Washington Post Book World
The Return of Felix Nogaraby Pablo Medina
The dictator is dead and suddenly the exiles can return. So begins Pablo Medina's most compelling work to date, a novel set on Barata, the imaginary Caribbean island (not unlike Cuba). Sent to the United States at the age of twelve, Felix Nogara has remained attached to his native land through dissident fellow exiles and through his family legacy. Thirty-eight years later, he returns, and with a wise and sardonic cab driver as his guide, he travels through the ruined landscape to recover his lost history, his lost happiness: "Returning to Barata was like going back to Eden. It was like showing God who was really in control." With wit, imagination, and visionary insight, Medina takes the reader to an island in chaos in order to explore the deepest regions of an exile's heart.
Author Biography: Pablo Medina emigrated from Cuba to the United States with his family in 1960. He is the author of a novel, The Marks of Birth; several volumes of poetry; and a memoir, Exiled Memories. He teaches at The New School University in New York City.
Washington Post Book World
New York Times Book Review
- Persea Books
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- New Edition
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- 5.40(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)
Read an Excerpt
Felix Nogara returned to the island of his birth on a rainy Thursday that marked the thirty-eighth anniversary of his leaving. It was February and a norther' was sweeping through Miami with a cool wind and a heavy air that smelled sweet with ozone and decay. As he entered the plane, he tried to straighten himself out and walk quickly down the aisle, but a bag he had slung over his shoulder made those actions difficult. The bag contained four heavy books about the history of the island, several important documents relating to his great-grandfather's role in the War of Independence, and a letter he had received some time ago advising him of his mother's terminal illness. In addition, he had with him a notebook half-filled with his scribblings and 143 of his unpublished poems.
He lurched down the aisle, bouncing off several passengers who were already in their places, and found his seat toward the rear of the airplane. He placed his bag under the seat in front of him and buckled his seatbelt. Even though he had long ago given up practicing any kind of religion, he said a silent cautionary prayer and made a quick sign of the cross with his thumb on the armrest. He took several deep breaths and waited until the plane waddled to the runway, turned, gained speed, and after what seemed like an interminably long run, rose haltingly from the ground. Then, with a thrust of its engines that made the cabin rattle, it shot into the lead-gray clouds that hung over the airport. Once aloft, Felix breathed a little easier. After almost four decades away, he was finally headed to the land of his birth. He reachedinside his bag and pulled out A Brief History of the Island of Barata, by J. H. Donaldson, a book he had read so many times he knew whole chapters by heart. Felix looked at the cover of Donaldson, frayed and worn from so many readings, closed his eyes, and remembered its famous opening:
"Nicolás Campión came to power after deposing Leandro Sotelo, who ruled for fourteen years, who in turn deposed Amelio Chavón, called the Handsome, who deposed Juan Elías Arias, who was put in the president's seat by General Alberto Pérez Terry, called Pecho de Hierro or Iron Chest because it was said that three bullets had bounced off him during one of the ten insurrections he led against the three previous dictators, all of whom were figureheads controlled by the most vicious tyrant the country ever had, Inocencio Pérez Llorens, better known as el Diablo, who deposed Aurelio Gómez, el Chulo, who deposed Adolfo Peniche, the Onion, an appellation the origin of which is now lost in the fog of history, who deposed Benito Estrada Torres, the first and only democratically elected president of the island, a man so disdained by his fellow Baratans for his high moral principleshe went to mass three times a week and was never known to cheat on his wifethat they called him el Bobo."
Before Estrada Torres, the island of Barata had been a Spanish colony, found and claimed for the crown by Johannes Miraflor, a little known Flemish explorer who had sailed from the city of Cádiz a few weeks after Columbus, commissioned by Ferdinand of Aragón to follow the crazy Genoese and make sure he went where he was supposed to go. The name of Barata was given to the island by one of Miraflor's lieutenants, who, upon hearing the native chief of one of the leeward islands point west and say "Bah-rat-ah-riah" three times, assumed there was a land in the direction he pointed where gold was plentiful and "barato," or cheap. Modern scholars have concluded that the phrase is literally translated as "Get-ye-to-a-place-that-has-never-known-the-sun" or, more simply, as "Go away."
