Sunday, May 25, 2008
Ever since it was revived in 1998, the Premio Alfaguara has become one of the more visible Spanish-language literary awards. Sponsored by the publisher Alfaguara, who has agreed to publish the winner and to pay $175,000 as prize money, the Premio Alfaguara is chosen by a panel of five judges (rotating, with some of the more famous Spanish-language novelists, such as Carlos Fuentes, serving as judges) from submitted manuscripts that do not contain the author's real name or the true title of the story.
I have read every single one of the revived Premio Alfaguara winners and without exception, I have found each to contain memorable scenes, outstanding prose, deft characterizations, and in a few cases (especially with Xavier Velasco's 2003 novel, Diablo Guardián) traces of the fantastic/supernatural. Yet none of them "feel" like the others. From a half-crazed Cuban ex-soldier who sees a tiger stalking him (Eliseo Alberto's 1998 co-winner, Caracol Beach) to an analogue for the Odyssey (Manuel Vicent's 1999 winner, Son de Mar) to Velasco's demonic guardian angel to last year's winner, Luis Leante's tragic love story set in the Sahara of the last days of Spain's control of the Western Sahara, Mire si yo te querré, each of these stories has its own unique approach towards telling a great story.
The same holds true for this year's winner, Antonio Orlando Rodríguez's Chiquita. Based on an actual person, the diminutive Cuban Espiridiona Cenda, Rodríguez has written a faux biography whose subject, the 26 inch-tall Cenda (known best by her stage name of Chiquita), and her work as a freak show feature attraction in the US during the late 19th and early 20th centuries serve as a fitting contrast for the tumultuous time in both Chiquita's native Cuba and the United States. Through her fake biography, we learn not just about she co-existed with her co-stars, but also about how her Cuban ancestry was played up during the buildup to the Spanish-American War of 1898. We see the Cuba that José Martí immortalized in his poetry and his political tracts written in exile in New York. We get a picture of the US that contains many conflicting and odd angles, from how the denizens of each city on these traveling tours would react to Chiquita and her co-stars, to how the US itself was changing from a rural to an industrial economy during the last years of the 19th century.
Rodríguez is never heavy-handed with these depictions. They exist on the periphery, with the grotesque serving as the focal lens for turning a carnivalesque warped mirror on the crowds gathered together to view the freaks. The prose is direct and to the point, but not at the expense of constructing vivid images of what is transpiring. Chiquita herself feels as though this were indeed her memoirs and not Rodríguez's fictionalization of events from her past. As a historical novel, Chiquita exists on so personal of a level as to make the historical elements just part of the attraction. Yet another deserving winner for the Premio Alfaguara. Highly recommended for those who can read Spanish, as I am uncertain when or even if this will ever be translated into English.
Publication Date: May 9, 2008 (Latin America, Spain, US), tradeback (Spanish).