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Monkey Hunting

Monkey Hunting

3.7 5
by Cristina García

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In this deeply stirring novel, acclaimed author Cristina García follows one extraordinary family through four generations, from China to Cuba to America. Wonderfully evocative of time and place, rendered in the lyrical prose that is García’s hallmark, Monkey Hunting is an emotionally resonant tale of immigration, assimilation, and the


In this deeply stirring novel, acclaimed author Cristina García follows one extraordinary family through four generations, from China to Cuba to America. Wonderfully evocative of time and place, rendered in the lyrical prose that is García’s hallmark, Monkey Hunting is an emotionally resonant tale of immigration, assimilation, and the prevailing integrity of self.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

The Los Angeles Times
When writers are likened to jazz musicians, it's usually in admiration of a startling linguistic virtuosity or an unbridled imagination; it might be noted, for example, that a novelist possesses a pyrotechnic energy to match that of Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie. But Cristina García's new novel, Monkey Hunting, is much more like one of those haunting [Miles] Davis solos. Like the trumpeter, García has a rare gift for concentrating beauty by leaving things out. Here is a miracle of poetic compression, a novel that manages to trace four generations of a family not by revealing every last detail of personal histories but rather by revealing people's dreams, their unuttered concerns and observations — the things that strike them when they hear the hoot of an owl, or when they try on a pair of their great-grandfather's glasses in front of a mirror. — Jeff Turrentine
The New York Times
As in García's beautiful first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, and its follow-up, The Aguero Sisters, the narrative leaps sure-footedly between the branches of a bushy and far-flung family tree. In her previous novels, García stuck to what has come to seem an inevitable subject for a Cuban-American writer, the plight of divided families and their nostalgia for a world that lies -- thanks to Fidel Castro, the Straits of Florida and the sheer passage of time -- just beyond their grasp. Here she's much more ambitious. In a scant 250 pages, she attempts to take in four countries and more than a hundred years of turmoil, encompassing the Boxer Rebellion, the Cultural Revolution and Cuba's long struggle for independence. — Jennifer Schuessler
The Denver Post
The writing in Monkey Hunting is crystalline, occasionally surreal and nothing short of lovely. There is a rhythm to the narrative that echoes the rich, careful pace of the Cuban days it describes. — Robin Vidimos
Publishers Weekly
The Chinese-Cuban experience is plumbed in this graceful third novel by Garcia (Dreaming in Cuban; The Aguero Sisters), encompassing five far-flung generations, four countries and two tumultuous centuries. Farm boy Chen Pan leaves his native China in 1857, dreaming of the riches awaiting him in mysterious Cuba. Instead, he is obliged to work on a sugarcane plantation, subjected to the atrocities of forced servitude in a country that is not his own and in which he is viewed with suspicion. He eventually manages to escape and creates a life for himself beyond his wildest dreams, as a successful small-business owner, beloved husband and doting father. Becoming almost more Cuban than Chinese, he falls in love with Lucrecia, a former slave. His mixed-blood descendants, scattered between Cuba and China, struggle to find their place in a world that strives to keep its ethnic and geographical boundaries distinct. Chen Fang, a granddaughter raised as a boy in China, is a remarkable woman who manages to get an education and become a teacher, eventually landing in one of Mao's appalling prisons in 1970 Shanghai. As a teenager, great-grandson Domingo Chen departs Cuba for New