Pig’s Foot, by Carlos Acosta
The acclaimed dancer’s debut novel is as lively and catchy as Cuban music
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.