Beyond Puerto Rican Parody
Speaking with Rosario Ferre, Frances Negron-Muntaner says in her introduction, "a parody of the nineteenth-century novelas de la tierra genre, Maldito Amor was told from multiple incommensurable perspectives, though the mulatta Gloria Camprub's parting words literally bring the racist and patriarchal fictions of the big house down." ('Rosario Ferre's Last Interview') A book originally written in Spanish but translated and transformed by the writer into English, Ferre says in her introduction to Sweet Diamond Dust, the translated version of Maldito Amor, that she based the original title on a well-known piece by Puerto Rico's most famous composer Morel Campos and says "during the nineteenth century, as well as during the first half of the twentieth, our identity was defined by a mythical richness we never possessed." Negron-Muntaner sees it as a parody of a genre but Ferre in her comment indicates that she doesn't want to parody a literary form but a societal mode. If the 'novelas de la tierra' includes Mariano Azuela's revolutionary novel The Underdogs, the most notable were, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, three novels, in the 1920s by authors who imposed themselves on Latin American literary history: Don Segundo Sombra by the Argentine Ricardo Guiraldes, Dona Barbara by the Venezuelan Romulo Gallegos, and La Voragine by the Colombian Jose Eustosio Rivera. "All three are set in rural contexts and depict man's struggle to tame nature and make it subservient and bountiful." (Britannica) All these books, also referred to as regional novels, suggest a less social context than the one Ferre seeks, at least in the English translation. In Sweet Diamond Dust and the other stories in the collection, 'The Gift' 'Isolda's Mirror' and 'Captain Candelario's Heroic Last Stand', Ferre's interest isn't chiefly in conquering the land or opposing forces (as we find so strongly evident for example in The Underdogs), but in delineating the contours of social significance and the psychological means by which characters conform to or escape expectation.
To parody a genre is a dangerous thing because the author may create a further distance from the subject she confronts by insisting the reader see through first the form adopted and then also the characters deployed, but a parody of a way of life is merely the critical means by which to appraise a societal reality. If someone were to write a novel mocking all the tropes and expectations in a Jane Austen novel or a Dickens tome, we would be inclined to learn far more about how Austen uses tropes that have become standard in romantic comedy literature and film than we would about early 19th-century straitened but nevertheless bourgeois lives. In parodying Dickens the emphasis would likely point up his capacity to generate unequivocal villainy, and also plot twists and lucky circumstances that move a character from poverty to comfort. In other words, it would be the forms they adopt and the stylistic procedures they include rather than an examination of the society that has itself parodic elements which the parodic writer could reveal. Certainly a Brazilian writer like Jorge Amado seems drawn to parodic forms in his books about life in the region of Bahia (Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, Tereza Batista), but still the region is the thing, and in this sense if Sweet Diamond Dust and the other stories in the collection are parodic it is never to the detriment of socio-historical delineation. Reading through the book one senses a writer determined to explore a country that has little place on the literary map and to put it there by attending to the facts of life more than the mocking of literary convention.
It seems to us then that a book like Sweet Diamond Dust and Other Stories wants less to parody a style than announce an intention: that here is a book which wishes to address the history of a nation and at the same time to explore its machismo, race genealogies and feminist possibilities. Plenty writers have made much of Ferre's feminism, with J. Agustin Pasten B. saying "in Sitio a Eros and El coloquio de las perras , Rosario Ferre turns the traditional Spanish American essay into a most propitious space to investigate issues of gender and, more specifically, writing as a potential vehicle for women's ultimate liberation." (Hispanofila). "Early in her career, her feminist writings made her controversial" notes Encylopedia Britannica. But let us look at one area at a time (machismo, racial genealogy and feminine self-realisation) through attending specifically to 'Sweet Diamond Dust', 'The Gift', 'Isolda's Mirror' and 'Captain Candalario's Heroic Last Stand'. In the latter tale, the story opens abstractly but the location is clear enough. As it informs us that the Metropolis (the US) has been ruling the island since 1898 when "it still wasn't the superpower it was to become during the next century', so the story makes clear the location without naming names while giving Ferre the freedom to make things up as she goes along or to offer history as anecdotal rumour. "Captain Candelario's story took place a few years before independence became a reality, when our enemies, the party and power at the time, still hadn't been outlawed and we still hadn't won the war." But central to the story is the captain's inability to find satisfaction with women, his unwillingness to mete out violence as readily as others in the army, and his sense of trust that can't see that rivalry is what matters in a machismo milieu divided between high and low culture. A cultured and well-read figure, Candelario believes in high ambitions in love and in war, but his island is small and poor, and he hasn't managed a functional sex life let alone love: whenever he has brought a woman back to his quarters his member fails him. That is until he meets the beautiful, red-haired Barbara whose caresses leads his "penis [to] rise in front of him like the mainstay of a mysterious sailing ship, and for the first time he felt absolutely sure who was at the helm." Yet this story is also about the macho aspect of friendship and Candelario's best friend is someone from a very different social class, born in the most "terrifying of slums where the streetwise arts of judo and of gouging your assailant's eyes out at the right moment were as essential as eating and breathing."