York with his father and faces the same hostility and racism there that Chen Pan dealt with in mid-19th-century Havana. Domingo's journey from Cuba to New York then Vietnam is told in unsparing detail, bringing the novel full circle. Though Garcia ranges farther afield here than in previous works, her prose is as tight and polished as ever. The book is rather short for its span, and a bit more development of some characters-particularly Chen Fang-would have been welcome, but that is a mere quibble. Garcia's novel is a richly patterned mini-epic, a moving chorus of distinct voices. (Apr. 22) Forecast: Garcia's latest (released in a first printing of 50,000 copies) may take a bit more selling than her previous novels, since the focus is more eclectic, but her track record is stellar, and interest will be considerable. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In her third novel, Cuban-born American Garc!a deepens her inquiry into what it means to be Cuban-and what it means to be an immigrant. Here, she chronicles the fortunes of Chen Pan, a Chinese who is enslaved in the Cuban sugar fields in 1857 and later becomes a prosperous businessman in Havana; the mulata slave Lucrecia, whose relationship with Chen Pan is poignantly rendered; and their descendants: Lorenzo, a doctor of herbal medicine in Havana; lesbian Chen Fang, a teacher imprisoned for counterrevolutionary activities in Mao's China; and Domingo Chen, an immigrant to New York City who serves in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Garcia clearly enjoys playing with the form of the novel; her narrative shifts gracefully from third to first person, and the 19th and 20th centuries seamlessly intermingle, as do Buddhism and Santer!a. Like the author's highly acclaimed Dreaming in Cuban and The Aguero Sisters, this is a brilliantly conceived work-and it's also delightful reading. Highly recommended for all academic and large public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/03.]-Mary Margaret Benson, Linfield Coll. Lib., McMinnville, OR Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Garc'a's third (after The Aguero Sisters, 1997, etc.) again lyrically portrays several generations of a Cuban family, this one with Chinese roots. In 1857, a Westerner in Amoy fools 20-year-old Chen Pan into signing on for indentured labor in Cuba, where "the women were eager and plentiful [and] . . . even the river fish jumped, unbidden, into frying pans." After the horrific sea voyage disabuses him of such fantasies, Chen Pan survives more than two years on a sugar plantation, befriending some of the African slaves before escaping to Havana, where he prospers as a merchant and buys a young black woman who becomes his lifelong companion. Interwoven with the couple's history are narratives about their granddaughter, Chen Fang, born in 1899 during her father's brief sojourn in China, and their great-grandson, Domingo Chen, who immigrated to New York with his father in 1967. Chen Fang becomes a victim of Mao's Cultural Revolution, and Domingo falls in love with a prostitute while serving in Vietnam, but their stories are sketchy and pallid compared to the richness of Chen Pan's experiences in Havana, a city with a multicultural vigor drawn from the clamor of different cultures and races. In 1867, in Havana, "the vendors hawked fresh okra and star apples, sugarplums, parakeets, and pigs' feet . . . [and] from the moment he arrived, [Chen Pan] knew it was where he belonged." His descendants in China and America never belong in the same way, and their tales are left unfinished, though the novel hints at sad ends. Chen Pan, by contrast, survives the loss of his beloved Lucrecia to see dramatic changes in now-independent Cuba, and he dies drinking the red wine a friend had promised would makehim immortal. Sometimes more interesting for its revelation of little-known aspects of Cuban history than for its revelation of characters, but Chen Pan lingers in the memory as a brooding, contemplative patriarch. First printing of 50,000