When Johannes Miraflor and his men, who had deviated a few degrees north from Columbus's actual course, arrived at the next land mass, they claimed it on behalf of the crowns of Castile and Aragón and gave it the name Isla Barata de Todos los Santos, soon shortened to Barata, this despite the fact that they found no gold on the island, expensive or cheap. They found instead a friendly people, who welcomed the Europeans and offered them food and shelter and did not send them away to any deep dark place from which they were never expected to return. The natives' hospitality extended even into the night, when the women visited the sailors' huts and there performed the most unusual and enticing of sexual acts. The European men were bewitched by these females such as they had never before seen. According to don Pero Saura, the chronicler of the expedition, the women were bronze-colored with elongated heads and broad intelligent foreheads. They were of short stature but as strong as any man their size and had dark pointed nipples and firm breasts "a man can easily cradle in the cup of his hand." Don Pero, entranced as well by the women's charms, put aside all objectivity and observed: "With modesty they are acquainted not, and go about as naked as when they first appeared in this world, but for a loincloth made of deerskin, no larger than a fig leaf, that covers their most private and delectable parts. In the art of love they are without equal, being far superior to the ladies of Castile and even more insatiable than those of Andalucía, whose appetite and passion is legend throughout our land. At the moment of their greatest ardor, these women make sounds not unlike a pig's squeal, though there are no such animals in Barata, and will sit on a man for hours taking their pleasure, until he is raw and limp and close to death. Once satisfied, the woman will forsake all of her domestic obligations and sleep for half a day, waking fully refreshed and ready to start over, at which time a man must, under peril of being enslaved by the woman's lust, tap her three times on the crown of her head with the index and forefinger of his right hand. She will calm down then, and wait until the sun goes down to resume her play. The women of Barata will not lead a man to perdition but accompany him to ecstasy and allow him to partake of earthly pleasures unbeknownst to humankind before this date."
The plane bucked violently several times and Felix was shaken out of his thoughts. He looked around nervously and saw that the woman to his right had pulled out a rosary and was quickly mouthing some prayers. To the left, across the aisle, a heavy-set man with a thick gold chain around his neck had turned pale. His eyes momentarily met Felix's just as the captain's voice came over the loudspeaker announcing that they were going off course to avoid rough weather ahead. Under the captain's calming voice Felix heard the woman next to him say to no one in particular, in the middle of a Hail Mary, that she was ready for death and everybody else could well go to hell. This was in Spanish, of course, and she used the word carajo, for which there is no suitable English translation. Her shrill, gargly voice added a particularly disturbing tone to her comment. Felix was not ready for death, or hell, or el carajo, much as he had told himself otherwise in preparation for the fight. His blood ran cold through his veins, and he could feel a band of sweat beading on his brow. He tried telling himself that it would be a quick death, a few moments of panic followed by the crash into the sea and a total blankness, and just as he did so the plane leveled, the shaking and bucking stopped, and the sun spilled in through the windows. Barata, the island of his birth, the focus of all his attention, his imagination, and his concern, lay ahead to the south.
According to the historians, after two months on the island Miraflor's expeditionaries all but forgot the purpose of their voyage. During the day they ate and drank the native liquor, sweet and milky, that made them see visions and erased their ambitions and their heretofore unquenchable appetite for gold. At night they experienced Baratan debauchery, squealing and grunting with pleasure until exhaustion dropped its blanket on them. It was around this time that Johannes Miraflor, to whom the native chief had offered his most beautiful and ardent daughter, was walking about the village in a postcoital melancholy, and hearing the sound his men were making behind the walls of their huts, had a vision in which they had all been turned into swine. In a combined state of shame and restored Christian zeal, heightened by a substantial intake of native liquor hours before, he ran to the nearest campfire and threw its dying embers at the roofs of several huts. It was the dry season and the huts caught fire instantaneously. By the time the fires died down an hour later, three of Miraflor's men and five native women lay in the center of the compound scorched beyond recognition and giving off the sweet, pungent odor of cooked flesh. The chief, whose name Saura never bothered recording but whose anger has come down through the ages in the Baratan phrase, "He has the chief's ire," was beyond himself with grief. He wanted to execute the rest of Miraflor's men using the native method, that is, by tying them naked on the highest rocks and slicing their bellies open so that birds of prey would peck out their organs. Luckily for the Europeans, the princess, by now very much in love with Miraflor and his pale hairy body, interceded with her father and had them spared, but not before the chief, by way of a curse, took his own excrement and threw it at the sea within sight of the expedition's three caravels.
Miraflor and his men sailed that same day. Within six months one ship had sunk and another was taken over by twenty mutinous crew members, who returned to Barata and were promptly executed by the still irate chief. Miraflor and his remaining crew spent several years in the Caribbean searching for Columbus, who had by that time returned to Spain and embarked on two other voyages to the New World. Eventually the Fleming was stabbed to the death by several of his men, who also took the opportunity to maroon the all-too-inquisitive don Pero Saura with a trunkful of his chronicles on a small island to the northeast of what is now Trinidad. The third ship sank in a storm soon after that and all hands perished. Forty years later, don Pero Saura, old beyond belief but enjoying a contented life, was found living among a group of pacified Caribs by the ship taking Pedro de Mendoza, the viceroy of New Spain, back to his native land to die. Don Pero refused to return, sensing his death to be close as well, but he entrusted his papers to the ailing viceroy. De Mendoza died before reaching Spain and Saura's papers were lost for over two hundred years. At the end of the eighteenth century, a Baratan monk doing research in the Royal Library at el Escorial discovered the writings of don Pero Saura in a room housing the literary detrita of three hundred years of conquest.