Throughout the story, the army's main purpose seems to be breaking up Salsa music events, which are believed to be harbouring terrorist elements and arresting those involved. Pedro asks Candelario if he will help free his uncle and three cousins arrested after insisting they are innocent. "I assure you that if they've decided to join the band", Pedro says, "it's not because they're terrorists, but because jobs today are hard to get, and they had to make a living." Listening to the Rolling Stones was okay, a first world sound that needn't harbour revolutionaries, but Salsa was deemed political. Candelario finds salsa "atrocious"; "Pedro, on the contrary, had no aesthetic prejudices against salsa and enjoyed listening to it...in his heart he felt secretly happy that even though his countrymen didn't have the courage to fight for their independence, at least they could sing about it." Candelario refuses to release the prisoners and so it is perhaps no surprise to find at the end of the story that Pedro has become his enemy, that Barbara is one of Pedro's many conquests and whose loyalty is towards the latter, and that Candelario will thus end up dead. After Barbara persuades him that a large salsa concert should take place he agrees and looks for her on the night. He finds her but she is with Pedro and the now released uncle and cousins. They have ice picks in their hands.
The story possesses the facetious tone we often find in metafiction (think Donald Barthelme's 'The Indian Uprising' or 'Cortes and Montezuma') but the purpose is to hold to a firmer narrative through-line as the story offer a few staple features to keep us focused. We have friends from different sides of the tracks (the wealthy Candelario; the poor Pedro), a clash of civilisations (salsa versus rock) and a mysterious woman who turns out to be a femme fatale indeed. But to point up the character types is less important than to recognise the machismo of a culture where violence and sexuality are closely intertwined. Candelario has honour but little power except in the form of moral indignation. When Pedro and Candelario drive past various large houses in the city's suburbs they notice a for sale sign indicating that houses with swimming pools, tennis and squash courts could now be bought on the cheap. "Merchants have no country", Candelario thinks, in reference to Thomas Jefferson, and so he admires Pedro's humble origins over his own cowardly social class. But it is as though his morality is part of his weakness: neither an avaricious pragmatist who gets going when the going gets tough, or tough enough to hang around and become as ruthless as others in difficult times, Candelario is a 'failed' macho.
Machismo isn't a necessary feature of masculinity and can often be channeled into arenas allowing for confident male identity without the need for hyperbolic aggression. A good soldier needn't be macho, nor a good father, even if in each instance they see themselves very much as 'men'. But womanising behaviour, gang warfare and material one-upmanship (whose car is faster) might all bring out the macho; 'Captain Candelario's Heroic Last Stand' places itself within a macho environment without focusing on a very successful example of it. Educated elsewhere, Candelario "felt his return to the island had been a mistake, since it had only awakened a brutal violence in him, and he had never believed in violence for violence's sake." But then Pedro wished to escape violence too and hoped becoming a "star basketball player...would permit him to leave the slum, putting the nightmare of the daily shootouts between the gangsters and members of his family behind him." However, his career is scuppered when he gets badly beaten in a politically-oriented attack after he refuses to join a Metropolitan team and thereafter walks with a limp. While the story is often convoluted and absurd, a busy narrative account of concrete Puerto Rican problems, what comes through most strongly is that there is aggression perpetuated within the culture. Some might claim this as an innate feature of the people but according to Victor de la Cancela, "machismo is a socially constructed, learned, and reinforced set of behaviors comprising the content of male gender roles in Latino society. These behaviors include: stoicism; varying levels of intimacy among men that lead to attachments in certain contexts and disengagement in others; attempts to avoid shame and gain respeto and dignidad for self and family..." ('A Critical Analysis of Puerto Rican Machismo: Implications for Clinical Practice'). Cancela reckons there are two main forms machismo takes. The first is traditional: "machismo is considered pathological, related to unresolved oedipal issues, manifested in inferiority complexes, and characterized as a compensatory cult of strutting virility... which posits machismo as one of the reasons for the high incidence of mental disorders among Puerto Ricans" The second is cultural: "The culturalists claim that the traditional view of machismo is based on ethnocentric value judgments and generalizations which reinforce negative stereotypes of Puerto Rican males as womanizers...In the culturalist view, males are expressing a culturally valued and desirable ego integrative ideal of courage and honor through machismo." Cancela also believes that additionally Puerto Rican woman often encourages this behavior since she can profit from it. [Various] authors report that while Puerto Rican women may complain of poor treatment by their husbands, they still encourage their sons to develop the so- called positive aspects of machismo and often are proud of their sons' manifestations of the characteristics."
