, furious, on one of the first nights a pair of hairy eyebrows steaming from the cold surprised him on the other side of the pane.

"They're sick," said Dina, and went back to sleep.

As Johnny was not made for mystery, nor adhered to things divine, on the following Saturday, when warm vapors could be seen rising from the mud along the road, he asked Dina how serious did she think this was: that from one day to the next, people's ordinary conversations should turn muddied, or Rulo the grocer be more mute than the echoes of his own foot steps and above all, that the life of Lou Brakley should have stopped on the airwaves of Mosquitos.

"The best anyone can do is stay where they are," she answered, going back to looking out the dark window. "As my mother used to say, `Jesus, enough to eat, and nobody come to the table that isn't already here.'"

Johnny did not know what to say to that. But while he brought order to his wiry mop with the comb made of bone, he promised that night he'd bring fresh news from the Chanteclere, for surely in the early hours of the end of the week Terelú would have something to tell him of the evil story.

Nevertheless, he couldn't decide whether to go or stay, get dressed or wait a little longer in case a sign came that he might go in peace. He stood for a moment looking gloomily at the weak lock on the door and remarked that he was afraid to leave Dina alone at the mercy of marauders.

"Don't worry. They have no way of knowing how bad our doors are," she said, trying to be cheerful, her voice encouraging him to once more show off his black wool windbreaker and the mariner's saint on its fake silver chain around his neck.

Johnny knew enough to appreciate her show of good will. Their fiercest quarrels occurred early on Saturday mornings, when he'd return from the night's work to discover that the devil had poisoned his blonde in her solitary hours into imagining pettings and raptures from the whores who felt that Johnny was singing to them.

"It's a job like any other," he'd say in his defense every Saturday before going out, confident that, in this area, matters always would go better for him than for poor Lou Brakley, an artist terrified that his women would appear on the stage to cause a holy scandal on the issue of property rights to the heart.

"You are a case, my Black man," said Dina as they parted, a feeble reproach contradicted by her hand squeezing his neck. For she had long since amicably accepted what he did and showed she was impressed by his total blackness, his hair standing up like a horse's mane as if it had lain on a stone pillow, while she held

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Ballad of Johnny Sosa by Mario Delgado Aparaín Copyright © 1991 by Mario Delgado Aparaín
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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