While none of the Europeans remained in Barata, their seed certainly did. Eight months after the Spanish caravels sailed away, the first mestizo child was born. He had the same straight black hair and broad forehead as his mother, and he was as dark as any of the natives. His eyes, however, were as blue as the sea at dawn. The chief named him a child of the Ocean Spirit and gave him special powers and privileges. Then the next child was born, a boy with blond hair, and the chief was compelled to name him a child of the Sun Spirit and gave him also special powers and privileges. Next a girl was born with skin pale as the sand, and three others after that, and four more in the following three weeks, and the chief decided that if he gave out any more powers and privileges, he would soon run out of them himself. He then gathered his people together and declared that these were not the children of any spirits but that they had been sired by the white men who had come in the flying pirogues. He took back what he had given and the children went back to the care of their mothers. Soon the people started looking down on these unusual children, referring to them with a phrase that some scholars have hastily and inaccurately translated as "white trash" but which is more accurately rendered as "pale offal." They were given food the others neglected and assigned the hardest, least desirable tasks to perform. Eventually they were ignored by their mothers, who were ashamed of having given birth to children of demons and who submitted themselves to humiliating and painful purification ceremonies by the tribal elders.
Disdained and neglected, the half-breed children gradually gathered together and began to rely on each other for play, nourishment, and protection, especially from the older purebred children who kicked them, spat at them, and, in the age-old tradition of the tribe, threw excrement at them as an insult. As they grew, the half-breeds formed a special bond. They took to slicking their hair down with iguana oil and strapping gaily colored feathers to their heads. They painted their faces with intricate red and white designs. Young women drew concentric circles around their nipples while young men took to wearing unusual codpieces that impressed the purebred women with their girth and sharpness. At first, the natives in the village mocked them, calling them cockatoo-fools and parrot-fish wannabes, but it was only a matter of time before one of the purebred boys appeared in public wearing one of the exaggerated codpieces. Before long the village center was crowded with young purebreds parading about in outlandish pale offal costumes. The older natives sat in the shadows staring disapprovingly at their young and longing wistfully for the old days when life was simple and everyone looked alike. The more the old folk complained the longer the codpieces became, so long in fact that boys had to hold the tips between their teeth in order to walk, or else have them drag along the ground making furrows like monkeys do with their tails; girls painted circles on every part of their bodies that needed accentuating, shaking those parts as they walked so that the circles moved in irresistible ways. It is said that this was the origin of the Dance of the Pale Offals, performed only during the spring fertility rites and at wedding ceremonies, such was its power to awaken sexual ardor. Sexual activity, which had decreased markedly among the Baratan natives since the departure of the white men, increased and surpassed its previous levels so that it seemed that the purebred young did nothing else and indiscriminately at that, sometimes in full view of the old people, who threw their hands up in disgust and invoked the diarrhea spirit to come and drench them in its filth. By contrast, the Pale Offals did not partake of free and open sex but rather, after their strut in the village center, went back to their huts on the outskirts and there performed their intimacies discreetly, never with the purebreds, for they began to look on them as unimaginative, libertine boors, with no other interest than to imitate their betters and satisfy their lust. This self-imposed segregation further increased the status of the Pale Offals and the esteem in which they were held by the purebred young, who, in contrast, saw their parents and those who gave birth to their parents (there was no term for grandparent in their language) as old fashioned, inflexible, and intolerant. The term itself, pale offal, by which the half-breeds were initially addressed, went from being the worst insult that could be hurled at anyone to a compliment offered only to those worthy of the greatest respect and admiration.
When the old chief died at the age of seventy, some historians say of bile and disappointment, while others maintain that a Pale Offal girl poured poison in his ear while he slept in his hammock, the strongest and most virile of the Pale Offal men, who, legend has it, was named Wanaho, challenged the chief's son for leadership of the tribe. The struggle between the two men went on for weeks and extended over large parts of the island. It ended finally when the purebred prince succumbed to a barrage of balls of excrement Wanaho hurled at him. The experience was too much for the young prince. Smeared with the indescribable filth, he curled up in the fetal position for two days and then ran off into the hills. From then on he would appear suddenly to a traveler in one of the many trails that crossed the area, eating a handful of his own feces and offering to share his repast. It is almost certain that the curious Baratan epithet of comemierda, or eatshit, in common usage even today, can be traced to the fate that befell this unfortunate prince.
