The OF Blog: 1998 Premio Alfaguara co-winner, Eliseo Alberto's Caracol Beach

Saturday, July 30, 2011

1998 Premio Alfaguara co-winner, Eliseo Alberto's Caracol Beach

Justo cuando emprendían la fuga Martin les cortó el paso con un pedido inaplazable:  ir por cerveza a la licorería de la autopista.  Se había fumado un segundo porro de marihuana y se sintió con bríos de subir a gatas el Himalaya con tal de que Laura se fijase en él.  Por un momento tuvo la tentación de regresar a la cueva donde se atesoraban los vinos.  Se contuvo porque no había droga lo suficientemente poderosa para hacerle perder el respeto a sus mayores.  Esa indecisión iba de costarle carísimo, pero Martin no podía saber que en el kilómetro dieciséis de la autopista a Caracol Beach el velador del deshuesadero de coches había estado soñando con un tigre de Bengala que traía una rata en la boca. (p. 76)

Just when they began the fire Martin intercepted them with an urgent request:  to go for beer at the highway liquor store.  He had smoked a second marijuana joint and he felt strong enough to climb on all fours the Himalayas as long as Laura paid attention to him.  For a moment he was tempted to return to the cave where they had stored the wine.  He restrained himself because there was no drug strong enough to make him lose the respect of his elders.  That indecision was going to cost him dearly, but Martin couldn't have known that on kilometer 16 of the Caracol Beach highway that the auto junkyard guard had been dreaming of a Bengal tiger which had brought a mouse in its mouth.

Before discussing Cuban writer/filmmaker Eliseo Alberto's book Caracol Beach, I want to note a few things about the Premio Alfaguara selection process that has made for a distinctive series of winners.  Unlike most other literary prizes, where already-published books are submitted to a jury by publishers, the Premio Alfaguara solicits manuscripts from the Spanish-speaking world (including the United States), with pseudonyms and alternate titles given in place of author and work.  The publisher/sponsor of this award, Grupo Santillana de Ediciones, S.A., then asks a jury of five individuals, usually including a famous writer (for the first year, Carlos Fuentes chaired the five-person jury), to read through the hundreds of manuscripts (usually between 400-700) over the course of several months to select a winner.  For the first year of this award's re-establishment, 1998, two novels were chosen, one of which was Alberto's Caracol Beach.

Caracol Beach is a compact, sometimes surrealistic novel whose action takes place at a ritzy Florida beach in 1994.  It features a former Cuban soldier, Alberto Beto Milanés, who was the sole survivor of a horrific series of events during the Angolan Civil War of the 1970s and 1980s.  He is haunted by a yellow Bengal tiger with wings who visits him in waking nightmares, pressuring him to seek suicide and failing at that task.  It is also a story of a tragic teen love triangle whose grisly end is foretold from the beginning chapters with remarks similar to the passage quoted above.  It is a tale of gruff ex-soldier policeman and his strained relationship with his young transvestite son and that son's Armenian lover.

However, Caracol Beach is more than the sum of its parts.  Each of these elements blends together to create something vital and moving for its readers.  Beto Milanés' chapters, full of feverish self-recrimination, evoke a sense of hysteria and self-damnation reminiscent of movies such as Apocalypse Now.  As we witness his degradation and descent into full-blown madness, or as the tiger becomes more and more "real" on-page, the tragedy of his imminent dissolution becomes inevitable.  Yet like a rubber-necking driver going past a deadly crash, we read on with fascination.  What in the hell is this crazy fucker going to do?

We learn just what when we get to the second strand, involving the teens Martin Lowell, Tom Chávez, and the object of their desire, Laura Fontanet.  Alberto reminds us throughout their plot arc of the looming deaths for two of the three involved; Laura's kidnapping ties this into Beto Milanés' story.  From there, the policeman Sam Ramos is belatedly put on the trail after his deputy screws things up.  But Ramos has connections with this unfolding violent tragedy that go far beyond trying to prevent the fateful denouement promised for several of the actors involved.

Chance and Fate are the twin themes of Caracol Beach.  What an intricate web of connections that are revealed as the story unfolds; a single conversation shifts the course of action dramatically while seemingly minor actors and actresses end up playing key roles in creating the tragedy that follows.  Fate looms large throughout all this, as we just know things are going to go down badly.  In the hands of a less skilled writer, this could be overbearing and deleterious to the overall narrative flow.  However, Alberto's use of foretold tragedy is similar to that of Gabriel García Márquez's in Chronicle of a Death Foretold (fitting, considering that Alberto often collaborated with García Márquez and adapted several of Gabo's stories for cinema).  While we know what is going to happen, the hows and whys of that we are led to anticipate.  This creates a cathartic effect similar to that achieved by the best Greek tragedians.  We care what happens to that crazed soldier and to those doomed kids and we want to see what the others learn from being witnesses to their ends.

Alberto's writing is impeccable.  He easily shifts from elegant, descriptive scenes to powerful, damning denunciations in the course of a single paragraph.  He has a tendency here to close chapters with foretelling comments such as this:

En ese preciso instante, aunque no lo supieran, los dos amigos habían comenzado a morir cerca del kilómetro dieciséis de la autopista entre Santa Fe y Caracol Beach. (p. 126)

At that precise moment, although they didn't know it, the two friends had begun to die near kilometer 16 of the highway between Santa Fe and Caracol Beach.

Anticipation without a suitable conclusion would ruin a work.  Thankfully, Alberto's final scenes weave together the various strands to create a compelling, visual work.  The panorama of human life, those ties that bind and those that cut into us, is presented here wonderfully.  Alberto has much to say about how events affect us; we see one spectrum of it through the thoughts of poor Beto Milanés, while the opposite is shown in the epilogue.   This wide range of human reactions, coupled with his expert use of scene and imagery, makes Alberto's Caracol Beach a powerful read.  His co-win sets the tone for the other Premio Alfaguara winners to follow.  Highly recommended and available in English translation.

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