Adios, Happy Homeland!: a braid of the subjective and objective
Whatever primacy the idea of self-expatriation enjoys in the American imagination - the writer as nomad; an entire generation's artistic escapade in interwar Paris; the recent rise of Berlin as a magnet for Americans of a creative bent - the literature of immigration has proven, in American letters, to be just as fertile.
The American emigrant, is usually white, affluent, neurotic and male, while the literature of non-natives writing and working in America encompasses works as stylistically diverse as the hyperviolent words of the Yiddish writer Lamed Shapiro, the introspective novels of Jamaica Kincaid, and the intricate fictions of Aleksandr Hemon.
The displaced, the stateless and the persecuted have played a role as significant in America's aesthetic life as any gilded expat; one wonders how it could be otherwise in a nation where the question of national identity is as open as it is vexed - and as political.
This has, sadly, led at times to the fetishisation of such writers, a critical evaluation of them far above their actual talent (consider the novelists Uzodinme Iweala and Junot Diaz). But such failures of judgement constitute a small price to pay for a literature immeasurably enriched by the contributions of the displaced.
Ana Menéndez, a journalist and novelist born in Los Angeles and raised in Florida by exiled Cuban parents, stands as close to these questions as any other writer working in English today; unlike many of her colleagues, however, she possesses a significant talent in addition to a politically interesting ethnicity.
Her work deals quite explicitly with her heritage - her previous works, a short story collection called In Cuba I was a German Shepherd and her first novel, Loving Che, demonstrate a sophisticated awareness both of the historical past and her private one. Her newest book, Adios, Happy Homeland!, displays this same sophistication and awareness, although they are put to a different literary use. The book purports to be a collection of short stories, poems, fragmentary texts (including emails between the book's editor and its poet contributors and an astrological chart) all created by a group of wholly fictitious Cuban writers and all dealing, some in subtle and some in very literal ways, with flight and escape. These are collected and published under the auspices of the equally fictitious Herberto Quain (readers of Borges will recognise this name at once), an Irish emigrant turned librarian in pre-revolution Havana who has never since left his adopted nation.
While this may sound like yet another example of the leaden methodological obsessions that characterise so much of contemporary writing in English - David Mitchell and Tom McCarthy, Jonathan Safran Foer and Benjamin Hale - Menéndez's book is far closer in spirit and substance to Roberto Bolaño's magnificent Nazi Literature in the Americas.
Adios, Happy Homeland! is as bold in its execution as in its conception. Menéndez tries, to dazzling effect, to endow each of her notional writers with a distinct voice, a separate diction, a discrete vision of the world. From the oblique and unsettling first tale in the collection, Celestino d'Alba's You Are the Heir Of All My Terrors to a deeply satirical take on anti-Castro political organisations in Miami entitled The Boy Who Was Rescued by a Fish, narrated by the hilariously inept embezzler Teresa de la Landre; from the Glossary of Caribbean Winds of Vietor Fuka, which is more or less exactly what its title describes, to the sharply observed psychological drama of Jane Smith's Three Betrayals, Menéndez's novel contains, so to speak, multitudes.
It is rare enough for an American writer to muster the energy to construct such an intricate work; it is unthinkably rarer for such formal intricacies to serve some aesthetic or philosophical purpose beyond themselves. But this is precisely the case with Adios, Happy Homeland!. Menéndez's fictions are never content merely to display their finely wrought strangeness. Almost every text "collected" here would, considered on its own, outshine in comparison the majority of American short fiction (there are a few false notes, however); taken together, the effect is vertiginously powerful. Images of escape, of flights and journeys both physical and metaphysical, brighten and darken all the stories here.
The aforementioned You Are the Heir of All My Terrors takes place in a nightmarishly banal railway station, which we shall, it is implied, revisit in the book's final story, The Shunting Trains Trace Iron Labyrinths; Menéndez presents, as a delicate counterweight to the Glossary of Caribbean Winds, the haunting, surreal In Defense of Flying, by a woman named Carla Glades who, despite the puritanical fears of her parents and friends, continues to fly unaided by any machinery: "Of all the arguments against regular flying that I have to endure, the one that really makes me angry is the appeal to moderation. People ask, Must you fly everyday? My own mother used to scold me, warning me about a need for balance and suggesting I might be addicted."
And the corrupt and ridiculous women of The Boy Who Was Rescued by a Fish find a strange vindication in The Boy's Triumphant Return, a terrifyingly accurate piece of notional agitprop dealing with the titular boy (strongly implied to be Elian Gonzalez) and his return to the shores of his well-policed homeland:
It is necessary to continue, without losing one moment, without giving space to fatigue, until we eliminate the causes that gave rise to this tragedy ... that is the only thing that will succeed in devastating the criminal migratory policies that have been deliberately constructed to destabilise and undermine Cuban society, cynically calculated to provoke deaths and suffering, shamelessly manipulating the tragedies occasioned by this law.
And so, by means natural and supernatural, through ambiguities, recursions, and divagations, Menéndez illuminates the uncertain path of the culturally-amphibious writer, and by the same token the internal difficulties of literature itself. In less gifted hands - in the hands, sad to say, of most other American writers - Adios, Happy Homeland! would have amounted to little more than a polemical, strained allegory.
Menéndez scrupulously avoids any such overt political preaching, and (perhaps more importantly) allows the metaphorical overtones of her subject to remain just those: overtones. The Boy's Triumphant Return, for example, uses the frightful and anonymous language of the totalitarian state throughout, a language bereft of any historical context (other than that context supplied, as is inevitable, by the reader). In so doing the story elevates the forced repatriation of this nameless boy to a far higher plane than journalistic realism would.
The arrivals and departures of trains in the book's initial and final stories carry with them a vast array of resonances, from iconic scenes of European fascism to the more recent, and less reified, violent autocracies of the right and left in Central and South America, but Menéndez makes none of these explicit.
Unconstrained by specified historical concerns, then, the opening and closing of this remarkable book extend far beyond themselves, and into the realm of pure literary possibility. Menéndez ends her books, as noted above, on a train, as the last of her fictional narrators, with whom she happens to share a name, reflects on the circularity of flight and the instability of identity: "We were only passing through a wilderness of mirrors, startling ourselves on the way back to the beginning."
The last pages of the book, after this lyrical statement, are given over to a pseudo-index purporting to list the names and brief biographies of the book's contributors. That contrast - between the lyrically personal and the pseudofactual - illuminates precisely the source of the book's power, an effortless, balletic braiding of the subjective and the objective. Menéndez's "wilderness of mirrors" might refer to history or to art itself, but we should be grateful that she never punctures this final mystery.
Sam Munson is a regular contributor to The Review.
Updated: September 30, 2011 04:00 AM