The triumph of Wanaho allowed the Pale Offals, despite their small numbers, to gain control of the island, a control they did not relinquish until the arrival in Barata of Gonzalo de Alvarez and his five ships some twenty years later. De Alvarez, who wasted much of his early adulthood in the taverns of the port of Palos, the same from which Columbus sailed on his first voyage, first heard of the island of Barata from captains whose expeditions had stopped there, raped a few of the women and slaughtered some of the warriors for sport, and moved on. He also spoke with sailors from the ships of Pedro de Mendoza, who had heard of the existence of Barata from don Pero Saura himself. Under the influence of strong drink and their own sailors' imagination, they told the young Gonzalo of marvels and riches such as he had never imagined. Barata, or at least the distorted image of it they presented, became the focus of his existence during the day and the subject of his dreams at night. In three years, de Alvarez had pieced together his own expedition and was on his way to the New World to lay claim, once and for all, to the island known as Barata.
De Alvarez's force consisted of five ships the crown had discarded as useless and two hundred convicts from the prisons of Extremadura, spared penalties that ranged from death to enslavement as galley slaves. In addition, de Alvarez brought with him twenty horses, three Franciscan monks, a blacksmith, a carpenter, a mason, an Indian slave from the island of Hispaniola who would act as interpreter, and, of course, a chronicler by the name of Alipio Freitas, whose writings, known today only in a few fragments, were open attacks against de Alvarez's absolute authority. In one of his first official acts after gaining power, Nicolás Campión, the Liberator, afraid that the chronicler's writings would inspire opposition against him, forbade mention of the name Alipio Freitas or any reference to his ideas, by which motion the dictator accorded Freitas, otherwise a drunken and vainglorious individual, an importance he never deserved.
The first thing de Alvarez did when he arrived was to follow Hernán Cortés's example and burn his four largest ships to keep his men from organizing a mutiny and leaving the island. Next, he appeared before Chief Wanaho with twenty well-armed soldiers, offering the usual trinkets by way of tribute and demanding, through the interpreter, an oath of allegiance to His Sovereign Majesty Carlos V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. Chief Wanaho accepted the gifts on behalf of the Pale Offals but did not give the oath demanded of him, telling the Spaniard that he would consult the spirits on the matter that night. Wanaho, hardened by years of despotic rule over a population that had long ago ceased to trust him or the rest of his kind and confident that whatever he had accomplished was due not to the intercession of supernatural beings but to his supreme strength and acumen, did not believe in the spirits or in consulting with anyone other than himself in matters of governance. The following morning he himself visited the Spaniards' camp and not only agreed to the oath, but also offered as tribute to the great Spanish king and his vassal Gonzalo de Alvarez one hundred of the best and strongest purebreds per year to do with as the Spaniards saw fit. By so doing, Wanaho calculated that in a matter of a few years the ranks of the purebreds would be cleared of his most dangerous enemies and the remaining population would be so demoralized as to offer no worthwhile opposition against him. Additionally, in the spirit of celebration, and also foreseeing the possibility of increasing the number of Pale Offals in the same manner they were originally conceived, Chief Wanaho promised to deliver to the Spaniards that night as much native liquor as the Europeans desired and a native woman to every man. Gonzalo de Alvarez was not Johannes Miraflor. He was after riches, not pleasure, and so he refused the liquor and the women, notwithstanding his men's justifiable complaints, but accepted the tribute of natives, thereby establishing the traffic and trade in human beings for which the island was notorious until the middle of the nineteenth century.
Wanaho was pleased. He instinctively understood that in matters of diplomacy gaining fifty percent of your initial goal is a highly desirable outcome. That night he feasted with his warriors and their women, and the next day he sent word to de Alvarez that he would deliver the tribute before the new moon. In a week, word of Wanaho's plan mysteriously reached the purebreds, who banded together, attacked the Pale Offals, and in one of the rare displays of collective violence in their history, killed all of them except a few women and children and staked the heads of Wanaho and his three wives just outside the entrance to the Spanish camp. Whether de Alvarez saw the incident as the perfect opportunity to gain control of the island or was genuinely concerned about his safety and that of his men is not known. More likely than not, the Spaniard must have sensed the peaceful nature of the Baratans and taken note of their primitive weaponsknives made of seashells and blunt stone axes, good for milling cassava and knocking out a Pale Offal or two but hardly a threat to the well-armed Europeans. The fact is that de Alvarez unleashed his convicts, who went on a rampage of rape, torture, and slaughter of such force and zeal that even the three Franciscan monks, whose order had on other occasions been more than tolerant of injustices against the Indians throughout the New World, appealed to the captain to stop his troops. It took de Alvarez five more days to act on the request of the holy men. By that time the Spaniards had slaughtered more than seven hundred Baratans in the three villages on the western bank of the Lolo River. Hundreds more natives fled across the river into the Sacred Mountains, and the rest were so demoralized that they sat among the decomposing bodies and the vultures too fat to fly away and waited for the white devils to lop off their heads. De Alvarez's men did no such thing. The convicts were weary of slaughter and de Alvarez thought that to do more killing would be a wasteful thing and was bound not only to antagonize the Franciscans further but also to diminish beyond any hope of replenishment the stock of potential slaves. As he surveyed the scene in the principal village, he realized he was firmly in control and he reiterated his claim to la Isla Barata de Todos los Santos on behalf of the Spanish crown. Then the captain proceeded to enslave all the purebreds within his reach, picking the best woman for himself and giving the rest over to his men, for they had fought bravely and honorably and now deserved some diversion that might make them turn their minds away from war to the process of civilization they were about to embark upon.
