Carlos Acosta is, apparently, a very successful and world-renowned Cuban ballet dancer. As in a ballet dancer who is Cuban, not a dancer of Cuban ballet. (Though maybe he’s that as well.) His first novel, Pig’s Foot, does not leave me feeling that he is likely to become a world-renowned novelist, for though this multi-generational, very political, sexed-up novel has many strengths, ultimately it feels a little bit imperfect.
The majority of the novel is about life in a remote village of Cuba, the fictional Pata de Puerco. It is close to Santiago, near the island’s southeastern tip. Here, the many revolutions of the twentieth century and the many wars of abroad have little effect on the rural inhabitants, who live lives full of santería, wise women, village outsiders, subsistence farming and illiteracy. One character is befriended by the Bacardi (rum) family and ends up as an internationally-known architect, though he disappears from the novel as his career is in ascendence and his death is, much later, reported in a casual conversation. This, really, is a problem throughout the novel – inconsistencies in focus, direct clashing problems with characters’ behaviour, differences in factuality/location/time/ages of characters only pages apart, and all of this in a way that feels like sloppy editing, rather than deliberate vagueness.
BUT all of this becomes questionable as error due to an unheralded and (to me) unexpected revelation in the final ten pages of the novel. The narrator, throughout, speaks to the reader from a cell somewhere, one is led to presume he’s a political prisoner,* yet it is suddenly revealed that he is actually in a psychiatric ward, and that the story of his parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles are fabrications rooted in real events of his life as a moderately successful novelist driven mad by sexual and professional jealousy. So does this mean that the many errors that lie within the text earlier have been placed there as deliberate allusions to the electro-shock-therapied madness of the narrator? And do the ones that exist in this chapter, too, point to its continuation? I’m going to say no, and that instead they’re merely signs of a writer famous enough in a different field to hand in a manuscript that still needs work.
Which is a shame, because there are many passages of Pig’s Foot that are excellent.
There is a grubbiness and an earthiness (literally: mud is a constant presence in most of the novel’s many al fresco sex scenes) to the text – poverty in Havana in the mid-twentieth century, the horrors of slavery in the late 1800s, the reality of the 1990s ‘Special Period’**, lots about eating and violence and sexuality and lots about health, too. It’s a physical text, and that is something I like. Landscape and city descriptions are good, are strong, dialogue isn’t weak, the political context is well-explored, but… there’s something a little… a little unfinished about the whole thing.
With a bit of an edit (including getting rid of the “it was all a dream” ending), this could probably hold up as another of those multi-generational Latin American novels that I’ve been reading too many of recently, but as it stands it all falls a little flat.
I liked bits of it, and wanted to like more, but sadly Pig’s Foot isn’t great. Alas.
* Please note, I will be discussing the plot, but as I don’t really recommend reading this book I don’t feel I need to worry about “spoilers”. Urgh. I hate that word. Spoilers are something idiots have on cars.
** For a truly excellent and fabulously filthy evocation of that, look to Dirty Havana Trilogy by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez. Loads of great, sweaty, fucking. HA!