Of the stories in the Sweet Diamond Dust collection, 'Captain Candelario's Heroic Last Stand' most clearly explores the macho but others hint at it. Don Julio at the beginning of Sweet Diamond Dust seduces Dona Elvira with a "brazen assault, totally lacking in the cloying embellishments of Guamamenan society." When she tries to suggest that he compensate a worker who lost his arm at the factory he beats her up. Later in the book, Don Julio's son Ubaldino had contracted syphilis during his womanising ways. How better to fight such machismo than with a feminist perspective? It is interesting feminism has often been associated chiefly with countries that have less pronounced macho cultures, like the US, the UK and France. The UK and US in very different ways may be chauvinist in the original jingoistic sense but less inclined to push the machismo of their cultures. Whether it is Mary Wollstoncroft and Vera Britten through to Juliet Mitchell and (the Australian) Germaine Greer in the UK, Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins through to Shalumith Firestone and Kate Millet in the US, there have been many influential feminists pushing for greater rights and representation. It wasn't that Latin America didn't have strong women in the 19th century, like Simon Bolivar's lover Manuela Saenz, but it's as if rather than fighting for feminism there was a greater acceptance of their subordinate role in a culture that didn't only see them as inferior to men, but also suggested this subordination was internalised, taking into account Cancela's comment about Puerto Rican women expecting their sons to become macho too. Central to Ferre's facetious tone, her often mocking or ironic approach to narrative in Sweet Diamond Dust and Other Stories, is an unwillingness to fall into the macho and instead insists on offering a perspective beyond it. She offers a facetious feminism we also find in Angela Carter and others where certain myths are made fun of all the better to undermine the culture itself and its presuppositions. If we've proposed that it is better to see Ferre as a writer concerned with the societal over the aesthetic, it is only in the sense that we believe the hyperbolizing of cliche isn't there to point up chiefly the obviousness of the trope but the problem in the culture.
Carter was dealing often with myths and fairy tales from centuries before - Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White - while Ferre could see that there were macho myths in the very culture she was living in that needed to be countered. 'Sweet Diamond Dust' covers the 20th century, more or less starting with independence from Spain in 1898, moving from Don Julio to Don Ubaldino and on to his son Nicolas and yet it often reads like an 18th or 19th-century text. Ubaldino "married off his daughters in style...from the head of the table he went on smiling at them, inviting his sons-in-law to ride with him to the cane fields in the afternoon, where he would pass in review his army of emerald swords." Ubaldino was an honourable man we are told "he'd have let his right hand be cut off before he'd sell a single acre of land to the northerners." In another writer's work, about a different culture, this would be a turn of phrase, but in Ferre's deliberately heated prose we are aware it could easily become a reality. Negron-Muntaner notes, "For instance, a central thematic of your early work is the injustice that women endure, white women particularly, when they suffer in the same "place" (gender) where they experience pleasure (sex), an insight that prompted Manuel Ramos Otero's famous words: "Rosario Ferre believes that every lady is a whore in the making." ('Rosario Ferre's Last Interview') It thus makes sense that the feminism Ferre explores can't easily be disassociated from the opposite sex that often supplies satisfaction but are potential brutes too. Yet rather than creating in 'Sweet Diamond Dust' complex female characters, Ferre instead creates exaggerated male ones. Though she insists, "...I do not like to create archetypes. If it is possible to break down a novel into archetypes, it is not a good novel," ('The Last Interview') the creation of an archetype is surely central to the creation of a great work Oedipus, Medea, Hamlet and King Lear can all be seen as archetypal figures personifying various important human characteristics. Who represents better than Lear the misguided father flattered and fawned upon yet missing the love in front of his eyes; who more than Medea suggests the woman horribly scorned and who reacts even more horribly still? Instead, Ferre offers a few stereotypes which are semblances rather than seminal: they resemble so many characters we have found in literature before.