After sending the one remaining ship back to Spain with twenty-one natives and an equal number of his men, de Alvarez wasted no time in building a settlement of several log houses, which he called Carenas and which has been since those days the social and economic center of the island. He allowed the Franciscans the use of natives to build a small chapel from stones taken from the bed of the Lolo River, and, well aware of the power of religion to subdue any thoughts of rebellion, he sat placidly by as the monks manufactured the legend of Santa Aurina, the Pale Offal girl who was found in the wilderness consorting with the Virgin Mary and with a host of saints, and who, in a few short years was to become the patroness of Barata. By the time the ship came back a year later with a letter from the king naming him Captain Gonzalo de Alvarez, Lord Governor of La Isla Barata de Todos los Santos, a new social order had been imposed that changed little through the centuries of colonial rule and subsequent years of the republic until the coming to power of Nicolás Campión.
De Alvarez's tenure as governor lasted only five years until he was murdered by one of his lieutenants over a slave woman. A succession of nine governors followed, all of them undistinguished bureaucrats, who ruled as little as possible but stole as much as they could. During this period the slave trade increased twenty-fold, putting Barata in the center of that ignominious commerce in the New World. By the time the tenth governor, don Ignacio Yanés González, landed in the port of Carenas, the native population of Barata and the surrounding islands had been decimated by disease, forced labor, and export to distant lands from which they would never return. A small enclave of the aboriginal population lived in the Once-Sacred Mountains to the east of the Lolo River, performing witchcraft and occasionally attacking an unwary traveler, flinging excrement at him until the poor fellow retreated from their lands in disgust. It became increasingly difficult to capture and enslave the wild renegades. The Pale Offals were assimilated into the urban society of Carenas and the other smaller cities that dotted the island, becoming slave traders who dealt their ancestors away with amazing diligence and with a disdain for their welfare that would have shocked the more morally conscious segment of Baratan societysmall as it washad not the huge river of wealth flowing into the island drowned out the voice of their righteousness. The traders thought their captives to be less-than-human lumpen and whipped them mercilessly for the merest offense. It is calculated by modern historians that up to thirty percent of enslaved natives died at the hands of the descendants of Pale Offals, who, after further assimilation into the social fabric of Barata, came to be called Mongoes.
No sooner had the shrewd but benevolent don Ignacio Yanés set foot on the island than he noticed sure signs that Barata's natural riches were diminishing. He calculated that if current trends continued, even with the most conservative and careful harvesting, the native population would effectively be reduced to zero in five years, and he would be kept from amassing a fortune in any way comparable to that of his predecessors. As a result, he did two things. The first was to begin the cultivation of sugar cane, a crop that had more than proven its commercial value in other parts of the Caribbean; the second was to import slaves from Africa to work the sugar plantations and to sell at inflated prices, especially in the United States, where Africans were in high demand for their strength and durability over the delicate and sometimes insouciant natives of Barata.
The merchants of Carenas all but canonized don Ignacio, whom they called el Bueno, and ascribed to him miraculous powers of the sort that today would have merited at least one Nobel Prize. They named streets and parks after him, and not a few of the Baratan slave ships were christened with the name of his wife and bore it to all parts of the known world. The day of his birth was set aside every year as a holiday during which Franciscans all over the island said masses honoring his name above all others and recited special prayers that no Jesuit should ever set foot on Barata and spoil its airs of earthly paradise. On this day members of the swiftly growing patrician class brought gifts to the Palace of Governors, everything from gold to livestock to not-yet-deflowered beautiful slave girls to the titles of the fleetest slave ships and the most fertile parcels of farmland in the colony.
Don Ignacio el Bueno accepted the gifts humbly, no matter how small or how large, making sure the crown and the church received their due, and in the twenty years of his governorship his wealth grew to the limits of the imaginable. Representatives of twenty nations, including the Vatican, came to him requesting loans, which he graciously provided at the rate of twenty percent interest, keeping as security the titles of royal estates, shipyards, private hunting preserves, and, in one case, a papal tiara worth three times the loan the pope had requested. The pope in question died before repaying the loan, and so don Ignacio kept the tiara, eventually donating it to the archbishop of Carenas, who took it out during high holy days and wore it with the gravity and decorum of a true pontiff.
