Memoria esquiva, which I’ve translated into English as Elusive Memory, was published in Santo Domingo by Editorial Santuario a little over a year ago in February 2021. Its author, José Alcántara Almánzar, has won several prizes in his native Dominican Republic and published many books of fiction and non-fiction both there and in Puerto Rico. Despite having a selection of his short fiction published in English translation in the collection Where the Dream Ends, translated by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert and published by Caribbean Studies Press in 2018, his work remains largely unknown to the English-reading public.
José Alcántara Almánzar has authored several collections of short stories beginning in the 1970s with Viaje al otro mundo (1973), Callejón sin salida (1975), and Testimonios y profanaciones (1978). In the 1980s, he wrote Las máscaras de la seducción (1983) and La carne estremecida (1989). In 1993, the Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico published El sabor de lo prohibido: Antología personal de cuentos, from which I selected several short stories that had not appeared in English translation and which I have published in print and online publications. Translations of José Alcántara Almánzar’s work have also been published in Icelandic, Italian, German, and French.
For José Alcántara Almánzar, the universal is local. His stories portray universal themes in daily life in the Dominican Republic. His stories refer to places on the island, mainly the capital, Santo Domingo, as well as Baní, Santiago, and San Pedro de Macorís. The temporal setting for his writing is the aftermath of the Trujillo dictatorship and its political and social vestiges. The genre that Elusive Memory is closest to is noir. The short story that I selected to include here from this collection is titled “Life is Still the Same.” I selected this short story because it includes several of the themes found throughout the book, namely: crime, homicide, death, violence, disillusionment, and love gone wrong. The book begins and ends with stories about death. In the first short story in the collection, “Counted Days,” a grandmother announces to her family that she will leave this world in two weeks’ time and begins making preparations for her passing. In the last story in the collection, “The Fall,” a man bleeds to death on the sidewalk and is then robbed of his valuables. His spirit flies over the city to his home where he visits his grieving family who stand in shock around his dead body.
For my translation of Elusive Memory, I have tried to remain faithful and very close to the original. So close, as a matter of fact, that I have left a few phrases in the original. Words such as “mamá” and “mi hijo” resounded in Spanish in my mind, reflecting my own experience as a translator who grew up bilingual and has lived life on the hyphen, going back and forth between the two languages that make up my identity and the world that I inhabit. There have been times, however, that I have had to paraphrase because a cultural equivalent does not exist in English and leaving the original in Spanish would have just resulted in a lack of comprehension on the part of the reader. “Mangar,” which José Alcántara Almánzar admits he coined himself, is not found in any dictionary in the sense that he uses it. We spoke about “mangar” in one of our phone conversations and I translated it as “mango trees.” Terms relating to Dominican carnival celebrations proved difficult to translate. “Vejigas de toro” and “vejigazos” have no cultural equivalents. These two terms describe bull bladder balloons that are used to hit people during carnival. I translated these terms as “bull bladder balloons” and “bladder balloons.” “Tiznados” describes people who paint themselves black for carnival as part of the celebrations. Again, no cultural equivalent exists in the United States, although there are cultural equivalents in carnivals in other parts of the world. I decided to translate “tiznados” as “black-painted.” “Diablo Cojuelo” is one of the typical characters of Dominican carnival. I translated it literally as “Limping Devil,” assuming that readers will be able to understand the term from the context and through the description provided in the short story “The ‘Bad Boy’ Says Good-Bye.”
