Menendez’s new stories delight, provoke, confound

“Adios, Happy Homeland!” (Black Cat), by Ana Menendez

In Ana Menendez’s second book of short stories, everything flies: the characters, in parachutes and out of airplanes; time, in jolting movements back and forth; and the quiet, cutting realism that has defined her previous works.

It’s a daring departure for the Cuban-American author, whose explorations of political strife, identity and exile in the novels “Loving Che” and “The Last War” and the acclaimed short story collection, “In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd,” have been marked by a compelling, minimalist style.

In “Adios, Happy Homeland!” Menendez instead takes a page from Argentine master Jorge Luis Borges, inventing a cast of mostly fictional Cuban poets whose works are anthologized by an equally fictional Irish library director.

There are 24 stories in all, some just a few pages long, and which switch quickly across storytelling formats, from letters and poems to lists and even mathematical equations. The result is a thought-provoking, humorous and sometimes dizzying collection of tales.

The character who anthologizes these works, Herberto Quain, is a connoisseur of Cuban poetry who hails from 19th-century Ireland and journeys to the New World after becoming captivated by a collection of the island’s finest verses. Landing in Havana, he fudges his literary credentials and lands a job at the National Library, overseeing a newly created section titled, “Poetry of the Americas.”

Menendez’s inspiration for Quain, we can safely presume, lies in a short story by Borges. Titled “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain,” it is a review of a fictional author’s fictional works, which are unconventional and often misunderstood. In one, for example, readers are offered a choice of narrative sequences, resulting in several different novels within one. In a short story collection, all start out with a promising plot but are then “intentionally frustrated by the author.”

Menendez takes up many of these structures in her own tales. “End-less Stories” consists of three short stories within one, with different story lines depending on what the readers choose. Two of the stories take shape in the form of descriptive lists. Two others are in the form of letters between the fictional poets (some of which bear the names of characters from other literary works) and Quain.

“Who are you?” the writers press Quain in a letter demanding that he abandon the anthology. “You are neither Cuban nor a poet yourself. And (if we are to be frank) you are not even real.”

“Can only Cubans understand Cubans?” Quain questions in his reply. “Or are Cubans the only ones in this world looking for a hidden passage, a way out of our maze?”

The effect of this labyrinth of tales is disjointing and sometimes dissatisfying, as though Menendez, like Borges’ Quain, has intentionally squandered several great, potential stories. Yet, this is also what makes “Adios, Happy Homeland!” a brilliant and inventive work: fractured, layered storytelling conveys the unsettling experience and shifting sense of identity that exile brings.

Menendez retains some of the graceful, poignant lyricism that has defined her previous works throughout, particularly in the stories “Cojimar,” which recounts the early morning departure of a young Cuban boy and his mother on a raft, and related tale, “The Boy Who Was Rescued by Fish,” a take on the Elian Gonzalez saga through the eyes of a poorly run, and often humorous, exile political group.

In the author’s note, Menendez writes that “Adios, Happy Homeland!” is a tribute to Cuban poets, whose “courage, foolhardiness and resilience” has served as a constant inspiration. Indeed, the title of the book comes from a poem by Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda y Arteaga, whose translation (by Google nonetheless) Menendez includes in the book. It tells of a reluctant goodbye and an ode to a land soon to be lost. In the automated translation, the words come across as forced, though it still manages to ring poetic. As in Menendez’s book, exile proves to be repetitive and endless, withstanding contortion of language, time and even a Google translation.

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