Despite the pirates, who saw in Carenas an easy and available target and whose sorties against the city began almost from the time of its founding, and despite the first nine governors, known to Baratan schoolchildren in later years as the Nine Beasts, the city grew and prospered, but it did not flourish until the rule of don Ignacio el Bueno, who made it the capital of the island, paved its streets and built the Palace of Governors, the city hall, the central market, and the university, all in the style of late seventeenth-century London, where don Ignacio had spent time as a young man, doing the things a young man does.
The university in particular was don Ignacio's pride. He envisioned it as a training school for a Creole mercantile class and foresaw a futurenot inaccurately as it turned outin which Barata would become a center of all manner of trade and commerce. The founding charter forbade the teaching of the arts, philosophy, and literature, calling these "breeding grounds for thinkers and other malcontents," and furthermore demanding the immediate dismissal of any professor inclined to allude, no matter how indirectly, to the above-mentioned fields in any of his lectures. During don Ignacio's tenure as governor, the University of Carenas produced graduates with the most intricate and profound knowledge in all areas of commerce, men whose experience was in demand, not only on the island but also in Europe, where Baratan commercial successes had been raising more than a few eyebrows.
The merchants of Barata brought great wealth to the island, and even after don Ignacio's death, the capital prospered beyond anyone's imagination, soon becoming the commercial center of the whole area. As time passed the charmed city drew to it not only serious men of trade, but also fortune seekers, actors, musicians, fire-eaters, itinerant poets, former pirates, French prostitutes, and others of similar ilk whom don Ignacio el Bueno had done his best to keep from gaining a foothold on his neo-Calvinist colony. And so the city of Carenas came to resemble a carnival with bands of musicians playing sarabandes on street corners, poets in the parks reciting sonnets in the Italian manner, magicians practicing their arts in the main plaza, Arab peddlers selling everything from hosiery and copper pots to cures for arthritis, gout, and seven different venereal diseases, both real and imagined, and the French prostitutes, dressed in suggestive costumes, strolling in their leisurely and lascivious manner through the marketplace, leaving behind the irresistible scent of rosewater and catastrophe. The everyday festivities of people who have nothing to lose except the oppression of their poverty and the drudgery of their lives infected even the soldiers of His Majesty's Royal Forces, who neglected their duty as protectors of public order and were often found in the taverns of the city in drunken revelry, their pantaloons unbuckled and their weapons leaning against a dark corner where they would be completely useless in a military emergency. The air of a serious metropolis that Carenas acquired during don Ignacio's governorship finally disappeared altogether, and the city fathers worried that the frivolity of the streets would infect the sugar and slave trades and rob them of their gravity and proper Christian tone.
The colonial authorities in Spain sent along a new governor, a bachelor and amateur poet by the name of don Virgilio Costa de los Mares. It was he who convinced the city fathers that the best way to deal with the poets, musicians, and the other so-called malefactors was not to incarcerate but to domesticate them. He suggested that, despite the prohibitions written into its charter, the university expand to include studies in music and the liberal arts, as well as architecture and law, for he would need architects to build the many buildings he planned in his public works projects and lawyers to enact the 543 new laws against vagrancy, loitering, and public displays of frivolity that the business leaders were so eager to put into effect. The one group he refused to touch, for not only could he not imagine what, short of prosecution, to do with them, but also because as a confirmed bachelor he was only too aware of the multiple and complementary benefits of their practice, was the prostitutes. The most the new governor would do was to encourage their containment within select neighborhoods by offering them tax incentives and access to the most advanced medical treatment for diseases to which members of their profession were especially prone, as well as the free education of their children in the three most exclusive Franciscan schools in Carenas.
It was well after don Virgilio Costa de los Mares went back to Spain, not a rich but a contented man, having married one of the French ladies whose position he helped to cement in Creole society, that the seeds of independence were planted in the halls of the university itself, not by the arriviste humanists in the faculties of arts and letters, music, architecture, and law, but by professors of economics, trade, and finance, who secretly concluded that an independent Barata was the only way out of the vicious and ever-increasing cycle of taxation the island was being subjected to by the next-to-bankrupt and ever more corrupt Spanish monarchy. When one of the professors dared to speculate as an academic exercise that the country could easily triple the national revenue by being an independent nation, the colonial police force arrested him the next day and hanged him in front of the university steps. The professor thus inadvertently became the first martyr of independence and his name, Efraín Ibarra, was used to invoke the feelings of passion and sacrifice necessary for a movement of liberation to take root in the minds and hearts of the young.
