The novels of Mayra Santos Febres suggest a Caribbean aesthetic. Sirena Selena vestida de pena (Sirena Selena in English) tells us of the negotiation between conventional and non-binary genders; Cualquier miércoles soy tuya (Any Wednesday, I’m Yours) deals with disrupted emotions; Nuestra Señora de la noche (Our Lady of the Night) addresses race from a perspective of marginality; Fe en disfraz (“Faith in Disguise”) does the same from the academy; and Yo misma fui mi ruta (I Was My Own Route) details the avatars of our national poet of Puerto Rico, Julia de Burgos. In her latest offering, La amante de Gardel (“Gardel’s Lover”), the negotiation takes place from the perspective of the medical establishment, on one hand, and on the other from the knowledge of Mano Santa, herbalist and healer, the grandmother of the surgeon Micaela Thorné, who negotiates herself with those who hold power.
The bardic figure of Carlos Gardel (1890-1935) gives structure to the narrative through the anxious emotion of his interracial relationship with Micaela, which includes all the problems that such relationships entailed in the Puerto Rico of the 1930s. When Gardel tours the island, he sings in the Teatro Paramount in San Juan and in other towns. His story comes into contact with Micaela’s as he tells her about his life, and she simultaneously narrates both her own experiences and those of the Franco-Argentine singer, actor, and composer. The famous artist’s career is explained in the light of Micaela’s words, through the prism of love, and from the humble origins of Carlos Gardel in the barrio of El Abasto in Buenos Aires. Nobody knows him like she does. Their meeting is like a tango because, as Gardel says, “tango is black.” The novel is a rewriting of the tango songs “El día que me quieras,” “Sus ojos se cerraron,” or “Volver” with a Caribbean rhythm. This rhythm ignites the prose, which swells into erotic literature. Gardel’s lover (Micaela) is a one-man woman, and the erotic encounter between El Zorzal (Gardel) and Micaela is narrated in self-sufficient poems of singular beauty, like the one that describes the meeting of their bodies with the cadence of a tango: “We dance on time and not on sand; or perhaps on a clock made of sand, on a sandy song, what do I know? His slow, subtle steps slide into the gaps between mine. Then Gardel did a turn that made me lose my balance, and he took the chance to lean over me. I thought he was going to kiss me, but he didn’t: he continued with his face touching mine, looking over my shoulder while he leaned against me.”
The most surprising part of this offering from Santos Febres is the simplicity of her words, the explanation as clear and precise as a medical treatise, when she describes the effects of a medicinal plant that will counter Gardel’s syphilis, which will also afflict his lover Micaela Thorné at the end of her life. The contamination of one blood with another, the exchange of unhealthy bodily fluids, is a metaphor for how society perceives interracial relationships, and how Gardel’s coming betrayal is a product of the island’s social conventions. But, as Micaela says toward the end of the novel, in her moment of professional triumph: “I became the only black woman who didn’t clean floors, who didn’t serve food, who walked into the hospital through the main entrance. The only black woman who wasn’t there only so they could control her ability to give birth to one child after another, a prisoner to the bestiality of the flesh.”
The essential resentment that marks Micaela’s character can be explained as a reaction to the spaces that have been denied to mulato and black people over the course of Puerto Rico’s chequered history—a resentment shared in counterpoint with the story of Ricardo, a black man and one of the key musicians in Gardel’s band. The wisdom of the grandmother Mano Santa and of her granddaughter, the future doctor Micaela Thorné, is manifested in the qualities of a plant capable of alleviating and possibly even curing syphilis. In a moment of absolute vengeance, Micaela chooses not to administer a pure dose of the plant’s extract to Gardel, just as they bid each other farewell, when he tells her, “Ciao, negra, look after yourself.” Before this, the narrator clarifies, “I was sure that, if he survived the dose, his throat would never grow inflamed again.” But the greatest treachery, which embitters Micaela’s life, takes place when she reveals the secret of how to distill the plant’s essence to another doctor, Martha Roberts, in the Escuela de Medicina Tropical (“School of Tropical Medicine”). This secret is the key to her wisdom, and thanks to it she will receive a coveted grant allowing her to become a medical doctor in the North. It is also a betrayal of Mano Santa, her grandmother, the herbalist and healer, who jealously guarded the secret. When she betrays her people she betrays herself, but she manages to access the spaces of power occupied by whites. It’s a tit-for-tat situation for the character who, at the end of the story, explains her position as a complete woman through a series of rhetorical questions: “Maybe I’m a woman now that I’m dying alone in this ranch in La Doradilla? What does it mean to be a woman these days: a game with death, an echo that rings from a distance? After everything I’ve been through, is it possible to go back? Now that we’re liberated from the body, is solitude the name of our journey?”
This book marks Mayra Santos Febres’s fifteenth year writing novels, since Sirena Selena initiated her career as an international novelist with its publication by Editorial Mondadori in Barcelona in the year 2000. The novel was her first international success. With it, she propelled the internationalization of Puerto Rican literature in the twenty-first century—a process that had already begun in the twentieth century with figures like Luis Rafael Sánchez, Rosario Ferré, Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá, and Mayra Montero, and even more recently when Eduardo Lalo won the Premio Rómulo Gallegos in 2013.
La amante de Gardel is a perfect novel. Discourses of race, diaspora, and gender intersect in it like in no other narrative work by Mayra Santos Febres. Here, the writer meets her words head-on and, finally, writes the novel that she has been rehearsing for in all her previous works, giving us a complete and well-rounded product. The career of Carlos Gardel and his time in Puerto Rico mark the modernization of this Caribbean island as an experimental space for performances that would later spread throughout Latin America. Gardel’s encounter with the Boricua diaspora in New York internationalized his career, and the singer realized that he could no longer continue singing for Madrid, Paris, or New York: he had to sing for all of our America.