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To Paradise
Amoy to Aavana

There were other men like Chen Pan on the ship, not too young, but not too old either. From the farms, mostly, as far as he could tell. No weaklings. Cuba, the man in the Western suit had told him, needed sturdy workers. Chen Pan was taller than most of the recruits, and his arms were taut with muscles. His hair was tied back in a thick queue, but at twenty years old he barely needed to shave.

A few families came to see their men off. The women gave their husbands sticky rice balls and packets of seeds for their journey. There was no weeping. Even the smallest children were dry-eyed. Most of the men, like Chen Pan, went aboard alone and empty-handed.

That evening at sea, the coast of China gradually faded behind them. A haloed moon rose on a swell of wind, but this hopeful omen didn’t alter the facts of the ship. It was outfitted like a prison, with irons and grates. The recruits were kept belowdecks, like animals in a pen. The shortest among them couldn’t stand upright. Soon Chen Pan’s neck ached from stooping.

Neither the British captain nor his crew spoke much Chinese. The captain issued his orders with a flat expression and a wave of his girlish hands. His crew was far more unruly. They threatened the re- cruits with muskets and cutlasses and rattan rods, shackled those whom the rods didn’t tame. Chen Pan was struck with a hoisting rope for requesting an extra blanket.

Those men who’d brought food or tobacco on board began to barter and sell. These boiled chicken feet for your hemp sandals or your uncle’s flute. A handful of pumpkin seeds for your stash of turnips or hard-boiled eggs. A day’s opium for the woolen gloves. Gambling sprouted like snake-grass in every bunk. The incessant clicking of dice finely divided the hours. A man from W—— gathered most of the winnings and crowed, “If you were too dumb the life before, you won’t be enlightened today!”

After his misfortunes in Amoy, Chen Pan refused to gamble. He guarded his Mexican coins, tucking them between the meager cheeks of his buttocks for safekeeping.

The men got beef jerky and rice gruel to eat. Chen Pan ate, although the taste of the food sickened him. It was oversalted, and the lack of adequate water made him desperately thirsty. Hour after hour, he thought more of his shoe-leather throat than of the life awaiting him in Cuba. Those who demanded more water were answered with blows. Chen Pan watched men drink their own urine, lick moisture from the walls of the ship. A few swallowed seawater until their stomachs swelled and they choked in their own filth.

A squat melon-grower from T—— announced that he would throw himself into the ocean to end his torment. Chen Pan crept on deck with two others to watch him jump. The melon-grower didn’t shout or linger but simply stepped into the breeze. A moment later, the furling waves received him with indifference. The melon-grower had been an orphan and a bachelor. No destiny would be altered but his.

The ship continued to plow south into the hard-gusting wind. Chen Pan covered his ears so they wouldn’t blow away altogether. He asked himself four questions: What was the last sound the melon-grower heard? The last color he saw before he died? How long would it take for the fish to devour him? Would this death complete his fate? “Show me the person who doesn’t die,” shrugged a short-legged man next to Chen Pan.

This was something Chen Pan’s father used to say, that death alone remained impartial. All the towering men, all the great beauties with kingfisher plumes in their hair—not a single one expected to grow old. But they, too, would return to dust. If it was true that man had two souls, one of the body and the other ethereal, then they would merge with the earth and the air after death.

Chen Pan knew that he didn’t want to fade away slowly, like a dying candle—one day no different from the next; the dirt etched in his hands along with his fortunes. No, he would rather live in a blaze of courage and flame like Li Kuang, the ferocious warrior who’d battled the Huns, or the heroes in the stories his father had recounted to him.

Chen Pan’s father had been as restless as these heroes, never reconciling himself to a life on their farm. He’d recited the Songs of Wu as he’d absentmindedly hoed the wheat fields, grew devoted to the poetry of the deserted concubines of the Han court. He’d referred to the sun as the Lantern Dragon, the Crow in Flight, the White Colt. The moon was the Silver Dish or the Golden Ring.

Father had taken the Imperial examinations for twenty years without success. He’d been a good poet but incapable of composing verses on assigned subjects, as was required by the examiners. He’d blamed his absorption of useless knowledge for overburdening his imagination. Before picking up his brush to write, he would rub his inkstick on a whetstone for a meditative hour as Chen Pan watched.

Chen Pan’s mother ridiculed her husband as she hobbled from room to room on her lotus feet. “Ha! Everyone calls him a scholar, but he hasn’t found a position yet. And in winter he wears a thread- bare robe. This is how books fool us!” Chen Pan’s mother was from a family of well-to-do farmers, and far from beautiful. She knew little poetry, but used to repeat the same line to nettle her improvident husband: Poets mostly starve to death embracing empty mountains!

