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Aviators used to be rock stars: Charles Lindbergh, played in a 1957 biopic by real-life Air Force man Jimmy Stewart. And Santos Dumont, the flyer Brazilians claim preceded the Wright Brothers as the real father of aviation and immortalized by Cartier in a beautiful watch, the Santos. And in Jean Renoir's 1939 classic film The Rules of the Game, France is all abuzz about a dashing pilot who is also the lover of an aristocratic married woman.
Mayra Montero's Captain of the Sleepers also features an aviator -- an American in a proper prop plane, not the testosterone jets of Top Gun -- and he too is romantically involved with a married woman, the narrator's mother. This narrator, whose child's-eye view dominates Montero's newly translated novel has traveled, much later in life, to meet the now old and decrepit aviator to kill him.
A wily narrator herself, Montero, who introduces the novel today at Miami Book Fair International, leaves the motive a mystery until the end and lets the child's tale unfold along with the aviator's side of the story. We eventually learn that the child witnessed something between the aviator and his mother with echoes of Freud's "primal scene" -- the trauma of seeing one's parents make love -- but of a disturbingly degenerate nature, thus the motive for his vengeful plans.
'I don't want to have them hang the label of `erotic writer' on me any longer," says Montero on the phone from San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the Cuban-born writer lives. Two of her books, The Last Night I Spent With You (Harper Collins, $13) and Deep Purple (Harper Collins, $11.95), have been finalist and winner, respectively, of Spain's prestigious Vertical Smile award for erotic fiction. And, like Captain, the final revelation in each is a scene of degenerate sex.
But, Montero insists, there are other far more sexual books that don't get labeled such. Indeed, her other novels are ripe with erotic passion, as is Captain of the Sleepers.
Such passion, however, was not the genesis of Captain. The child-narrator grows up in his parents' little beach hotel, which Montero took from a friend who grew up in a little hotel in the famous Cuban beach resort of Varadero. "He would tell me about life in the hotel, how there was nothing to do in the off-season. And then, in one of my book tours, I met a woman whose son flew a small plane up in Maine, carrying lobsters to different locations. Occasionally, this pilot also had to carry a cadaver to the destination where it was to be buried."
The "sleepers" in Montero's novel are the corpses the American aviator flies from the small island of Vieques to the Puerto Rican mainland for burial; the kid's parents tell him the dead bodies are sleeping so he won't be frightened.
The novel is set against the background of the failed Puerto Rican nationalist uprising in 1950 which had violent repercussions in Vieques. And, until recently, the use of Vieques for American bombing exercises is a sore point -- and the cause of havoc for the tourist trade on which the child's parents depend.
"There is nothing invented," said Montero, except the story of the hotel and the aviator. Once she had those elements, "all I needed was a setting: a beach town small enough to be asphyxiating, and Vieques seemed perfect."
IN LOVE WITH A LEPER
A journalist by trade, Montero researched the history of the island. "I read accounts of the dead fish that would appear everywhere after the bombing exercises, and the pestilence that ensued. And I was interested in the October '50 revolt.
"Albizú Campos [Puerto Rico's revolutionary leader] was planning a nationalist revolution, but the new constitution [which would seal Puerto Rico's fate under American control] was about to be set in place."
The revolutionary moved up the date of the uprising, and the results were disastrous. Montero got the details of the bloody siege of a barbershop from the journalist who had narrated it for a newsreel.
"The theme of nationalism is very delicate here," Montero said about her adopted country. "We don't talk about it. When the 50th anniversary of the revolt came, not a word. It's a bit of a taboo.
"I love the period, the music," she added. "I am muy cincuentera" -- a '50s nut.
That enthusiasm has carried over to her new novel, Son de almendra, which she also read from earlier this week, in Spanish, at the Book Fair.
