Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Douglas Messerli | Responsible Parties (on Eliseo Alberto's Caracol Beach)

Responsible Parties
by Douglas Messerli

Eliseo Alberto Caracol Beach, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (New York: Knopf, 2000)

At the heart of Eliseo Alberto’s terrifying and mesmerizing novel, Caracol Beach, first published in English in 2000, is a mad ex-soldier, Alberto Beto Milanés, a man of Cuban descent who fought in Ibondá de Akú, Angola in a Cuban detachment, of which he was the only survivor. Plagued by horrifying memories of his fellow soldiers and a seemingly real, if invisible, Bengal tiger, Beto Milanés, who has tried and failed at suicide, is determined to find others to help him die.

By coincidence a group of students just graduated from the nearby Emerson Institute, have traveled to the nearby wealthy spit of land named Caracol Beach in Florida to celebrate at the home of their fellow classmate, Martin Lowell, who has invited his friends to the house without his parent’s knowledge. Martin, the best student at the Institute, has just discovered his love for a young girl, Laura Fontanet, of Cuban heritage. She is also the girlfriend of the school athlete, Tom Chávez, and a rivalry between the two boys lies at the heart of their concerted effort to save her life when she is later threatened by the ex-soldier.

In short, the series of events which ends so sadly with the deaths of both boys (deaths foretold and reported throughout even the earliest chapters of this fiction) seems terribly random. Had they only not run of beer and wine, had they only not happened to visit the liquor store at the same moment that Beto Milanés was prowling the neighborhood, had they simply refused to go along with the mad man’s horrible demands, had the local Sherriff, Sam Ramos, been in his office instead of a new deputy, Wellington Perales, when the calls concerning the boys’ activities first came through….if only.... At first this tale seems so utterly meaningless, a series of random encounters which end in a tragedy and painful memories that later lead others to self-destruction as well. But it is at precisely this point that novelist Alberto, the son of the great Cuban poet Diego Alberto, makes it clear that his fiction is not a thinly-veiled retelling of real events, that it is not even a truly realist fiction.

Caracol Beach, in fact, had its roots in Gabriel García Marquez’s script-writing course at the International School of Film and Television in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba in 1989. As the assistant for that course, Alberto shared stories with the students, one of which, a tale in which young Puerto Ricans were pursued for an entire night by an unknown assailant, clearly became the embryonic center of this novel. In the class, various students suggested wild alternatives for the attending plot, including suggestions for the inclusion of an Armenian, a drug addict, a Bengal tiger, and other elements, many of which found their way into Alberto’s work of 1998.

And parallel to its development, one might argue, Caracol Beach is not at all a story of random acts, but like the collaborative process which helped bring it to life, is ultimately a story of tightly interlinked events, of human actions and failures that are so interwoven that, at the close of this story, one sees the young boys’ deaths as strangely fated.

The mad ex-soldier, first of all, is not just a misfit who has found his way to the Beach salvage yard where he lives. Ramos, a former soldier himself, was the man who watched over the recovery of Beto Milanés, and developed such a close relationship with the unfortunate young man, that when it came time to part ways, the survivor felt betrayed. It is not entirely accidental, accordingly, that when Ramon retires from the army and comes to work at the Caracol Beach Police Department, that the young soldier has moved nearby. Perhaps if Ramos, instead of ignoring the suicidal soldier had befriended him again, Beto Milanés’ killing may have been prevented.

But Ramon, himself, has problems. The night of these events he is not only busy training a clearly inept new deputy, the son of another army buddy, but is plagued by the behavior of his own son, Nelson (who uses the name Mandy), a transvestite who he has not seen for weeks, and who, as a judo and black-belt expert has not only just beaten his own lover, Tigran Androsian, but attacked a man who attempts to make advances toward him at the local bowling alley and bar. It is this series of events, along with the nuisance call by the town busybody, Mrs. Dickinson, that takes Ramos away from his desk during the crucial hours during which the young boys are forced by the soldier to destroy an automobile, kill a dog, and attack a prostitute, Gigi Col, a friend of Mandy’s and Tigran (it is notable that the mad soldier’s son was also a prostitute). And it is Ramos’ decision to visit his estranged son that puts the young deputy in charge of the attack upon two boys who enter the junkyard to save their beloved Laura.