This doesn't make the abusive Don Julio or the womanising Ubaldino simply cliches; more that they represent the predictable types that are playing up their macho status in a culture that wouldn't reward them to behave in any other way. The feminism in Sweet Diamond Dust and Other Stories rests less on the complexity of the female characters than on the critique of masculinity one finds, and exaggerated characterizations useful to that critique. Though in 'Sweet Diamond Dust' she finds room for various voices including Ubaldino's wife Laura, who wishes to gift the company her husband built up to the family nurse Gloria, the woman plays a familial role rather than a feminist one: Laura's purpose is to best organise the inheritance after her husband passes away as she wishes to "disinherit all of them [her children] and leave my shares of Diamond Dust to Gloria Cambrubi and her son." Gloria was the partner of the one good child she had, the late Nicolas, whose marriage with the mulatto nurse and prostitute Gloria isn't a family shame but one of its more decent acts: it was a means by which Nicolas could protect her from her son Aristedes (who believed "he had special rights over her body and soul"), and also continue looking after Ubaldino in his dying days. "Nicolas was always my favorite child, not because he was the eldest, as Aristides cynically insists, but because he'd always been the most generous and compassionate." But Nicolas dies six months after the wedding and rather than leave the inheritance to her grasping children, better to give it to Nicolas's son and the mother of that child. Laura may talk about the bond with Gloria, that "...she's a woman like me and I consider her my friend" but this is also within the context of the men's bad behaviour: her husband's venereal disease and Aristide's uncouth actions. We sense women sheltering from the storm of men's moods, whims and aggressions. As Puerto Rican critic Edna Acosta-Belens says, "despite the dramatic changes experienced by Puerto Rico since industrialization the changing role of women, sexism and male chauvinism remain deeply rooted in Puerto Rican culture and society." "Institutions and social and cultural patterns inherited from the past", she adds, "continue to deny and deprive women of real equality. Sexual discrimination in the professions and in other parts of the labor force is widespread." (Puerto Rican women: Perspectives in Culture, History and Society)
In 'Isolda's Mirror', the feminist perspective is paradoxically more interiorised. If Laura's point of view is offered like other female (and male) characters in 'Sweet Diamond Dust' in the first person, this tale is a third-person account of a struggling young woman, Adriana, who sees her boyfriend Gabriel off as he goes to Europe and embarks on an affair with the father who is seeing him off too. This may sound cynical but the story makes clear that while Isolda isn't without pragmatic motives when she first gets to know Don Augusto, the story shows that Adriana's pride and decency are at least as prominently evident. She is well aware that an affair with Don Augusto after being the girlfriend of his son is unseemly, and wishes initially to keep her distance from this much older man who invites her to see his art gallery in Santa Cruz. The gallery is some distance from where she lives, and she doesn't see him for many months. But when he sends her a bouquet of red roses and a postcard with a painting of a woman who resembled her, asking if she will take a weekend off and visit his art gallery, she can't pretend she isn't intrigued. Looking in the mirror she sees that she does indeed resemble the woman in the painting as Don Augusto had previously proposed, but is suspicious of Don Augusto and his determination to woo her. Much of the story concerns Adriana thoughts and feeling, her motives and interests, whether it is her relationship with Gabriel ("when she was with him she felt she loved him, but when he was far away she felt numb, as though she had never loved him at all") or thinking about her upbringing: she could still remember their house in the slum of Bajura Honda, with its slanted zinc roof and its rickety balcony. Her father went off to fight in Korea and came back in a much better financial position than when he left, but though she studies at the music conservatory, making money singing nights, she isn't sure how she will continue to support her education. Don Augusto offers to help her. From one perspective here is a woman with her own mind that Ferre pays a great deal of attention to as we understand her vulnerabilities and her hopes, yet she will also marry this older man whose son she has already dated. Is this a sign of liberation or oppression; is it a woman making up her mind or a woman making do?
