Cuban novella about sex, love and politics
I’m always on the lookout for world literature, and this one caught my eye at the Lifeline Book Fair some time ago. It’s a compact little book, and just the thing for me trying to race to meet my reading goal for 2019. I was also delighted to find the original receipt for the book which was bought from Smith’s Alternative Bookshop, before it changed hands to become a cafe, bar and live music venue.
“Yocandra” by Zoé Valdés and translated by Sabina Cienfuegos is a novella about a young girl born minutes after Labour Day in 1959, the beginning of the Cuban revolution. Named Patria by her father, patriotically inspired by the fatherland, she later changes her name to Yocandra. Sexually precocious, she marries and divorces young, embracing instead a bohemian life of writing, alternating lovers and living under Cuba’s authoritarian socialist republic regime.
This is a fascinating and spirited book that explores the life of a liberated woman in a restrictive regime. Valdés is a fearless writer who surprises the reader with her candid descriptions. Yocandra’s world is one of contradictions, where sex is a metaphor for politics and love is a game. Self-invention is everything, and everyone has a pseudonym – chosen or assumed. The four main players in Yocandra’s sphere are her ex-husband and current lover the Traitor, her other lover the Nihilist, her best friend the Gusana and her friend and exile the Lynx – each an archetype of Cuba that she loves in her own way. Editor-in-chief for a literary magazine, Yocandra’s life is one of contradictions where she is surrounded by economic poverty but intellectual wealth. I love how Yocandra grapples with her feelings for Cuba, her island prison, and how her efforts to keep her lovers in the dark about one another hilariously come undone.
However, this is a complex book and if, like me, you are not very familiar with Cuba’s political history, you may find that on the first read quite a lot of it goes over your head. Valdés goes out of her way to shock the reader with some of Yocandra’s sexual exploits, and as a short book, I feel that some of the character building suffers a little from brevity.
Nevertheless, this is a clever and unique book that will keep you on your toes and show you a side to Cuba you never knew about.