La troupe Samsonite. Francisco Font Acevedo. San Juan, Puerto Rico: Folium. 2016. 195 pages.
Francisco Font Acevedo (1970) of Puerto Rico is undoubtedly one of the most interesting prose writers of recent years on the island and, I would dare to say, in all of Latin America. His first two books, Caleidoscopio [Kaleidoscope] (2004) and Belleza bruta [Brute beauty] (2010) opened him a space in the literary scene: a space that, with his third offering, La troupe Samsonite [The Samsonite troupe] (2017), will only be confirmed. Belleza bruta earned him special recognition from critics and readers, thanks to the delicate craftsmanship with which the author constructed the story and the force of its images, which represent a Caribbean urban universe made unique by its diversity of voices and social registers. Although Belleza bruta is, in theory, a short story collection, among its stories and protagonists there are multiple relationships that lead us to question if we are reading an experimental novel or an exquisite compilation of short prose. With his third offering, Font Acevedo dives into long-form narrative, presenting a work just as peculiar, different, and interesting as his first two books.
If in Belleza bruta Font Acevedo left us perplexed with subtlety and textual complexity, in La troupe Samsonite we find ourselves before an even bolder story that challenges conventional models of writing as well as reading. To create it, the author has designed a narrative apparatus characterized by the stream-of-consciousness, the evocation and dislocation of the narrative voice. All of this is achieved through the vertigo imprinted into this story by the main characteristic of its protagonists: they are a circus family.
These peculiarities become evident as we move through the book and discover that, in the first place, its changes in point of view are continuous and permanent. The novel is structured into short chapters, and in each we find the point of view of a different character; Mirko, for example, tells us of one particular episode, while Tanya takes over in the next. These shifts in viewpoint come at the reader with no warning, and so the reading process must be all the more attentive. At various points, we can only tell who is talking to us by process of elimination, because the eyes through which we see list the others as companions in the action. With this in mind, the quality of Font Acevedo’s writing becomes clear when we realize that, through this complicated narrative option, his characters develop fully and naturally in the story; there is no unbalance between its parts, as the author carefully outlines the development of both the story and its protagonists.
The second characteristic of the text’s structure that should be highlighted is its reliance on evocation–that is, the events that the narrator describes, without organization and on different occasions, do not occur in the present of the narration; rather, they form part of the characters’ memories. Nonetheless, and as an important part of Font Acevedo’s work, the difference between evocation and memory in the text does emerge; he neither seeks nor claims to achieve the precise (or even close) approximation of what really happened, choosing instead to rely on fragments, instants that can generate a feeling or an idea.
This narrative game is underpinned by the story’s four protagonists, who have specific functions in circus life. Gradva, the eldest and the director of the circus, plays the part of fire-swallower and tightrope walker, and, in similar terms, is the one who maintains the group’s survival among the carnavales and hospitales, or men and women, upon whom they rely for food and shelter. The second-eldest is Tanya, the contortionist, through whom the author depicts a certain exhibitionism, and even, in some cases, the prostitution to which she must resort. After Tanya comes Mirko, the only man in the group and the owner of the suitcase that gives the group its name and identity: a Samsonite. Mirko is the storyteller and writer, and his art is that of living through the story.To a large extent, his ability with words reflects the artifice of La troupe Samsonite, which begins with the story of Mirko’s escape from school, only telling us halfway through that he has become a writer and we are reading his work. The novel departs from this apparently simple but deeply important fact, since the construction of this story refers not to a precise episode in which the actions order the story; instead, the story orders the actions of La troupe. Finally, following in order of age, is Xenia, an expert at taming animals and dealing with particularly strange situations.
Although the novel emphasizes the circus-esque characteristics and qualities of its protagonists, we are constantly confronted by the question of whether this reference to the circus corresponds to a specific profession or to the protagonists’ spectacular capacity to get by in a life full of hardships and economic difficulties; a way to face their day-to-day situation through different actions. In this respect, it is important to mention that La troupe Samsonite enters into direct dialogue with traditional notions of the family and the home in Puerto Rican (and even Latin American) literature, advocating for a type of family that is not necessarily joined by blood, but rather by popular art, survival, and wandering. And poverty becomes a constitutive element of the lives of these characters who maneuver everyday with strictly limited food supplies and constant changes in room and residence in order to survive their precarious existence. In this sense, the story offers us the opportunity to draw closer to sectors of Puerto Rican society that seldom form a central part of our literature, nomadically occupying different spaces in the city and on the island, roaming across it. Without spoiling any more for the reader, the ending of the novel is moving; in it, Font Acevedo brings together different temporalities and circumstances in a way that is complex and fascinating at the same time. Ultimately, La troupe Samsonite will become required reading for those attracted to Font Acevedo’s work, as well as critics and others interested not only in Puerto Rican literature, but also in the history, literature, and art in general, both classic and contemporary, of Latin America.
Oscar F. Amaya Ortega