Within the context of the story, there is also Don Augusto's precarious status as he is caught between the sugar barons and the local Santa Cruz bankers, and the Wall Street bankers as well. It is from Wall Street that he borrows his money and "The Wall Street bankers have always been my friends, and it's important that they like you" he says to Adriana, "otherwise the County Metropolitan Bank may foreclose on our factory's loans." If we feel that by marrying Don Augusto, Adriana is in danger of becoming a high-end prostitute, does the story suggest too that Augusto is finally no more than a pimp in an expensive suit? The story is more nuanced than that: "Don Augosto was famous for paying his workers a higher salary than anybody else in town, and that he had been the only one to fight for the minimum wage. He had always argued that one day we would become a state, and that it was better to start getting used to paying everyone their just desserts." People are pimps and whores from certain perspectives yet this doesn't mean Adriana is with Augusto for his money, nor that Augusto marries the beautiful Adriana so that he can parade her in front of rich men on their wedding day. "Colonialism of the state is a reality akin to the colonialism of women, who live dependent, fragmented lives in a patriarchal state" Ferre says, and once again we see the claim not as a metaphorical remark but an entirely plausible reality in a country where the men have power but where they are also dependent on a country beyond their own. It is a wedding not only for the nation's wealthy but also for the wealthy from the US too.
One could say that the event gives Adriana immense power as she is the enchantress capable of allowing Wall Street money to flow into the country. When at the wedding she dances with a Wall Street banker it looks like the event will go swimmingly despite the rich locals who disapprove of the wedding and their dislike of American finance capital. Yet by the end of the evening, all will end in disaster: the more provocative the dance the more heated everyone becomes and the wives get up and dance too, removing their clothes, while the Santa Cruz bankers become enraged and a huge fight ensues, fists flying and bullets following. The story ends with Adriana in tears, the Santa Cruz's banks ruined, the Wall Street bankers withdrawing their investment and thus ruining her husband too. Their country is, for worse but potentially for the better, in disarray. It is at least no longer reliant on American money, however impoverished everyone will now become. "In "Isolda's Mirror," "Adriana's soul fights back, not only as a symbol of her people, but as symbol of the women of Puerto Rico. Both have, in this last dance, rebelled against the establishment." Mariela Gutierrez adds that "up to this moment, the country-with its men and women has felt tied down, manipulated, used, vexed, oppressed, and silenced under the imposed rules of a patriarchal, colonial superstructure." So says Mariela Gutierrez, adding "through her convulsive sacrificial dance, Adriana destroys what she could have become, together with all her dreams. By her extreme example, she is sending her people a message: Let us try to be ourselves, masters of our own destinies, but let us do it together, as the men and the women of Puerto Rico." ('Ideology in Literature: Images of Social Relationships within Puerto Rico's Historical Context in "Isolda's Mirror," a Short Story by Rosario Ferre') What Gutierrez reads into the story are the broader socio-political implications but what interests us is the feminine as existential: a woman making choices and viewed from this perspective. The women in 'Captain Candelario's Heroic Last Stand' and in 'Sweet Diamond Dust' exist on the page as ciphers within a broader narrative but when Gutierrez emphasises the political in 'Isolda's Mirror' it seems to miss out on what makes it most interesting. When she interprets Adriana losing herself in dance at the wedding ball, she says, "if a nation's values and goals are important, so also are the goals of egalitarian relations between the men and the women of a country. Although Puerto Rico has fought against colonialism and imperialism for centuries, its women continue to face other sources of oppression." Gutierrez sees liberation but what are we then to make of Adriana's tears at the end? Are they tears of relief or of misery; has she sacrificed herself to her country's liberation or has she ruined the life of a husband who has been the one person on the island who has treated his workers well, even if he is also a man who takes as his wife his son's ex-lover, making her perhaps feel all the more the property of another as she is passed through the family? We cannot easily say, and someone else might make much of the fact that as she prepares for the first dance with her husband at the ball, the banker cuts in and insists that he will be the first to dance with the bride. We obviously need to take into account that Ferre opens the story with a short chapter explaining various historic events leading up to the marriage in 1972, and focuses so exclusively on Don Augusto that Adriana isn't mentioned at all. A reading that ignored the importance of the historical circumstances would be missing a significant aspect, but to see Adriana as another figure at the mercy of history ignores the degree to which the story pays attention to her thoughts and feelings. What makes the story of interest is the way her tale is nestled into a historical context that may finally show that her role isn't that different from Barbara's in 'Captain Candelario's Heroic Last Stand' but rather than a mysterious femme fatale to whose perspective we are never privy, Adriana is someone seen from the inside out rather than outside in. The feminist perspective, such as it is, acknowledges that agency is limited and that the historical inevitably imposes itself upon the relative freedom accessed. But then Don Augusto's freedom is limited as well. There he is forced to invite the drunken and dissipated sugar cane barons, the newly rich San Juan bankers and also the Americans who are financing Don Augusto's adventures. By the end of the story, the sugarcane barons go crazy and the Wall Street bankers take off. The nuances of Adriana's point of view isn't worth much against the history that envelops her and her husband.
