Malas noticias desde La Isla. Carlos Gámez Pérez. Miami: Katakana Editores. 2018. 136 pages.
“I’m afraid the news from The Island isn’t good, as I shall relate,,” the first narrator of Carlos Gámez Pérez’ Malas noticias desde La Isla (soon to be released in English as Immigration: The Contest), says in the novel’s opening line. La Isla localizes the locus of dreams for immigrants who foresee an ideal future in Europe. As they leave the coasts of Northern Africa and the Middle East, their lives come into peril across the Mediterranean Sea.
Toto, we’re not in Lampedusa anymore.
This is the live set for Immigration: The Contest, a morbid reality show in which contestants compete against each other for the right to enter the Promised Land (Europe) and have a shot at a better life. This is a not-so-distant future and the terrain of the destination is less than promising. It is violent. Crude. Suffering, torture, and public humiliation constitute the trinomial backdrop for the trip out of Africa and into the goodness of utopia.
But, in the words of Mamadou, one of the four contestants who make it to the finals, “That was not the promised land.” In the narrative present of Gámez Perez’ novel, Europe is a continuum of countries that used to be something else. Spain is “the country that once was Spain;” Germany is the country that once was Germany, and so on. Nothing is; everything was. Yet, it remains a geography dominated not so much by geopolitics as much as by biopolitics, where bodies are disposable. We do not need a death certificate to realize that utopia lies rotting, a dead corpse bathed by the foam of the sea on some forsaken shore.
All that is illusory melts in the air. Liquids, unlike solids, cannot hold their shape, Zygmunt Bauman reminds us. Truly: they neither fix space nor bind time. In Malas noticias desde La Isla, the factual level of the story spirals toward dystopia.
Truthful to the tradition of the philosophical and political dystopian novel, like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the impossibility of envisioning the future obliges the characters in the story to look back into an ideal past, the inconclusive myth, and its consequential resignification of the paradise lost. Bauman (again) classifies such ineffectual effort to dredge up the idea of a better past as a retrotopia. Gámez Pérez elaborates a cautionary tale along these lines, since the characters themselves show signs of eroded ideologies and an inability to cope with the present. They want out. The future, therefore, lies in past utopian conceptions that they regard as their “dream.” The dream (that which simulates space when we are not conscious) meets the ideal (that which is abstract in time), and this incongruence with the present erodes into tragedy.
A woman who works as a production assistant for the reality show functions as the organizing principle in Malas noticias desde La Isla. Committed to uncovering the horrors behind the scenes of the production, the first-person account of the woman interweaves the testimonies of the four final contestants, namely El Niño, the sisters Amina and Anima, and Mamadou. As an artifact, then, the novel disguises an authentic narrative in the form of a blog entry. The contestants’ own accounts mimic the write-back of testimonial literature and accentuate the story’s verisimilitude.
If in The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood appropriates slave narratives to stress the oppression suffered by her protagonist Offred, Gámez Pérez turns to testimony as a form of orality to liberate the silenced side of truth. In the process, suffering turns to spectacle, where spectacle (in the words of Guy Debord) is not a collection of images, but a social relation between people that is mediated by images. The spectacle exceeds itself through mass-media technologies such as television, social media, and the Internet in general, and prime-time social inequality is morphed into and normalized as entertainment.
The main narrator, through direct speech, compiles, transcribes, and reveals the testimonies for a virtual narratee with whom the actual reader can identify. In a similar fashion, Professor Pieixoto and his team of scholars reveal the handmaid’s tale of oppression and sexual abuse by transcribing the audio tapes that Offred recorded. Seemingly, writing (or the written image) is the sovereign technology, since Gámez Pérez deals with textual production as the ultimate means of survival in a technologically mediated reality. The tale needs to be told.
Encompassing the different registers in the novel, and at 136 pages, what Gámez Pérez ultimately achieves is a novella that builds upon on storytelling and intertextual recurrences (from Calvino and Goytisolo to the One Thousand and One Nights) that endow the novel with the matryoshka effect: a story within a story within a story. Thus, utopia is not rejected: it dissolves into mass consumer entertainment. Performance is a commodity that becomes an end in itself. Malas noticias desde La Isla solidifies as the new Peninsular-American political novel.
Carlos Gámez Pérez, writer and professor, received the Cafè Món Award 2012 for Artifacts (Sloper, 2012). He recently finished his thesis on Spanish science and literature at the University of Miami. It is in Miami, precisely, where Katakana Editores has ushered in a pulsating Latin American literary scene. And with Malas noticias desde La Isla, Gámez Pérez invigorates a speculative genre, the dystopian novel, in transit to a new realm of futuristic chronicle, since, although the novel is set in a simulated time, it is so real.
So close. And so terrifying.
Elidio La Torre Lagares
University of Puerto Rico