Smoke and Mirrors
Adios, Happy Homeland!
(Grove Press/Black Cat, 2011)
A period of confusion might follow after opening Ana Menéndez’s new book, Adios, Happy Homeland! The contents page lists what appear to be chapter titles. Yet the prologue is written by a Cubophile Irishman, Herberto Quain, and the first chapter is attributed to an author named Celestino D’Alba. Is this an anthology? With Ana Menéndez as the editor? Well, if so, then it should very well say so on the cover, which it does not. Confusing. In the back of the book, there are several pages of contributor bios. It is an anthology. But wait. In the contributor section, Ana Menéndez has a bio that reads: “Ana Menéndez is the pseudonym of an imaginary writer and translator, invented, if not to lend coherence to this collection, at least to offer it the pretense of contemporary relevance.” Another bio reads: “Nitza Pol-Villa was not a Communist.” And perhaps the best: “Joseph Martin, a promising poet in his 20s, turned to translation in his 30s, declaring that all good poems had already been written.”
They’re all fake names. The 26 separate but interrelated pieces that make up Adios, Happy Homeland! are all written by Menéndez, but attributed to over a dozen writers of her imagination. It is a novel, written in stories, poems, and letters. The Borgesian influence of Menéndez’s approach to writing this book is unmistakable, particularly because one of the epigrams is from Borges, and two of the chapters have the word “labyrinth” in their title, not to mention that Herbert Quain is a character in a Borges story. Menéndez attempts (sometimes successfully, other times not) to write with a rainbow of voices, relating stories revolving around Cuba. Many are metaphors; a story about flying is clearly a symbol for the freedom of writing. Some stories express the proclivity towards expecting the worst in every situation. Another mocks the fad of positive thinking spread by the book The Secret (translated as “The Undisclosed”). Some chapters are literary experiments, others are childish games. Almost all celebrate the island’s “propensity for tall tales.”
Translation, and mistranslation—how translation transforms stories—are Menéndez’s obsessions. One chapter of the book, “Un Cuento Extrano,” is written solely in Spanish, but it is about two Americans named Phillip and Michael. The only English words in the story are solitary curse words, and the sporadic full phrase, such as “Mother of God!” It is a clever reversal of how English readers see a translation of a Spanish story. Another chapter is called “Selected Translations according to Google,” the subject of which is self-explanatory.
Menéndez’s other Cuban theme is escape. In the last chapter, “The Shunting Trains Trace Iron Labyrinths,” a character named Gertrude states: “All the stories are the same: We’re always leaving.” In this chapter, Menéndez shows her affection for Kafka, as well as her ability to move beyond obvious metaphor and mere clever analogy into the existential surreal. Two characters are on a train:
After a time, I asked Gertrude the question I feared most: “When will we be arriving?” Gertrude shrugged. “It’s up to the conductor.” “Who is the conductor?” “No one knows,” she replied. Before she fell asleep she said, “Some of us have been traveling for years and we still don’t know.”
The uncertainty of life in a modern land ruled by irrational whims and blind devotion to dead ideals is ultimately the thread that weaves all the various “writers” and chapters of Adios, Happy Homeland! together. Everyone wants to leave Cuba for the fabled and heavenly city of Miami, but no one knows exactly why. One story addresses the news frenzy of the boy who made it to the U.S. on a boat, only to be returned to his father in Cuba, while another accounts the several instances of bodies dropping out of airplane wheel-holds. Many characters obsess over hot air balloons. Those who make it out of Cuba end up divorced or dying. In other words, there is no way out:
We shouted into the absolute silence of that watery landscape and heard only our own voices repeated…The others were an illusion. We were only passing through a wilderness of mirrors, startling ourselves on the way back to the beginning.
When Menéndez is at her peak, she’s writing literature, not experimenting with it.
RANDY ROSENTHAL is a frequent contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.