However, the poignancy comes from the interest in her point of view and exemplified by the end of the story as she cries and doesn't understand why. Taking into account De la Cancela's comments about Puerto Rican woman often sharing rather than countering the man's machismo, is this Adriana making a point about how weak her husband is, a man who was forced to invite the Northern bankers to the wedding to secure loans, and then must loan out his wife on his very wedding day? Better to view the story through Adriana's confused and complex emotional state rather than see her as representative of the Puerto Rican state. To do the latter is in danger of turning her into the very cipher that Ferre chooses to use in both 'Sweet Diamond Dust' and 'Captain Candelario's Heroic Last Stand'.
Yet if machismo and feminism are important to the stories, no less so is race genealogy. As Edwin Williamson notes, in the early years of the conquest of the Indies, "only about 6 per cent of Spanish emigrants to the Indies were female. This meant that Spanish males depended mostly on native women for sexual relations...The Crown and the Church encouraged the legitimation of these unions through Christian marriage...but it was far more common for such liaisons to remain irregular." (The Penguin History of Latin America) White women were still privileged and the purer the Spanish blood the better for social status. This combination of racial purity admired and sexual desire that must find satisfaction where it can, created a complicated relationship to race in Latin America that is often a concern of Ferre's in these stories. In 'The Gift', Ferre focuses on a friendship between a couple of teenage girls at a school called The Sacred Heart, a racially and religiously uptight academy for girls. One of them, Carlotta, is to be carnival queen, "the first truly Creole queen of Santa Cruz" she says, and though her friend Merceditas tries very hard to imagine Carlotta's big, bulky body dressed up in "silk ruff, crown and farthingale" she couldn't do so. But not so long ago nobody could have imagined a girl like Carlotta at the Sacred Heart. "She was the first Mulatto student to be admitted to the school in its half-century of existence, and her recent admission had been talked about as something unheard of and radical even by the families of the "new" the families less classy than the Acunas, the De la Valles and the Arzuagas but who could now find a place in the school. Yet with her dark skin, Carlotta stands out and she cares little for intellectual ambitions, though believes the school can help her socially. She reckons with her knowledge of maths and science she can help her father in modernising the town, a father who was a small merchant who has become wealthy through owning a chain of supermarkets. Yet more important than the science and maths she will learn, is the friendship she develops with Merceditas Caceres, "a blessing from heaven" for her father, who is well aware of the status and wealth Caceres family possess, people who commute on private planes and yachts from the mainland to the island.
