Pig’s Foot, by Carlos Acosta
The acclaimed dancer’s debut novel is as lively and catchy as Cuban music
Exuberance and a gleeful return to the characteristic devices – and multiple excesses – of magic realism sustain the richly entertaining debut novel by the Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta. Pig’s Foot tells the story of a family’s adventures set against the racing backdrop of Cuba’s history.
On realising that with the death of his grandparents – he never knew his parents – he has been left alone, the narrator feels compelled to set the facts straight. “So like I said, my name’s Oscar Mandinga – pleased to meet you – now, back to the hazy past that was my childhood.”
His birth in a place called Pig’s Foot, “in the deep south of Cuba”, is relatively unusual: “I slid down my mother’s legs into the mud like a slug. Can you imagine? Like a slug. And . . . as soon as my mother plucked me up out of the muck, I started howling like I’d been stuck with a fistful of needles.”
It doesn’t take long for the reader to begin noting the similarities with The Tin Drum. Acosta’s Oscar shares the crazed bluntness of Günter Grass’s wilful little Oskar Matzerath. Acosta quickly establishes the voice of his Oscar: sharp, streetwise and given to seeing the funny side of most of the horrors, of which there are plenty.
In common with Grass, Acosta looks to history and offers a cleverly impatient account of the many ills inflicted on the people of Cuba. Grass the fabulist owes a stylist debt to the Cuban Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980), widely regarded as the founding father of magic realism, which makes Acosta’s book appear to have turned a full circle.
Throughout Pig’s Foot, Acosta remains in control of his narrative strands and large cast of characters. Subplots are introduced, pursued and resolved with an awareness of detail that seldom appears contrived. There is an ease about this book that will impress. By the third page Oscar has casually mentioned: “The only thing I knew about my grandparents was that years earlier they’d moved from Santiago de Cuba to a barrio called Lawton in the city of Havana and opened a laundry business that brought in just enough to put food on the table. I have no problem remembering El Buen Vivir – The Good Life Laundromat – since I worked there as a kid, but even back then, I never heard any stories about my grandparents, never saw any photos of them when they were young.”
Oscar begins his exploration of the past by recalling the close friendship between two men: another Oscar, the reticent and diminutive Oscar Kortico, a member of “a pygmy race from East Africa, from a land as cracked and barren as the surface of the planet Mars”, and Jose Mandinga, an easy-going ladykiller of immense charm. They end up marrying two sisters. Jose, as expected, has little trouble winning the beautiful Betina, but it takes Malena some time to convince Oscar that she loves him. Their romance and ultimate tragedy form the most touching sequence in a novel that is earthy, fast-moving, violent and determinedly unsentimental.
Jose and Betina have two children, a lovely daughter and a son who is exceptionally gifted. His intelligence quickly impresses a local landowner who offers to educate him. It is planned that this boy, Melecio, will in time return to the village and teach everyone to read. He will also become an architect.
Like so many coloured plates in the air, Acosta keeps his narratives spinning furiously yet also cohesively. It is an exciting yarn, often hilarious. One of the many set pieces is a brilliant confrontation in the filthy shack of a vicious outcast. The narrator’s grandfather is faced with the monster, who proves to be far closer to him than he – or anyone – would like. It looks like a showdown. Somehow, a crowd of locals, eager for blood, have gathered at the windows to view the combat: “Lifting El Mozambique by the throat, [Grandfather] slammed him with all his strength against the floor. The giant hit his head and passed out. Then everything happened quickly. In a split second, the 30 people who had witnessed what was happening rushed into the garden; some smashed windows the better to see, others peered through cracks between the timbers waiting for the fatal blow that would satisfy once and for all their thirst for blood.”
Acosta is a natural storyteller, with an obvious love of theatre. This gusto is evident in the telling. His prose is simple and descriptive, and he loves exasperation as a medium and uses it to sustain the narrative pace. His characters scream, emote and battle with their feelings. The sex is symphonic, tempers flare and settle, and the dialogue is undercut by humour and a few confessional interludes. It seems unfair that instead of being assessed as another debut novel, Pig’s Foot, with all its verve, will be treated as a celebrity foray into fiction by one of the world’s finest ballet dancers. Acosta has already published his autobiography, No Way Home: A Cuban Dancer’s Story (2007). From petty street crime to the heights of international classical ballet, Acosta’s life story would seem far more bizarre than any fiction. The truth is, though, that he has written a zany, if relentlessly well-focused, novel that surpasses the extremes of even his life to date. Just when it seemed that magic realism had had its day, Acosta appears to be insisting otherwise.
The mix of history and personal observations, as well as the plot, keeps the narrative fresh, despite Acosta never leaving the reader in doubt that his Oscar may not be all that he seems. The hint of ambivalence is, cleverly, ever present, possibly because Oscar tends to reiterate. He appears slightly distracted, possibly crazy. But then why wouldn’t he be, with all these stories racing around in his head?
There is also the heaving presence of Havana itself, “an awe-inspiring city of thousands of inhabitants which had contraptions known as ‘street cars’ used to transport people to various destinations. It was a city that never rested, in which there was no place for silence since at all hours of the day and night one could hear the booming voice of hawkers selling their wares on the cobbled streets, the foghorns of the ships coming into harbour. A riot of noise, of traffic, of confusion: this was Havana. And yet the sea was beautiful, crystal clear, blue as the sky . . . In the dawn light the capital attained a different splendour when only the buildings were visible, guarding the city like faithful watchmen.”
Some of the ferocious colour of the telling seeps away in the closing stages when Oscar begins to explain his immediate situation. Yet there is no denying Acosta’s achievement in creating a world that lives and breathes, one that is vibrantly expressed through Frank Wynne’s translation from the original Spanish.
It may not seem quite fair that Acosta, who danced Spartacus and so many other roles with such grace, power and majestic artistry, should now also write a lively, delightfully engaging novel, yet he has. Pig’s Foot is as catchy as a piece of Cuban music, defers to Latin America’s literary tradition and shimmers with a likable swagger all its own.