After ten days of cramped, stinking squalor, a fight erupted belowdecks. A city man named Yang Yün, contrary as a donkey, shoved a quiet farmer out of his bunk. “Son of a whore!” the farmer shouted, punching Yang Yün in the chest. The city man pulled a knife from his vest and silvered the air with reckless slashing. The farmer disarmed him in no time, then promptly broke his nose.

Chen Pan watched the fight from behind his tattered book of poems, a last gift from his father. He decided that if Yang Yün or any of the other city cocks so much as jostled his elbow, he would knock them unconscious with a blow.

The captain’s guards chained the troublemakers to iron posts. Others who’d cheered them on were flogged to intimidate the rest. When the stubborn Lin Chin resisted, the guards kicked him in the ribs until he spat blood. The next day he died and his body was dumped in the sea. It was said that Lin Chin didn’t sink at first but floated alongside the ship for hours, his eyes fixed on the sky. Chen Pan wondered if the dead man’s ghost would find its way back to China. Or would it wander forever among the unvirtuous and the depraved?

As the ship continued to sail, Chen Pan imagined his wife pounding the season’s meager yield of grain in their yard, looking warily to the sky for rain. They’d been married for three years but had no children. Unlucky, despite what the matchmaker had predicted. On their wedding night, Chen Pan and his wife had drunk pomegranate wine and she’d grazed his chest with her soft, scant breasts. But month after month her womb spilled its blood.

Chen Pan’s mother blamed his wife for ruining the family with her persistent barrenness. Weak and sallow-skinned, Mother ruled the farm from her bed, knees tucked to her chest, lotus feet curled and useless from the painful binding long ago. In her closet were three minuscule pairs of jeweled slippers, all that remained of a dowry once rich with silks and brocades.

She also chastised Chen Pan’s younger brother for spending his days writing with his one brush and inkpot. “Even from the grave, your father has cursed you with his useless ways!” In winter, their house grew so cold that his small supply of ink froze.

On board, the recruits began to suffer every manner of illness. Cholera. Ty- phus. Dysentery. Bad luck, Chen Pan decided, had settled into every crevice of the ship. Nine men died the first month, not counting those killed in fights or beaten to death by the crew. Many more might have perished but for Chien Shih-kuang, sorcerer of herbs and roots. With his felt bag of magic, the wry herbalist from Z—— brewed teas to mend every imbalance, quieting fiery livers, warming cold organs, restoring the temperamental ch’i.

The captain had promised Chien Shih-kuang payment of passage back to Amoy in return for his services on board. The herbalist had agreed because he’d heard that in Cuba men knew the secret to halting the winter retreat of the sun. He, too, wished to learn this secret.

One night Chen Pan dreamed that bandits had set fire to his great-aunt’s farm and that he alone was battling the flames. He woke up delirious, his skin hot and itchy. Chien Shih-kuang plastered a five-pointed leaf on Chen Pan’s forehead with a few drops of a caustic liquid. When his fever broke, Chen Pan tried to pay the doctor with one of his precious Mexican coins, but Chien Shih-kuang refused it. (Years later, Chen Pan would learn that the herbalist had married a Spanish heiress in Avila and generously cured the poor.)

But not even Chien Shih-kuang could save the poor suicides. Chen Pan counted six altogether. Af- ter the melon-grower, another man jumped into the sea. One more poisoned himself with stolen opium. A boy, no older than fifteen, passed his days and nights in tears. He confided to Chen Pan that he was in great grief over having been decoyed on board. “I’m the only child of my parents!” he cried before thrusting a sharpened chopstick into his ear. In this way he stopped his regretting.

A native of K—— hanged himself with strips of torn clothing deep in the ship’s hull. (The guards had beaten him savagely for siphoning rainwater from their private barrels.) Chen Pan thought his swaying sounded like the slow tearing of silk. With the winds stiff and the sea wide all around, he asked himself why someone would choose to die so confined and without air. Chen Pan wasn’t certain what made a man ultimately want to live. He only knew that he would survive unless somebody managed to kill him.

