Saturday, July 9, 2011

"Conquistadora" by Esmeralda Santiago

Esmeralda Santiago's "Conquistadora" is many stories in one.

It is the story of the headstrong young Spanish girl, Ana, struggling to make it in the new world. It is the political story of a Puerto Rico running on slavery, though still in colonial shackles. It is the story of a sugar plantation that destroys a pair of families seduced by the promise of tropically tinged wealth.

The narrative covers 20 some odd years at the plantation, "Los Gemelos," with occasional visits to San Juan for an update on the temporal situation, in Puerto Rico and beyond, while recounting the progress of sundry relatives and lovers residing there.

The reader is treated to a systematic dissection of a sugar plantation's workings. Ample detail regarding slave life, and existence in Africa prior, is rendered. A thread covering the rebellious maneuvers of intellectuals with nationalist yearnings in the capital is also pulled through the fabric of "Conquistadora."

Overlaying its alternately brutal and luscious landscape is Ana's quest to make a go of the farm, which had defeated an illustrious ancestor. The plantation devours most everyone and everything around, save for Severo, a hybrid foreman and landowner who has much in common with Ana, save for social class, which favors her.

This reviewer is not familiar with Ms. Santiago's earlier works, which have achieved acclaim and significant circulation. And it is not easy to say that something with so much work put into it doesn't quite come out right.

In her efforts to provide a panoramic picture of the island and capture a historic moment, the author has peopled her landscape many characters fighting for the space to blossom.

Santiago's portraits of the slaves are most compelling, but they are not very well woven into the overall text. There are many slaves at "Los Gemelos" and it is not easy to keep track of them given their fragmented insertions into the narrative.

Ana is the primary focus, but for all the time spent on her, compared to the others, it seems she never truly wins anyone over, either in the story(characters), or outside of it (the reader).

She and Severo appear rather calculating people who will do anything, and use anyone, to keep their precious farm functioning.

In the midst of a perilous moment in their joint enterprise, Severo comforts his lover and partner by noting,

"Don't forget. Bad weeds don't die."

To which she responds, "If bad weeds don't die. We'll both live forever."

Yes, Santiago may be making a point about what it took to be a "conquistadora," in those rough and tumble days of early Puerto Rico. But authenticity and empathy don't always come in the same package.

Perhaps too much was tried here. Sometimes a novel with epic sweep can dwarf its own characters.

A story of a love gone awry over property in a strange land was enough to win with, but the author strains to fit all of Puerto Rico into the narrative of some rather starcrossed people.

Santiago resorts to description that often reads like a "National Geographic" article ("Horses, mules, pigs, goats milk cows, bulls, chickens ducks, guinea fowls, and doves to be tended...") and merely adds to the surfeit of information and slows the story's progress.

Her sentences and paragraphs often break down into listings of items, people, occurrences or actions that give the novel an unfinished feel.

Like this one from the very same page 123: "Slaves clean and improved the building where the cane was processed, repaired machinery, maintained the tracks from the canebrakes to the 'batey,' raised berm between fields, build and clear ditches. They staked new fences and mended deteriorated ones, dug trenches for drainage, built canals for irrigation."

Otherwise known as farm work.

But most of all, the conquistadora herself is a tough sell. Raised under the harsh yoke of Spanish Catholicism, she engages a lesbian lover, marries a man with a twin brother, beds down with each, and then barters an only son away, without ever losing her mind.

It's is dark stuff and Ana, young and sheltered as her upbringing has been, remains remarkably unaffected for someone steeped in the gothic influences of Seville.

In the end, it seems as if Santiago draped a new world archetype -- a pre-feminist heroine -- over an old world silhouette. It is tough purchase, the idea that this character's passion for books and a rebellious nature could so effectively inform a provincial girl in the ways of modern independence.