The newer novel was prompted by Montero's discovery that a group of Cubans may have had a connection with the 1957 murder of mob boss Albert Anastasia in the barbershop of New York's Park Sheraton hotel. The motive, investigated by the novel's journalist protagonist, was Anastasia's push to enter the profitable world of Havana's casinos, dominated by other mafiosi.
"There is flashback to the mob reunion in 1946 Havana, the same scene as in The Godfather Part II, where the plot to murder Bugsy Siegel was hatched," Montero explained. As in Captain, Montero mixes real historical facts with her own invention, including, as always, passionate love.
"The journalist falls in love with the female assistant of the Tropicana night club's famous choreographer, Rodney, who suffered from leprosy and was gay. It was an impossible love," Montero says, explaining her fusion of fact and fiction: everything about Rodney is real, while the infatuated assistant is Montero's invention.
Her meticulous research has generated a style similar to that of her predecessors, the Latin American "magical realists." The term is often misunderstood as fantasy, with the "realist" side of the equation ignored.
"A character in my novel is a zoo worker who feeds the animals and discovers a hippopotamus has escaped," said Montero, laughing at the outrageousness of the real-life incident. All she did was tinker with reality and write "a hippopotamus escaped the very day they killed Anastasia, which is not true."
Almendra will be Montero's second book set in Cuba. The first was The Messenger (Harper Collins, $13), also a period piece, built around a famous 1920 appearance by Enrico Caruso in Havana, singing the role of Radamés in Aida. It's historical fact that a deadly bomb was set off during the performance. And it's a Havana urban legend that Caruso, like everyone else, fled the scene in a panic, running down the streets of downtown Havana, in full make-up and dressed like an ancient Egyptian, only to get hassled by street youths who took him for a drag queen.
The Messenger speculates on what happened to Caruso after the explosion, when his whereabouts were unknown for several days. It's a love story fueled by Chinese and Afro-Cuban lore. The famous Italian tenor winds up by a lagoon near the colonial city of Trinidad, singing an aria for the cadre of a secret Afro-Cuban society. "Yours is the voice of Changó," says one of the Cubans.
DON'T FENCE HER IN
One of her most acclaimed books, In the Palm of Darkness (Harper Collins, $13) is set in Haiti and counterpoints the research of a foreign naturalist investigating the extinction of whole species of amphibians with the religious practices of the Haitian characters. There's vodou, of course, but also a secret male society of African origins. Critics who praised Montero's faithful rendering of Haitian religion failed to notice there is no such society in that country.
They are the abakuá of Montero's native Cuba -- the very same group that would hear Caruso sing in her later novel -- which Montero mischievously admits having transposed to Haiti because it fit the purposes of her story.
In that maneuver and many others, Montero is following in the steps -- The Lost Steps, one is tempted to say, quoting a famous book title of Cuba's Alejo Carpentier. Arguably the father of magical realism, Carpentier also used the term, "the marvelous real," claiming that reality in the Americas can seem like imaginative fiction.
In spite of Montero's debt to the late Cuban writer, her voice is unique. She is a woman who often narrates from the point of view of a man -- often a very tough man, or, like the protagonist of Deep Purple, an inveterate womanizer. And, like Carpentier, whose parents and birthplace were European (he spoke all his life with a thick French accent), she is not limited by nationality because she herself doesn't belong to Cuba or Puerto Rico but to the world of letters. And even there she refuses to be boxed-in.
'I don't believe in `post-boom' fiction, a category invented by critics," she said, "or even in generations, like the Puerto Rican generation of 1970, to which I'm often linked. One may have writer friends one's age, but a writer's work is very solitary."
Which explains her disdain for labels, like that of "erotic writer" label that's been hung on her since her two very sexy novels and one hot short story, Dorso de diamante [Diamondback] -- which has been published in Chinese but not English. It bothers her so much, she has sworn off writing any more erotic fiction, a genre in which she is uniquely gifted.
"It's unfair," she says about the erotic label. "If there's anything I'm not is monothematic."
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