The troubles continued with a group of students who organized a meeting to discuss the lack of courses on Baratan history. When the gathering was over and the students tried to leave, they found themselves surrounded by soldiers. In the ensuing fracas thirteen students lost their lives, while the government forces suffered three casualties. The governor at the time was Francisco Piñón, a man with an unflagging disdain for Baratans and, as he called it, "their island made of petrified shit." He ordered the university closed immediately; he imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew from which the Spanish nationals were exempted; he increased the number of soldiers in the island by fifty percent and instituted a tax on Baratan slave trade to help defray the cost of billeting the extra men.
Some Baratans insisted that these were temporary measures imposed to weed radical elements from the society and reestablish the peace and public order so necessary for the natural course and conduct of business affairs; others, however, were outraged. And so two camps developed among the inhabitants, which would be at odds with each other even to the present day: the conservatives, mostly older families who sought accommodation with the Spanish authorities; and the liberals, merchants, students, and sugar farmers whose Creole consciousness led them to challenge Piñón's rule of terrror. The Ibarristas, as the liberals became known, began a campaign to subvert the authority of Francisco Piñón, which they inaugurated with a week-long general strike and ended with the emancipation of their African slaves. Faced with such insubordination, the governor mobilized his troops, executed more Creoles than could be buried, and arrested hundreds more and sent them into exile in Spain or distant colonies halfway across the world. Piñón also took the opportunity to kill as many of the newly freed African slaves as he could find while expropriating the land of their former masters in the name of the Spanish crown and offering it to retired Spanish soldiers to homestead.
In three months the daily affairs of Carenas acquired an air of normalcy. The uprising was crushed, the Spaniards were in control, and the conservatives were happy that business in the slave trade was booming as never before. It was all illusion, however, for the seeds of hatred and oppression had been planted, and the liberals, those who had survived inside the island and those wandering the world waiting to return, thought of one thing and one thing only: ridding the island of Spanish rule and achieving the independence that had been Efraín Ibarra's legacy. And so it could be said that Francisco Piñón did more to further the cause of independence than anyone else in the history of the island of Barata.
In the following years the insurrectionist struggle surfaced occasionally, but every time it was quickly and brutally repressed by the colonial authorities and their conservative allies. Increasingly, the liberal Creoles attacked the Spanish forces with a suicidal impunity, creating terror among the young Spanish recruits and more often than not routing them in countryside skirmishes. Only when the Ibarristas met the conservative Baratans loyal to the Spanish cause were the encounters evenly matched, and then the victories on both sides were almost always Pyrrhic, with the battlefield littered with pieces of bodies and heads lopped off by razor-sharp machetes, the weapons of choice among the warring Baratans. A liberal general, after one such battle, looked over the scene and exclaimed, with not a small amount of nostalgia in his voice: "Caramba, it looks like my mother's chicken stew." By the last years of the century, one hundred thousand Baratans and thirty thousand Spaniards had lost their lives. The violence had devastated the countryside, with every other sugar plantation scorched and useless. Whole villages had been destroyed. The capital of Carenas, once the pride of the Caribbean, now acquired the beaten, desperate look of a provincial backwater, its buildings crumbling for lack of care, its streets empty and dangerous, the parks filled with deserters from either side and refugees from the countryside.
Just when everyone, liberal and conservative, Spanish and Baratan alike, was sick of the destruction and the carnage, the rancid smoke of burning sugar cane, the empty look on the faces of orphaned children, the peasant women selling themselves for a tin of sardines; just when all parties were ready to throw war into the junk heap of history, along with independence, liberty, the motherland, the fatherland, the crown, the bad food, the dirty laundry, the fat buzzards, the bloodied rivers, the endless call to arms, the heroes, the cowards, the martyrs, and the traitors; just when both sides would have accepted a settlement no matter how unfair the terms just so they could wake to one solitary morning without death, one day free of lamentation in their lives, the final decisive confrontation, the one that conservative and liberal alike promised would be the war to end all wars, began.
It was started from afar by exiles in the United States led by a rabble-rousing poet whose only interest, according to loyalist commentators of the period, was the extermination of private ownership of the means of production and the apotheosis of all that was indecent and dishonorable in Baratan society. The writer, who had been elected president of the new republic of Barata in exile by one hundred of his associates, was Joaquín Ricart, and his closest aide was José Antonio Nogara, Felix Nogara's great-grandfather. The final war lasted three spastic, painful years. Men died on their feet of exhaustion or were racked by yellow fever, too weak to lift their rifles and defend themselves when the attacks came. Joaquín Ricart died one month into the war in a small skirmish by a river. He was felled by a stray Spanish bullet as he mounted his horse to gallop toward the enemy in a blind fit of temerity. Ricart's aide, José Antonio Nogara, waited discreetly in his bunker for the skirmish to die down. Then he walked away from the battlefield and was never involved in politics again, living quietly in the capital until his death twenty years later.