The night the Wong brothers died, a squall engulfed the sea. The ship creaked and groaned like a sick man. The storm ripped off a mast and tossed two officers overboard. The men feared that the brothers’ ghosts had cursed the ship, that they were causing the thunder and lightning, the wind from eight directions, the waves as high as the Buddha’s temples. But by morning the sea was calm.

At noon, a pair of whales was spotted off the Cape of Good Hope. Chen Pan clambered to the deck to see the breaching beasts. “Maybe we should kill them and get some fresh meat,” the lazy-eyed Wu Yao suggested. Chen Pan looked at him incredulously. It was obvious that this city boy had never caught so much as a pond carp.

T he rumors spread with every day at sea. A bankrupt tailor pieced most of the gossip together, all the while quoting ancient sayings. Caged birds miss their home forest. Pooled fish long for the deep. Chen Pan listened closely to the tailor, but he didn’t circulate the man’s tidings: that their ship was headed for the Philippines; that every last man on board would be killed there, heart scooped from his chest; that they’d be sold to cannibals who savored yellow flesh.

There was talk of mutiny. Should they behead the captain and crew? Set fire to the vessel? Reverse their course to China? Chen Pan knew there were men on board fit for murder, experienced warriors who’d fought the British barbarians. Arrow-scarred, they’d been dragged from their prison cells to the ship. But the ones who talked loudest were most filled with hot air.

Chen Pan grew increasingly regretful. Had he deceived himself with his own grand dreams? How could he go home poorer than when he’d left? (Already, he imagined his mother’s rebukes.) He tried to concentrate on his return to China a few years hence. A procession of men would follow him, triumphant in his sedan chair, carrying a hundred chests of princely gifts on their shoulders. Enough silk for three generations. New harnesses for the village horses. Countless jars of turtle eggs pickled in foreign wines. The villagers would gather around him, paying him the respect in life that his father had achieved only in death.

Because the days were long and the men so constricted, they entertained each other with stories about the tallest men who ever lived. Chung Lu-yüan, who was fond of lantern riddles, reported of a man who, sitting down, was as big as a mountain and could dam the course of a river with his ass. Hsieh Shuang-chi, a stevedore who was tricked on board by his greedy brother-in-law, told of a giant who drank a thousand gallons of celestial dew for his breakfast.

Chen Pan retold the jokes he’d learned from his beloved great-aunt. His favorite was the one about the evil warlord who’d had the length of his penis extended with a baby elephant’s trunk. Everything went well for the warlord, Chen Pan said, until the day he passed a peanut vendor in the street.

There was also a dwarf on board who could imitate perfectly the sounds of a cassia-wood harp. His name was Yang Shi-fêng, and he sang of his land, where the tallest men grew to no more than three feet. In former times, he said, his countrymen had been sent as jesters and slaves to the Imperial Court. Then Yang Cheng came to govern the land of the dwarves and convinced the Emperor to annul his cruel trade. To this day every male born in T—— has Yang in his name.

Others recounted the tale of the impudent Monkey King. Entrusted with the job of guarding the Im- mortals’ heavenly peaches, the Monkey King heartily partook of them instead. One transgression followed another, but none of the Jade Emperor’s emissaries could catch the fearless simian. Finally, the Buddha himself cast a powerful spell that sealed the monkey under a mountain for five hundred years.

On a nearby bunk, a pig breeder from N—— reminded Chen Pan of his father. His hair fluttered with unruly tufts, no matter that the air was perfectly still. The pig breeder shared the last of his wife’s pickled cabbage with Chen Pan. The taste made them both terribly homesick. Chen Pan recalled the long summer afternoons his father had read poems to him, their plows left untouched in the shed. Before long the cicadas would sing, signaling the onset of autumn.

