Made in Saturn

Rita Indiana’s Tentacle was one of my favourite books of 2018, a science fiction ghost story that took in environmental catastrophe, art criticism, and a drug which could change your gender. Made in Saturn, translated this time by Sydney Hutchison, is a much calmer affair – literally the come down after the drug-fuelled nightmare, as artist Argenis Luna attempts to recover from heroin addiction at the insistence of his politician father. As the novel opens, he finds himself in Cuba, where his father has used connections from his time as a revolutionary to send him into the care of Dr Bengoa, who immediately administers a “synthetic morphine used to treat addiction”:

“Argenis let him do his job like a girl in love while taxi drivers in Cadillacs from a bygone era came and went, full of nostalgia tourists.”

The first half of the novel tells of Argenis’ time in Cuba. Everything seems to be going well as he happily doubles the dose of heroin substitute Temgsic which Bengoa has given him, and begins sleeping with Susanna, the woman who has been sent to clean the apartment where he is staying. They imagine a happy future based on the money his father is sending Bengoa to look after him, however when he asks Bengoa for this he discovers there has been no money for a month. He has completely misread the situation in a culture clash which reflect the novel’s wider themes, between the revolutionary ideology of his parents’ generation and his own. Beethoven’s sympathy no. 6, which Argenis had previously spotted on the dusty record player does not sooth Bengoa’s evenings as he thought, but is a relic of when Castro gave Bengoa the house in 1962:

“It’s the sound of greed… It reminds me that people like you exist, people who believe they deserve it all.”

Bengoa gives Argenis one more month in the apartment, but now he must begin selling his possessions in order to pay for the Temgesic. Even this unsustainable situation only last until he discovers Bengoa having sex with Susanna. His experience in Cuba begins to mirror his life back home:

“After years of conscientiously descending the rungs of the food chain, he’d finally reached the bottom.”

The second half of the novel recounts Argenis’ return to the Dominican Republic. He is still far from committed to staying clean but his old dealer has been threatened by his father and refuses to sell him anything. Increasingly, Argenis seems to be searching for a form of redemption as he visits various members of his family: his aunt, his brother, his mother. Again the focus is on the different experiences of the generations:

“Those children, marked by their parents’ ideological passion, who were they now?”

All of the previous generation are marked in some way by the revolutionary politics of the sixties and the dictatorship of Balaguer. Argenis’ aunt Niurka is literally scarred even though, as she says, “I didn’t want to overthrow any government. What I wanted was to go out dancing.” His mother, too, remembers those times, even though “she had abandoned her Castroist dreams long ago.” But it is his father, now an important politician, who casts the longest shadow. It is here, rather than in science fiction, we find the origin of the novel’s title, in the myth of Saturn eating his children, and the Goya painting it inspired. (It’s for this reason he calls Bengoa “the mouth his father had used to chew him up.”)

Argenis’ relationship with his father is complicated by the fact that he feels his brother was always the favourite – “he knew how to say the things that made their father happy” – and perhaps also by an apparent hypocrisy in his embrace of conventional politics:

“In a final sacrifice for their country, their parents had signed a deal with the murderer of their comrades.”

Behind this, however, lies an inadequacy which extends to Argenis’ failure as an artist:

“…he was terrified of doing something considered outdated. He was afraid of rejection, of being made fun of, criticized.”

Argenis must somehow make peace with his father and his legacy if he is finally to fulfil his own potential.

Made in Saturn lacks the literary fireworks of Tentacle but is instead a slow burner. Argenis’ self-destructive impulses and the duck out of water setting make for an absorbing opening, but his return home seems, at first, a little disordered as he moves from relative to relative. Yet ultimately it is well worth the reader’s patience as Indiana builds towards a moving conclusion, and, while the gap between generations is in some ways peculiarly Latin American, it is in others one that we all face.

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6 Responses to “Made in Saturn”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Good piece. I agree it lacks the fireworks of Tentacle, but it’s a slow burner. I liked how on its own terms Tentacle arguably is a drug-hallucination that never happened. Or it did. It’s up to the reader, but this does stand alone.

    I thought the misunderstandings and generational clashes were captured well, and the milieus too. I don’t think it’ll be my book of the year as Tentacle was but it may well still make my end of year list.

    Oh, and interestingly Rita Indiana just released an album! She’s a musician as well as writer it turns out.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I think we’re in agreement – Tentacle was something startlingly different and it really stood out for me. This doesn’t have quite the same impact, but the generational difference is very well done.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Tentacle is on my list of ‘possibles’ for the future, largely as as consequence of your review and other similarly enthusiastic raves. Nevertheless, the slow-burn nature of this one sounds very appealing. Indiana seems like a writer (and musician) to watch! Her work also seems very visual / filmic in style. I wonder if she has any aspirations in that direction…

    • 1streading Says:

      An interesting thought – visuals are clearly important given the role art plays in her work. Although Tentacle is the more original of the two, it may be that you would prefer this.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It works as a stand alone too Jacqui. There’s actually some minor changes in character – in Tentacle it’s very clear that Argenis is gay and deeply in aggressively homophobic denial of the fact. In this however there’s no real hint of that.

  4. BOOK REVIEW: Made in Saturn by Rita Indiana – Sometimes Leelynn Reads Says:

    […] 1streading’s Blog […]

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