By translating this book, I aim to bring greater visibility to José Alcántara Almánzar’s writing and to literature from the Dominican Republic. In the Spanish-speaking world, the literature of the Dominican Republic is consistently marginalized and underrepresented. (I realize this is a vast generalization.) By way of example, the publisher of classic canonical works in Spain, Ediciones Cátedra, doesn’t include a single work by a writer from the Dominican Republic in its Letras Hispánicas catalog from 2020. As an example from the anglophone world, there were no works from the Dominican Republic in the 2016 Penguin Classics catalogue. More recently however, the outlook for Dominican literature in English is starting to appear brighter. Rita Indiana has had two of her books translated and published in English by And Other Stories in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Another turn for the better for Dominican literature is that in the United States, Dominican authors writing in English such as Julia Álvarez, Junot Díaz, Angie Cruz, and Elizabeth Acevedo have been published to much acclaim. Penguin has recently included two novels by Julia Álvarez in its Penguin Vitae collection, which is described on their website as “a new hardcover series from Penguin Classics celebrating a dynamic and diverse landscape of classic fiction.” It is my hope that by translating more Dominican authors like José Alcántara Almánzar into English, Dominican literature on the island can start to dialogue with Dominican American literature being published in the United States.
Luis Guzmán Valerio
Life is Still the Same
José Alcántara Almánzar
Raquel opened the balcony door and the fresh air of the first night made her levitate for an instant on a cloud of happiness, as if the new apartment that she and Pablo had moved into after their honeymoon were a replica of paradise.
Paralyzed on the bare balcony on the top floor of that residential condominium, Raquel closed her eyes in an attempt to prolong her bliss, while the voice of Luis Miguel breathed life into an old bolero on the record player in the living room, and in the background the tinkling of ice was heard in the glasses that her newlywed husband had gone to look for in the kitchen to celebrate the formal beginning of their life as a couple.
Raquel could still hear the phrases with which Pablo had captivated her on that marvelous tourist resort in Bávaro, on the warm sand under an almond tree on that spectacular beach, where her husband’s exciting words and caresses were a prelude to glory.
All of a sudden, the noise coming from down below made her return to reality. It looked like a struggle that Raquel could not make out, because the bougainvillea that adorned the entrance to the building beclouded her view. Pablo, oblivious to it all, was singing some pop song in the kitchen, trying to impress his wife with that well-pitched voice that he showed off whenever he found the opportunity. But Raquel’s heart had already begun to beat forcefully, thrown into a frantic race. She was frightened by the moaning that she could now clearly hear and the dry but audible blows that two individuals inflicted upon a third. The sunlight had disappeared, and the sky had become clouded with somber, violet hues.
“Pablo, hurry up, come here,” Raquel cried in a voice drowned with anxiety.
Pablo appeared in the living room armed with a bottle and two glasses with ice. His face exhibited a mixture of lust and surprise and Raquel motioned to him to leave everything and come look.
“What’s going on, love?” he asked, grabbing her by the waist.
“I think they’re beating someone up in the bushes in the garden, but I can’t make it out. We should call the police.”
Pablo hesitated, not knowing what to say. Luis Miguel continued to lend ambiance to the evening with his unmistakable and melodious voice. The distant smell of fritters, flowers, wet earth, and smoke distinctly reached the balcony where the couple was.
“Pablo, call the police,” Raquel insisted. “Please…”
“The police won’t do anything, my dear,” Pablo countered. “No one trusts them.”
The noise down below had stopped, and two shadows ran away in a hurry, leaving a body lying in the bushes.
“It’s better if we go inside,” Pablo concluded. “Dear, we’re on our honeymoon and that happens every day. Don’t forget that life goes on.”
Raquel looked at him full of astonishment and rancor, as if she could not recognize that man for whom she would have given anything a minute ago. Suddenly, her world was falling apart and she—without knowing what to say or do—broke away from Pablo’s arm and went into the apartment, crestfallen, with a feeling of emptiness. Pablo followed her with quiet footsteps, taking the glasses and the bottle with him. Once in the bedroom, Raquel—sitting on the bed—began to cry silently.
“My love, calm down,” Pablo begged her, trying to smile. “Tomorrow you won’t even remember that. Let’s leave the worrying to others. Come on, give me a kiss…”
Raquel wanted to say something, but she had a lump in her throat and the words would not come out. She didn’t want to tarnish the evening either with rebukes or broken sentences. As Pablo kissed her passionately, she felt an ineffable unease and she knew that things between her and her husband would never be the same ever again.