These lovely seasons and fragrant years falling

Lonely away—we share such emptiness here

When Chen Pan was thirteen, bandits had murdered his father for protesting the rape of the water-carrier’s daughter. She was only ten, pretty and dull, and willingly had shown the bandits inside her neighbor’s granary. Father’s legend swelled and the villagers recounted his heroism, but Mother disputed their accolades. “What father leaves his children noth- ing but his good reputation to eat?” She scolded her sons to learn this lesson: “Avert your eyes to the sorrows of others and keep your own plates full!”

After three months at sea, Chen Pan’s arms and legs grew soft and white as the flesh of the rich women he’d glimpsed in Amoy. Often he fantasized about these women, inhaled the scent of their lacquered hair, slowly dared to love them. He recalled the tales of the women of the old Imperial Court, who were protected by the Emperor’s purple-robed eunuchs. Alluring women swathed in furs and jade, their gauze-silk sleeves blooming like orchids. Delicate women who drank only camel-pad broth and nibbled on rare winter fruit to maintain their complexions. Women best admired from afar, like the mountain mist.

Sometimes the men spoke wistfully of the road- side flowers who awaited them in Cuba, easy amber- colored whores who opened their legs for their own pleasure, expecting nothing in return. For all that it had cost him, Chen Pan couldn’t remember his one night with the dancing girl in Amoy. There were only the memories of his mournful wife.

The ship passed through the Straits of Sunda without incident, then followed the verdant curve of Africa before veering west across the Atlantic. In St. Helena they stopped for fresh water, continuing on to Ascension, Cayenne, the Barbadian coast, and Trinidad. Chen Pan heard the crew announcing each port of call, but the longer he remained on board, the farther away Cuba seemed. Could his eight years of servitude have elapsed already?

When the ship finally reached Regla, across the bay from Havana, Chen Pan climbed to the top deck to get a better view. It was a hot, sunny morning, and the city looked like a fancy seashell in the distance, smooth pink and white. A brisk wind stirred the fronds of the palms. The water shone so blue it hurt his eyes to stare at it. When Chen Pan tried to stand on the dock, his legs slid out from under him. Others fell, too. Together, he and his shipmates looked like a spilled barrel of crabs.

The men were ordered to peel off their filthy rags and were given fresh clothes to present themselves to the Cubans. But there was no mistaking their wretchedness: bones jutted from their cheeks; sores cankered their flesh. Not even a strict regimen of foxglove could have improved their appearance. The recruits were rounded up in groups of sixty—wood haulers and barbers, shoemakers, fishermen, farmers— then parceled out in smaller groups to the waiting landowners.

A dozen Cubans on horseback, armed with whips, led the men like a herd of cattle to the barracón to be sold. Inside, Chen Pan was forced to strip and be examined for strength, like horses or oxen that were for sale in the country districts of China. Chen Pan burned red with shame, but he didn’t complain. Here he could no longer rely on the known ways. Who was he now without his country?

One hundred fifty pesos was the going rate for a healthy chino. A Spanish landowner paid two hundred for him, probably on account of his height. His father had taught him that if you knew the name of a demon, it had no power to harm you. Quickly, Chen Pan asked one of the riders for the name of his buyer. Don Urbano Bruzón de Peñalves. How would he ever remember that?

Several landowners tried to cut off the queues of their hires. Those who protested were beaten. Chen Pan was relieved that his employer didn’t insist upon this. Now there was no question of his purpose in Cuba. He was there to cut sugarcane. All of them were. Chinos. Asiáticos. Culís. Later, there would be other jobs working on the railroads or in the copper mines of El Cobre, five hundred miles away. But for now what the Cubans wanted most were strong backs for their fields.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Cristina García was born in Havana and grew up in New York City. Her first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, was nominated for a National Book Award and has been widely translated. Ms. García has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, and the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award. She lives in Santa Monica with her daughter, Pilar.

From the Hardcover edition.

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