Lost in Translation

Alfred Mac Adam is the author of 'Textual Confrontations: Comparative Readings in Latin American Literature.' A professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College, Columbia University, he has translated many writers, including Carlos Fuentes and Alejo Carpentier

Rosario Ferre is Puerto Rico's premier woman of letters. The daughter of Luis Ferre, the island's governor between 1968 and 1972, she became, variously, a professor, a poet, a journalist, a biographer (of her father) and the author of short stories and novels. She also edited "Zona de carga y descarga" (Loading and Unloading Zone), Puerto Rico's most important literary journal, during the 1970s.

No Puerto Rican intellectual or artist can remain aloof from politics, and Ferre has been in the thick of the independence-statehood-commonwealth controversy all her life. Initially disagreeing with her pro-statehood father, Ferre now embraces statehood: Her old fear that statehood would cause Puerto Rico to lose Spanish and its Hispanic heritage is no longer real, because the Latin population of the United States is millions strong. Pride has also changed her mind: Ferre's son led a platoon of Puerto Rican soldiers during the Gulf War, reminding her (and us) that Puerto Ricans are among the many Americans with two cultures.

Ferre's strength as a novelist derives from her depiction of Puerto Rico's upper classes. This produced "The House on the Lagoon" (1995), an innovative story in which a female narrator, Isabel Monfort, writes a history of her family and her husband's--essentially a precis of 20th century Puerto Rican history. Aware that history is written by the winners and by only the elite among them, Ferre includes ironic touches: Isabel's husband reads her manuscript and criticizes her version, while both are attacked by their servants."The House on the Lagoon" succeeds not just because its shifting point of view presents a nuanced vision of Puerto Rico but because of its strong characters. Family history is the nucleus of Ferre's best work. "Eccentric Neighborhoods" (1998), for instance, family history enables her to personify history in complex individuals whose personalities are shaped by family relationships. Family structures also enable Ferre to explore specific issues, especially Puerto Rican politics and the fate of Puerto Rican women. That she studied with Mario Vargas Llosa is significant: Like the Peruvian, Ferre believes that the artist has the moral obligation to criticize society because fictions may change reality. Therefore, she takes a huge risk in her new book, "Flight of the Swan" by using non-Puerto Rican narrators, characters whose link to the island is accidental. The matter of language is also critically important: Though most of her writing has been in Spanish, Ferre in recent years has been writing directly in English, as she does here.

"Flight of the Swan" takes place in 1917: World War I is raging, and Russia is enduring the February Revolution and the October Bolshevik coup. Between April and September, a ballet troupe led by a Russian prima ballerina, Niura ("Madame" as Masha, the narrator, calls her), visits Puerto Rico, the first leg of an abortive Latin American tour. International politics become local: The 1917 Jones Act defines Puerto Rico as a U.S. territory and Puerto Ricans as U.S. citizens. Ferre seeks to "globalize" Puerto Rico's plight by having Niura fall in love with a young Puerto Rican independentista fighting U.S. imperialism.

The result is a muddle. Masha, speaking in 1932 after Madame dies, defines herself: "I'm the daughter of a Russian peasant from Minsk who used to beat me with a poplar branch every time he got drunk. I survived thanks to a traveling merchant.... But the merchant raped me and began to beat me also. That was when I went to Madame's house ... I was nineteen years old; it was 1899 and Madame had just graduated from the Marinksy."More a maid than a dancer, Masha knows her mistress' secrets, adores her and tries to protect her from men, her husband-agent Victor Dandre and her youthful Puerto Rican lover Diamantino Marquez. But we learn nothing of her thoughts, motivations or education--she speaks English and French--or why she is telling us about Madame's Puerto Rican adventures.

"Flight of the Swan" could have been a slapstick comedy like the Marx Brothers' "A Night at the Opera," but Ferre treats her subject with high seriousness. This decision entails a commitment to epic scale and three-dimensional characters. The melodrama of ballet, the harrowing fact that Madame and her dancers become stateless when the Bolsheviks seize power, the armed struggle of Puerto Ricans: These elements are inherently fascinating, but they must be grounded in a character's individual psychology to become real. It is not enough that we know Madame was born out of wedlock or that she is a Bolshevik sympathizer or that Diamantino is a bohemian at first and a revolutionary in death. Ideas so dominate character that the novel sinks under its own weight.

Ferre's English is another problem. Masha speaks in an awkward English, though whether this is because she is Russian or because that is how Ferre writes is not clear. Take her description of the American flyer Daniel Dearborn:

"Unmarried, blond, and blue-eyed, Dearborn chose to fly his monoplane alone, without weaker souls to distract him. He had already crossed the Atlantic in a radarless flight from Newfoundland all the way to Paris, which first propelled him to international fame. During that heroic voyage, nights were dark as a wolf's maw, and he had only the stars to guide him."A minor but significant character, Dearborn is all surface. Ferre makes no attempt to get under his skin, and expressions like "weaker souls" and "wolf's maw" and "only the stars to guide him" make her novel sound like an awkward translation.

It is saddening to think English restrained Ferre's powers, and that in Spanish this novel might have added a complex tale and extraordinary characters to the Latin American literary tradition.

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