There is a character in this novel called Melecio, a precociously multi-talented child from a penniless village who can spontaneously compose poetry and single-handedly invents Art Deco architecture when he is just 16. The narrator turns out to be a similarly gifted individual whose literary ability is recognised from an early age. You may read something into the fact that the author is the Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta, whose extraordinary ballet skill was recognised globally when he was still in his teens. He is now an actor and choreographer whose autobiography, No Way Home, was released to great acclaim in 2007.
A spellbinding and occasionally confusing mixture of historical novel and magic realism, his first novel sketches the fallings in love and fallings out of four generations of Cubans, against a 150-year satirical history of that country. Acosta does for prose what he has done for the ballet, bringing to it a muscular sexiness and a rural saltiness that is translated with evident relish by the award-winning Frank Wynne. He also brings a mild obsession with genitals. (“I don’t know if people said ‘prick’ back then,” says the narrator in one aside, “but never mind.”)
The narrator is Oscar, the great-grandson of slaves and grandson of the founders of a village called Pata de Puerco (Pig’s Foot). A series of unfortunate couplings and grisly deaths creates a twisted family tree that maybe explains how he only realises himself on page 282 that “my grandparents were in fact my uncle and aunt, though really they were my parents”. The story begins and ends with Oscar making his way back to Pata de Puerco to try to figure out who he is. Because, as his grandfather/uncle/father asks him on the day he dies: “How can anyone who does not know their history truly know who they are?”
Oscar is an irascible and inconsistent narrator, who tells us that his storytelling has to do with some sort of interrogation by a sinister Commissioner Clemente and his army of “white coats”. The rude jokes and the outlandish characters in Part One are magnificent, and I loved folkish wisdom such as: “… the best time to plant a tree is always twenty years ago. If, for some reason, you did not plant it then, the next best time to plant a tree is now.” The piling on of weirdness in Part Two is unsettling, as the final twist veers dangerously close to turning out to be all a dream. But then, as a magic-realism phobic, I would say that. Despite my fears, this multi-talented individual turns out to be infuriatingly good at writing fiction, too.