Once upon a time the year 2027 sounded a lifetime away, but as we enter the end of the century’s second decade the future in which Rita Indiana sets her fourth novel is only two US presidential elections ahead, ie beyond the reach of Donald Trump. That’s about the extent of the good news in this distressing if imaginative rendering of what the Caribbean in general and the Dominican Republic in particular will be like over the next fifteen to twenty years: a place ridden with problems, many of them familiar, standing at a critical juncture as a series of pressing issues are brought to their logical (and highly explosive) conclusion.
Rita Indiana’s creation is very much in touch with the intrinsic conflicts of a drastically divided society in which racial prejudice and social boundaries compound each other, a country where “being white is a profession”, where the precious few live a life of extreme privilege, where widespread ignorance and institutionalised dishonesty breed vice, exacerbate poverty and perpetuate injustice. At the same time, life goes on in the Santo Domingo of the 2020s and the 2030s, with technology making supreme progress, so much so that the traditional boundaries of what is and isn’t possible – as well as what is and isn’t morally acceptable – are blurred beyond distinction.
Precisely this fluidity is what makes Tentacle stand out, working as a thread that cuts across all levels of this brief novella. Already in the opening sequence we are faced with an aberration that is treated as a totally commonplace situation when an illegal immigrant from Haiti, seemingly infected with some virus, is automatically exterminated by a security device at the doorstep of an uptown residence. After satisfying herself that the intruder has stopped moving, Acilde, the maid of the house and protagonist of Tentacle, returns to her daily chores, cleaning the windowpanes with Windex.
But if technology breeds “modern” attitudes towards life and death, gender identity is positively revolutionised by the pharmaceutical industry and the commercialisation of Rainbow Brite, an invasive product that abruptly triggers the internal transformation of female gender traits into male ones. The reality depicted in Tentacle is already one of fluid (and violent) sexual practices, in which the young Acilde, pretending to be a teenage boy, frequents the shadier parts of town, where rich old men go for clandestine action. She is particularly indignant one night after being raped by a doctor, but not so much that she wouldn’t accept a make-up gift from her abusive customer. That’s how Acilde gets her job as a maid to the santería guru of the country’s latest dictator; that too is how she gets her hands on the dose of Rainbow Brite that turns her into a man.
This world of unrestricted possibilities is hardly suitable for the firm edicts of monotheism, so it’s the eclectic laws of santería, with its Yoruba deities, black magic rituals and self-fulfilling prophecies, which govern the universe of Tentacle. This enables Indiana to engage in a dynamic exchange between the story’s present time, the remote past, set in the 1600s, and a more recent past, round about the turn of the new millennium. Acilde’s unique capacity to communicate with her multiple incarnations across these different moments makes her “the chosen one” and affords the reader an entertaining frame of reference as the author pairs the lives of a motley crew of seventeenth century castaways with the exploits of a pretentious group of twentieth century wannabe artists.
One of the major merits of Tentacle is the author’s capacity to turn her critical eye upon her own work. “It could travel back in time, dude, very Lovecraftian”, says one of the artists referring to the Yoruba deity Olokun, which is the subject of the forged manuscript that has landed him in jail but which is also at the centre of Indiana’s own novella. Another major accomplishment is the use of Dominican slang, which explodes with joy on the page – and English translator Achy Obejas has worked a minor miracle in keeping faithful to its spirit.
As the action moves forward simultaneously on parallel timeframes, the author opts to use intermittently both past and present phrasing in a challenging experiment that nevertheless remains largely coherent throughout the book, with one or two brief exceptions. Indeed, the pace of Tentacle is breathless from start to finish, in a way emulating the speedy beat of Indiana’s own merengue-techno creations with her band Los misterios. At times it feels as though the story could profit from slowing down its delivery, but then the pace is justified by the windy structure of the book, continuously jumping across characters and timeframes with enviable ease to create a riveting pattern.
But the underlying concern shoring up all these literary fireworks is the age-old dilemma between individual satisfaction and collective good. Having achieved her ambition in life, Acilde is confronted with her very own red-pill blue-pill moment – and while the stakes are higher in a world irreparably damaged by greed and negligence, this doesn’t render the choice any easier. Rita Indiana’s decision to make hr protagonist act the way it does is a measure of just how much faith she has in mankind, and each reader’s reaction to it will depend largely on their own worldview – but philosophical considerations are unlikely to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of this energetic and at times unabashedly humorous book.
Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday January 19, 2019