Laura, who is at the center of the boys’ world at the moment of these events, is, herself, a kind of lost soul, having witnessed as a child the wasting away of her Cuban-born mother, a woman she imagined watching over her when she was young, and who, herself, loved to visit Caracol Beach. As she enters the area to attend the party, she conjures up the mother, pounding at the car window to tell her not to go to the Martin home.

The wealth of Martin’s parents, moreover, draws these young people to his home, and the parent’s evident permissiveness, expressed in a telephone conversation never received by Martin, suggests that, despite Martin’s own previous sense of responsibility, they might have attended more to his whereabouts that night.

The school gym teacher, Agnes MacLarty, invited to the party at Caracol Beach, and who had had a sexual relationship with her student Tom, might have been able to protect her charges from their destinies; but that night she had a date with a charming poet and scholar (he has written a thesis on the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas), Theo Uzcanga, whom she later marries.
In short, as the lover of astronomy, Alberto Beto Milanés, might have said, the events of that night of June 20, 1994, were “in the stars.”

As the author himself makes clear, particularly in the passage where Martin and Tom enter the junkyard, fighting each other for a few moments in a combat that encompasses their desires to save Laura, to retreat, and to turn to one another in love:

When Martin turned and began his retreat, Tom suddenly tackled him and
they both rolled down the slope of wrecked metal in the auto salvage yard.
They fought hard and senselessly and with love. How can that terrible moment
be described if neither of them lived to tell about it?

With that remarkable questioning of his own narrative techniques, Alberto retreats from his seemingly objective narration (something he does numerous times throughout the book) to question not only his authorial motives, but the meaning of it all.

Would it be better to use this page to reflect on the indecency of wars,
which do not end when the politicians sign their peace treaties but live
on in the survivors, the victims of an arduous campaign that still goes
on inside each one of them, between their guts and their hearts?
…But does that make sense? What good would it do? Tom and Martin
won’t read this book: if the document exists, this fiction about facts, it
is because they could not rely on the shield of letters, sentences, para-
graphs, parapets of words. The only way to change destiny would be to
lie, and not even a lie would save men: death, too, is a tyrant.

Alberto here defends fiction as an act of imagination rather than a telling of historical or political truth, which he recognizes would have to be a kind of lie. Life does not represent, after all, an orderly pattern of experience, but is a “totality of coincidences. And accidents” that includes everyone. It is only through the imagination, through a recreation of reality, that forgiveness and redemption can be found.

This is, at last, a novel of just such redemption. Mandy and her lover return to their relationship, with Ramos’ blessing. Agnes MacLarty, at book’s end, is pregnant with her second child. Laura, after a period of psychological recovery, is studying psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles. When one of Tom and Martin’s young friends is caught up in depression and joins a religious sect, the Children of Heaven, which brings him to the edge of suicide, Ramos, Uzcanga, officer Wellington Perales, Laura’s father, and the headmaster of the Emerson Institute secretly travel to Utah, attacking the “monastery” and rescuing the boy.

Out of these seemingly meaningless deaths grows the awareness within the community of Caracol Beach that everyone is in some way responsible and that they need to admit their failures, forgiving one another and themselves. Perhaps more than any novel since Heimito von Doderer's Everyman a Murderer, Alberto's Caracoal Beach recognizes that we are all, in small way, "responsible parties." By novel’s end, fortunately, “clemency” is finally realized—if only as crossword puzzle word—and mercy is awarded for those who have survived.

Los Angeles, August 2, 2000

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