However, the friendship between the two girls is genuine and the story hinges on Merceditas's loyalty to her friend when Carlotta is kicked out of the school by the nun who has always been very fond of Merceditas and who has helped her with her studies. The nun, Mother Artigas, is both traditional and modern, someone who in another story could easily have been the heroine of the piece, possessing an extensive education and more than one doctoral degree from foreign universities: "she believed that women had an undeniable right to knowledge, having been unjustly barred from it for centuries, and the only obstacle that for a while had made her hesitate on her decision to enter the convent had been the clergy's traditional feminisation of ignorance." The narrator makes clear Mother Arigas isn't at all a conventional nun and has no time for mystical nuns who see their role as one of submission. Yet Merceditas nevertheless always feels both attracted and repulsed by the nun and finally keeps her distance. The burgeoning friendship between the two girls leaves Mother Arigas quietly dismayed as we wonder whether it rests on her feelings for Merceditas or racist inclinations. Of course, it can be both but one is rather easier to express in a culture that has only just allowed their first Creole student into the school, and where the narcissism of differences small and large are pronounced on so contained an island. In the ending which shows the very wealthy Merciditas leaving with her mulatto friend whose father has managed more or less to bankrupt himself by lavishing so much money on the carnival, we can see a socio-political optimism. But though it is tempting to read Ferre as a writer of the politically progressive, we often find in the stories an emphasis on paradox and entanglement. Ubaldino may be the womanising man full of pride, but he also at one stage in 'Diamond Dust' proves an acute businessman protecting the island's interests against outside forces when, through an arcane Spanish law the Americans know nothing about, he undercuts the outsiders, who think that they can buy up what they like, and this turns Ubaldino into a local hero. Mother Artigas may be in some ways a feminist role model but is she also covetous of schoolgirls and racist? Pedro in 'Captain Candelario Heroic Last Stand' is a liberator of his people but also a betrayer of his friend. In 'Isolda's Mirror' Don Augusto is a man of dignity, fairness and determined to bring art to the people but he is also bought by the Americans and all but pimps his wife.
If we proposed that Ferre wanted to create fiction that would not so much mock the form but work with broad types within her society, nevertheless these types can be viewed ambiguously. Don Ubaldino may be the arrogant and assertive man yet his wife insists "the years went by and Ubaldino proved a perfect husband", and also that "Ubaldino and I had a good life." Yet fearful of catching your husband's syphilis does suggest a bit of a hiccup. Don Augusto fought to pay the minimum wage as we've noted even if it was losing him money. It is partly because his enterprise is losing cash that he needs help from the Americans, and thus needs help from his wife to help charm them. Characters in Ferre's collection aren't especially complicated but they often contain contradictory qualities. Captan Candelario wants the best for his country but doesn't often understand others on the island, and misjudges his friend Pedro which leads to the captain's murder. Ferre says "the fundamental truth of my life, the principle that governs it, is that nobody has a monopoly over the truth. Every person is a lens that focuses reality in a different way and everybody has the right to do so. This, in fact, is an anarchist principle, for I am indeed, an anarchist. From the moment I position myself at a certain standpoint, I immediately see things from that perspective and from its opposing perspective." ('The Last Interview') Such an approach needn't arrive at complexity but it does avoid simplification. In 'Sweet Diamond Dust' this is precisely what Ferre eschews as various voices are brought into the narrative to question anybody's given truth. In 'Isolde's Mirror' the perspective is mainly Adriana's; subsequently there is more complexity because the emphasis rests on understanding an aspect of Adriana's character as readily if not more readily than the wider socio-political situation. In 'Sweet Diamond Dust' it is the opposite: characters can be broad but the perspectives on them varied. In this sense, and by way of a conclusion, we can suggest that numerous Ferre characters are indeed stereotypes but what interests her isn't the self-reflexive and mocking dimension that can come out of such an approach; it is chiefly the need to take such characters and view them from different perspectives and see the contradictions apparent. Even 'Isolde's Mirror' does precisely this with Don Augusto, who gets reflected differently according to Adriana's ambiguous feelings towards him, though she herself remains relatively complex, and something of the same could be said of Mereditas in the context of Carlotta. In each instance, the narration focalises around one character and sees the contradictions in another out of the ambiguities evident in one's own. If one's preferences are for 'Isolde's Mirror and 'The Gift' over 'Sweet Diamond Dust', on the singular focus over the general babble, it may say something about what we expect from literature but for Ferre it is a broad church which allows for those on the page to interact, and indeed in her most famous work that we don't have the space to address, but which shouldn't be completely ignored, The House of the Lagoon, the expansive novel allows for both the broad and the intimate to exist in the same work. In it, we see the broad tapestry of life over many years and through different social classes but it wouldn't be fair to suggest that in their brevity the stories here are of a weaker weave.
© Tony McKibbin