In 1982, the 25-year old Frank Goldman had just returned to the States from working as a journalist in Central America, an experience which furnished much of the research for his first, highly successful, novel The Long Night of White Chickens (1994). Then, he came across a news cutting about a crew of Nicaraguan sailors, marooned for eight months in Brooklyn harbour aboard a ship that never sailed. Searching for a way to make this into fiction, he tried turning himself, as author-narrator, into Chandler, then Conrad - then Melville and Hardy, then also Robinson Crusoe and Ulysses. Finally, he decided to let his characters take over. What emerges is a Greek chorus in which each tale is told by an individual sailor, each making his own journey, from sea to land, to the adult life each man shapes and defines.
Although Goldman went to school in New York, his father's home city, his return visits never last longer than a few months. Latin America, especially his mother's native Guatemala, beckons irresistibly. On that particular visit, however, in 1982, Hoboken harbour "looked like a novel waiting to happen". The story of the ship that earned its transnational owners more by being motionless became, for Goldman, "the perfect political metaphor ... the paramount fable of agent and empire, of 20th-century rich/poor country economic relations".
Esteban, the 19-year-old hero of Goldman's new novel, is a former Sandinista combatant from Nicaragua. When, quite arbitrarily, Esteban discovers he can seize his chance with the rest of the illegal migrants on New York's city streets, he finds love, hope and a future in the process. In the words of the author: "When Esteban got off the ship, I felt as liberated as he did. I was so tremendously happy he found love, I didn't know he was going to do that".
Goldman was so determined the story should ring true in every last detail that he spent a month at sea, mostly in a ship's engine room, to get his facts on desk traps and circuit-breakers absolutely right. He is swift to state: "I don't do magical realism." Despite his journalistic roots and copious researches, he adds: "And it's not realism either." Instead he prefers to see his work as "somehow its own artificial reality, functioning according to its own rules. Just something I've made, really." This "making" plays with the constructs of the novel like a theatre director with the stage. "You know, you have this incredibly tragic death scene [at one point, an ordinary seaman dies a horrific and avoidable death] - these real people come out and take their bows - then it can rise again and take us off into another made-up world. It's a great release, finding that tragedy is just another made-up story."
Each character in Goldman's novel has not only his own story, but also his own voice. Just as on the streets of New York it is possible to hear almost any language but English, so the cast here gets to talk barrio by barrio. More importantly, nobody speaks any one language unaffected by any other. It invokes another reality, that of latino as spoken not just on the streets but in millions of homes, schools and workplaces in the States today.
And then there is the authorial voice, which modulates according to theme, by turns profound and tender, violent and funny, but consistent in its sonorous power. The seaman throwing up on a surfeit of stolen bilberries gazes out at "the night an immense sticky-windy blackness, hollow at the core, that's been rolled around in multi-coloured spangles of light." A Ship's Visitor studies the "rusted old freighter whose sole cargo is dead autumn leaves ... Be nice to bring one home to her, a leaf inside a slice of frozen puddle, hold it out to her in a gloved hand like some rare jewel, let her lick it, lay it on her brightly bare, arched belly, and let it melt until the tawny, wet leaf is there like the shadow of a small hand on her glistening skin..." And there is the Nicaraguan intimacy of Esteban's sharing a plastic bag of pitaya juice with his fellow- combatant Marta, "holding it to each other's mouths like a translucent udder and squeezing ... then holding hands wherever they went ... until he had to go away again, spattered by the abuse of her already missing him".
This sonority is visual in its rich associations. And it is also verbal in that, like Homer, it begs to be read aloud - or staged or filmed. It's a philosophical journey couched in the language of the barrio.
'The Ordinary Seaman' by Francisco Goldman is published by Faber at pounds 17.99Reuse content