Los caídos. Carlos Manuel Álvarez. Madrid: Sexto Piso, 2018. 136 pages.
This story of a contemporary Cuban family and the marks left by the catastrophic decades called the “Special Period in Times of Peace” after the collapse of the Soviet bloc (1990-2010) is a moving portrait of the casualties of a war that never took place. It is systematically structured in five parts of the four family members’ alternating voices that are layered with seemingly unstructured humorous and horrific images and anecdotes. The author’s careful scaffolding should be read through attentively, though, as Los caídos is not what its title suggests. It does not narrate the “fallen” as a final state, rather it is a novel of processes—biological, ideological, poetic—both recognizable and unique for readers of regional literature.
Published in English translation in September 2019, the novel has received much international attention. Some reviewers, to digest the novel and place it in an international literary landscape, have quoted Tolstoy’s famous dictum, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The most recent review I have found, a New York Times compendium titled “Four Social Novels in Translation Consider the World’s Ills,” concludes that in the case of Alvarez’s novel, it seems as if all unhappy families are alike. The reviewer’s complaints about the novel’s incoherence and unanswered questions perhaps stem from assuming it seeks to consider the world’s ills. Instead, Alvarez’s exploration of the human condition is refracted through the particularities of a Cuban post-Soviet lens.
George Henson, in his book review in World Literature Today, takes Los caídos as evidence of a “new wave” in Cuban prose fiction. The novel pulls from Alvarez’s narrative journalism or crónica roots (see his online journal El Estornudo) that, when combined with targeted experimentation in form and imagery, offers a contemporary sophistication to narrating social conditions in Cuba—an almost prerequisite theme for Cuban literature to catch international readers’ attention since 1989.
What is different, and perhaps confusing to some readers, is that in Alvarez’s leap from journalist to novelist, he privileges the reimagined “how” over the journalistic “what” of the novel’s context. There is no reference to familiar cues like Fidel Castro, emigration and the diaspora, the malecón, sex, or rum, and, rather than Havana, the story is set in an unnamed small town bordering a tourist resort (presumably Cárdenas, Alvarez’s hometown). Instead of an explicit cubanía, the tension between falling apart and surviving together during and in the wake of the Special Period fuses the novel’s form and content, the plot rising from the mother’s nocuous epileptic falls.
Alvarez’s characters inhabit spheres often mentioned by those who measure the ups and downs of the Cuban Revolution: health, education, tourism, the military. The son (Diego), mother (Mariana), father (Armando), and daughter (María) give conflicting and complementary views of these realms, their family relationships, and the novel’s major events. The son, cynically completing his obligatory military service before college, questions the origins of his mother’s illness and his father’s authority with omniscient tones but selective omission; the mother retires from teaching and approaches her falls as if bestowed by an enlightened vision of her own body and her family’s past, present, and future; the father, a hotel manager and exemplary authority in the “New Man” communist plan, blindly fails to see the cracks in its neatly asphalted road to the future while his workers capitalize on illicit exchange; and the daughter, one of those workers, sustains the family, exposing and bearing the weight of the fall(s) more than the others. The novel’s coherence, perhaps, is more apparent to readers familiar with the Cuban socioeconomic context, where, as the joke goes, workers pretend to work and the state pretends to pay them, and the military in charge of the tourist industry allows parallel markets to make up for the insufficient state ration book on a fluid case by case basis. With this knowledge, perhaps, plotlines emerge more clearly, only really becoming clear for readers in the end.
Indeed, Los caídos portrays the results of the precarity of the Special Period as if looking through a rearview mirror—a recurring image in the novel. Álvarez judiciously injects the narrative arc of the developing story into the shared events that lead to the novel’s present. Informative and cleverly connected backstories introduce adjacent characters and family scenes from the “tough years,” as the Special Period is obliquely referred to by some characters. The father’s dream sequences capture—at a distance—the hustle culture of hotels and jineteras of that time and absurdly takes the reader down his well asphalted road where Lenin is pushing a wheelbarrow of hardened cement while Marx and Engels stand together in a traffic booth. Inner monologues and detailed descriptive lists of accumulated things diffuse the main substance of the plot. Thus, the reader is forced to fill in the spaces between the action (intention, consequence, and particularly consequences over time) rather than take in an event and move on. The overall effect is very cinematic, reminiscent of movies from the Special Period—Fernando Pérez’s Madagascar and La vida es silbar come to mind.
The effect calls upon readers to read closely, lest the novel dissolve into an uneasy tedium with unsatisfying answers. Or, perhaps, lest they conclude that the unhappy family at the center of Los caídos is unhappy in the same way as all others. Instead, the novel reminds us that the shifting bonds that formed out of the individual struggle against scarcity during the Special Period were also bound to the state’s imperative of negotiating the survival of the Revolution itself.
Introduced to Cuba during that period, I tried unsuccessfully to understand and find words to fully describe the precipitous changes that continue to determine the most basic strategies for getting through the day. I found the increasing (albeit annoying) colloquial late-nineties use of “random” as an adjective very fitting, but in need of a noun. Dissatisfied with “arbitrariness,” I eventually invented a word—“arbitrarity”—as a way to capture the paradox of the normalization of an arbitrary way of being. Alvarez’s systematic representation of this notion in Los caídos begs the question of perceived incoherence, and reminds us that in every happy or unhappy family, where you stand determines the nature and consequences of your fall.
For those who don’t read Spanish, The Fallen, translated by Frank Wynn and published originally by Fitzcarraldo, was re-released in the U.S. by Graywolf Press in June of 2020. Wynn’s precision and poetry suit Alvarez’s original voice. I’ll refer the reader to George Henson’s additional assessment of the translation, which praises Wynn’s fluid prose while also noting the confusing use of contractions and words in Spanish, and the colonial tone of its British English. The new edition retained the Spanish, eliminated errata and brought some of the language across the Atlantic (“arse bandits” are “cocksuckers,” for example, and “no-one is “no one”) for a smoother reading of this welcome prose fiction from Cuba.
Barbara D. Riess
Translation into the Spanish by Gabriela Rabotnikof
Proofread by Jenna Tang
Barbara D. Riess, Professor of Spanish at Allegheny College, curated and translated An Address in Habana / Domicilio habanero (a collection of short fiction by María Elena Llana) published by Cubanabooks and awarded the International Latino Book Award for Best Translation of Fiction (Spanish to English) in 2016. She received her PhD in Latin American Literature and Translation from Arizona State University in 1999 and has co-translated (with Trino Sandoval) the Chicano novels Puppet (2000) and Sanctuaries of the Heart (2004) by Margarita Cota-Cárdenas and was the translation editor for Postmodernity in the Periphery: Latin America Writes Back. An Interdisciplinary Cultural Focus. (2002). Other translations appear in Spain: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (2003), Cuba On the Edge (2007) and in Cuba Counterpoints (2017). Her research on Cuban women’s fiction has been published in Confluencia, Latin American Literary Review, and Cuban Studies/Estudios Cubanos.
Gabriela Rabotnikof has an MA in Creative and Humanistic Translation from the Universitat de València in Valencia, Spain, and a BA in Translation from the Lenguas Vivas Institute in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She works as a full-time freelance translator, mainly in the audiovisual and educational publishing fields. She has co-translated Gustav Klimt at Home by Patrick Bade and The Mermaid’s Madness and The Stepsister Scheme by Jim C. Hines.