The wretched of the earth
Title: San Juan Noir (c) 2016
Editor: Mayra Santos-Febres
Publisher: Akashic Book, Brooklyn, New York
Pungent darkness spreads across the barrios (towns) of Puerto Rico. Comfort has long given way to despair; pride has succumbed to prejudice; and tolerance has surrendered to murderous rage. There is an infernal abyss in the hearts of men, palpable and frightening. The title, San Juan Noir sets the tone for a hellish ride but the experience is far more foreboding. This narrative begs for answers. It raises sociological, political, and ontological questions. Assailants, killers of men roam like hyenas poised to pounce on their prey. And victims aren't your naive, sympathetic figures. The script is far different here.
To what do we attribute this base, primal reflex? Maybe we are carved from our spineless, twisted upbringing. Violence is our abode. We crack emotionally, psychologically-weighed down by the blight of fatherless homes, and sexuality that screams for normalcy.
And if we are not raging and are still blessed with some modicum of humanity, we are terribly flawed, a sore thumb in a rotting body. Yes, in Barrio Obrero's Infamy of Chin Fernandez, we root for the protagonist - kind of - only because he is pained by animal cruelty. But here we discover that he is a snowdropper, a man obsessed with women's underwear. He is tormented by his own irrelevance, his invisibility. "I can't handle this kind of stress anymore; lots of 40-year-old men kick the bucket for less." Fernandez bemoans.
His fetish ultimately destroys him. In the face of irrefutable evidence, he capitulates - pitiful - an embarrassment. In his self-inflection we can only turn away.
This incorrigible rush of sexual madness rears its head - again - in Anna Maria Fuster Lavin's Two Deaths for Angela. With sexual embers burning, Angela finds release in a virtual encounter with her psychic double. It is a plot of dizzying, enigmatic intensity. We know the outcome. Assailants serve as her liberators. As blood oozes, she reflects, as if recording her prolonged agony. Trouble is - Angela has long been dead.
And in Match Making by Mayra Santos-Febres, Koala, a one-time mercenary-soldier-turned-hitman, sees his brawn and intimidating masculinity evaporate at the sight of an alluring woman, his intended victim. "He would never be able to shoot this woman in the head. He'd rather kiss her," we learn. He is captured and disarmed. "The bodyguards held him by his hands and feet. Koala put up no resistance. He closed his eyes and imagined himself caressing that woman's long hair, sinking his massive, clumsy hands in to that flesh..."
Interestingly, in the face of imminent death, Koala's sexual fantasies run wild, and in the throes of mental orgasm, his last prayerful outburst inoculates him from the jarring pangs of death. For sure, tale after tale reeks with the volcanic power of sexuality to mend or devour us.
We manage empathy for the lead character in Janette Becerra's Death on the Scaffold. But that also wanes. He is reclusive, edgy, and opinionated. He narrates his encounter with evil personified in the form of a man, his neighbour. His mind races ... tripping over itself. He is convinced that the lad working on the scaffold outside his building unintentionally stumbled on something and had to be silenced, tossed from the platform. So he believes. It is an accident to everyone except the protagonist. We feel for the victim but we don't lose much sleep. Maybe he had it coming. We recall that "instead of focusing on what he was doing, he entertained himself by looking into [the] empty living room. He smiled through clenched teeth ... and peered into every corner his eyes could reach." Earlier, "he even made a visor of his hands and stuck his face against the glass - searching. This time he let himself grin, of course, because he thought he was alone. He made some gesture of sarcasm or criticism."
Indeed, we become numb, insensitive to the multi-tiered horrors stacked before us. Still, there is a searing humanity that runs through Manolo Nunez Negron's Fish Food, and we are moved. The characters' trajectory from boys to men invites us to reflect on our own past. In truth, the pendulum could sway in many directions. Fish Food is a bewitching narrative that echoes the inscrutable and immutable ways of Providence. We are harangued by class and ethnicity. It never ends. And never will. And children mired by broken homes and a harsh environment often times play out what is expected of them. This is the fate of Repollo whose father was "killed in a cockfight, two stabs." His friend also lost his father but this is where the comparison ends. Repollo's kind are compared to cats who "bite the hands that feed them".
Throughout this pulsating chronicle, the turbulent spirits of Repollo's past never relinquish control. Yes, "[t]here are events that remains recorded under the skin, stuck to the bones, and nothing can be done to erase them. At the smallest provocation, the slightest gesture, it's like a puppet master pulling these events out of a trunk and they come back from the emptiness ...".
Repollo cannot stay grounded and is eventually seduced by drugs. It is an overpowering addiction that leads to serious offences that are sometimes settled in extrajudicial fashion. The writing is on the wall.
Repollo's fate is sealed. And his friend can only ponder if he was killed before dismemberment. He is uncertain, pained because he well knows that "hired thugs tend to be sadistic, and they have their methods".
A Killer among Us", Dog Killer, Saint Michael's Sword, Death of Angel of Santurce, and just about every tale spews decadence.
San Juan Noir is a brilliantly polished literary gem that showcases life on the fringes of society. Every tale glows in its own darkness, piercingly tugging at the remnants of human decency. We must do better, it screams. Yes, we must.
Ratings: Highly recommended
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