Posts Tagged ‘Rita Indiana’

Made in Saturn

September 14, 2020

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.


December 18, 2018

Every so often you encounter a novel which is quite unlike anything you have read before. Rita Indiana’s Tentacle is one such text – the final book in And Other Stories year of publishing women – as slippery and other-worldly as its title suggests. It is first of all some kind of science fiction, presenting a near-future as plausible as it is depressing. Mixed in with this we have a strand of supernatural, and a series of lives linked across time which could belong to either genre. It could fairly be described as a ‘mash-up’ if that did not suggest a certain carelessness. Instead what stands out is its surging imaginative energy.

The world Indiana presents to us is one ravaged by environmental disasters and deeply divided into rich and poor. The first of its two central characters, who appear in alternate chapters, Acilde, is a servant in a house which automatically kills anyone who approaches the entrance if they are affected by a virus which has led to half the island being quarantined:

“Recognizing the virus on the black man, the security mechanism in the tower releases a lethal gas and simultaneously informs the neighbours, who will now avoid the building’s entrance until the automatic collectors patrolling the streets and avenues pick up the body and disintegrate it.”

Acilde herself only found her present position sucking off men for money, acting as the boy she wants to be: “Her rounds up at El Mirador had barely paid for food and data, without which she couldn’t live.” It was there she met Eric, the “right-hand man” of the owner of the house she now works in, Esther. He not only offered her the job, but the chance to train as a chef, the career she hopes will allow her to save enough to change sex, a transformation which can now occur using “Rainbow Brite, an injection making the rounds in alternative science circles that promised a complete sex change without surgery.” In the meantime, Acilde, and her friend Morla, have already come up with a quicker way of achieving her goal – by stealing a valuable sea anemone which Esther has in her possession (most marine life having been destroyed).

“Their plan was very simple. When the old lady left on a trip, Morla would find a way to get round the building’s security, disconnect the cameras, take the anemone away in a special container, and leave Acilde tied, gagged, and free of any blame.”

Unfortunately Morla gets restless and kills Esther, Acilde proceeding to “break a Lladro dolphin…on his head” before taking the anemone for herself. Eric helps her transition, explain her new identity will fulfil a prophesy – he is the Chosen One:

“We gave you the body you wanted and now you’ve given us the body we needed.”

Meanwhile (in chapter two) washed-up artist Argenis is working in a call centre selling tarot readings when he is given an opportunity to be one of a number of artists working towards a gallery opening in a beachside property owned by Linda Goldman. The main attraction for Argenis is Linda: “the most beautiful thing Argenis had seen in his life.” Argenis is stung by an anemone while snorkelling and afterwards develops a dream life in the island’s past:

“Several bearded white men with stained clothes approach him in a canoe, pulling him out of the water and taking him to shore. They’re carrying knives an antique pistols on their belts and wearing sandals made from braided leather.”

Indiana is clearly not short of plot but, as madcap as it may sound in summary, both stories have a strong internal logic. Acilde, like Argenis, exists in other points in time, but unlike him, he is able to take advantage of it, allowing himself to be imprisoned for Esther’s murder to utilise his other lives, while Argenis is “trying to close the door” on his. These different lives echo the characters attempts to recreate themselves: Acilde as a man; Argenis as an artist.

Tentacle seems very ‘now’ – the epitome of ‘novel’. Its politics are those of gender and environment. It even comments wryly on the need for art to change as Argenis is nicknamed ‘Goya’ by his fellow art students not as a compliment but because he is stuck in the past:

“Look around, damn it, do you think a bunch of little angels is what’s needed here??”

But it would be foolish to think this means it is gimmicky or arch. Tentacle is one of the most exciting novels I’ve read this year, and translator Achy Obejas is to be congratulated for bringing it into English still fresh and pulsing with life.