The United States joined the war on the side of the insurrectionists in the third year. Spain surrendered quickly after that, eager to leave the colony that had caused it so much trouble, and the United States declared itself victorious. Over the next four years, the Americans rebuilt Baratan society in their own image, restoring Carenas to its former glory, driving the prostitutes and the gamins out of the parks back into the countryside, and cleaning up all the garbage that had collected in the streets during the war. In their magnanimity, they restored the plantations and the sugar mills to what they had been during the height of Baratan prosperity; they reopened the university with full academic autonomy and the addition of schools of medicine, political affairs, engineering, and natural sciences; and they prepared democratic elections so that their hand-picked candidate, Benito Estrada Torres, would win. With him ended the four-hundred-year-old yoke of colonialism, and with him Barata took upon its shoulders the yoke of independence.
And so began the republic and the long succession of tyrants that led directly to Nicolás Campión, the Liberator, who had taken the reins of power from the hands of Leandro Sotelo, el Darling de los Yanquis, and who had in the process thumbed his nose at the United States. Nicolás Campión was not the most ruthless, tyrannical, or corrupt of the island's leaders, but if longevity is the sole measure of success, then he was by far the most successful. He was as well the most egotistical, the most demagogic, the most manipulative and Machiavellian, the most unpredictable; in the end, the least like a human being and the most like a historical force.
All historical forces, however, come to an end, by chance, by circumstance or by death, and so did Nicolás Campión, forty years after coming to power. Much to the disappointment of many of his countrymen who would have enjoyed seeing the old dictator suffer a lugubriously slow death at the hands of his vilest enemies, Campión died in bed like a benevolent patriarch, attended to by several of his mistresses and surrounded by a half dozen of his children. It was even rumored that, having rescinded his atheism as he agonized, the archbishop had been summoned to administer the last rites, and so the ruler had died free of sin and presumably ready to enter, if not Heaven exactly, then certainly the purifying fires of Purgatory.
News of Campión's death reached the Baratan exile community in el Norte at the end of November, when it was readying itself for yet another round of holidays away from its native soil. At first there was jubilation, but when word spread about the leader's peaceful expiration, there was indignation, bordering on a sacrilegious hubris. How could God allow a demon like Nicolás Campión to leave the earth like an angel? Exiled priests poured over theological tracts hoping to find an exemption to forgiveness for individuals as vile as Campión, and an exile organization sent an emissary to the pope to urge him to write one of his bulls ex cathedra, overriding the last rites and pronouncing the soul of the dictator condemned to infernal punishments through eternity without end. None of this proved fruitful. Several of the priest-researchers suffered breakdowns from overstudy and lack of sleep, and the pope sent word back that if he overrode the last sacrament in this particular case, he would have to do it for ten thousand others.
The indignation was followed by a melancholy that spread over the Baratan community in Florida like a blue tide, threatening to spoil the holidays, darkening every one of their houses and settling on their faces, so that Miami, once a city of sun and color, became a sullen place, with the gray beaten look of a northern European city. Once Baratans realized, however, that in the absence of power in the island anyone could take over the government, the communal depression left almost overnight and the city acquired the appearance of an anthill, with exiles scurrying over and around each other, buying clothes, luggage, plane tickets in a mad dash to return and lay claim to what was duly theirs. It was at this time that Felix decided to return to the island of his birth or turn away from it forever.
The plane banked to the west, and then, turning south, it hit an updraft and shook violently. Several of the overhead compartments flew open and the man across the aisle awoke with a start. The alarm in the man's face reminded Felix that he was aloft, suspended twenty-five thousand feet over the Straits of Florida. His mouth became dry and his tongue felt mealy. He couldn't rid himself of the possibility that through a caprice of fate, the uncertainties of metal fatigue, or the mysteries of wind shear, the plane could rear up on its tail or buckle in two or simply shut down its engines and plummet like so much dead weight into the blue maw of the sea. The plane leveled out again and a soft female voice over the loudspeaker announced that they had left the bad weather behind and had begun their landing approach. Felix took a deep breath and felt the pull of gravity as the aircraft descended gradually, gently, like a feather. It was then that the rosary lady reached out and touched his arm. "Look," she said, pointing out the window, "the island of our longing."
Felix was blinded by the light of the Baratan sun. He had forgotten how fierce it was, how absolute. A moment later the sun dipped behind the clouds and he was able to make out a thin line of white shore and beyond it the vibrant green of Barata, which had, over the course of its history, driven so many people mad with joy and with sorrow. There it was, the island of his longing. The sun shined briefly one more time before the clouds covered it for good and the island darkened. Ahead was the city of Carenas in its muted splendor; underneath was the sea, cobalt and massive. The lady still had her hand on his forearm and in her excitement she squeezed down on it. He felt the thrust of the engines, heard the landing gear deploying loudly, saw the lady cross herself. In a few moments the tires squealed on the tarmac and the plane braked and taxied down the runway to the terminal.
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