Dear First Love-Zoé Valdés
Novel in translation
The numbing rhythm of daily life in poverty-stricken Havana has deadened Danae's mind and spirit. In search of her first true love, Danae returns to the countryside of her adolescence, where the government of Fidel Castro had sent her and other teenagers in the late 1970s to work in the fields under a corrupt and sadistic overseer. It is there, surrounded by a natural world infused with spiritual wonders, that Danae met and fell in love with Tierra Fortuna Munda, a campesino girl her own age. When the adult Danae finds Tierra again, their lives are transformed and their love reborn. But the ultimate test -- their return to Havana -- still lies before them.
This is the first book I've read for the GWC challenge and it made sense to me to start in a country I know.
I’ve heard stories of Castro’s Escuelas en el Campo (Schools in the Country) all my life. My uncle hated his experiences and my mother worked in the sugar cane fields. They have told of the horrible food, the lack of school at the Schools in the Country, the subpar living conditions and the overall sense of pointlessness. I say pointlessness because it never makes sense to force teenagers who’ve never seen a field go and weed some-these kids damaged the plants more than helped. It’s clear Valdés went to a School in the Country but perhaps later than my family because there’s no attempt to hold to the idea that these weeks were spent studying as well as working. But the story is definitely set before the ultimate failure of the program.
Danae is a typical fifteen year old who has never known a life without Castro and has never left Havana. Her relationship with her grandmother was suitably complicated and was at the age when she hates her mother who is portrayed in a way that made it clear that it must have been Danae’s age. When Danae is traveling to the camp where she is going to spend 45 days sleeping in a barely converted tobacco shed she is overwhelmed by the beautiful landscape full of things she lacks even the words for. This sense of wonder sharply contrasts with Danae as an adult who finds she must walk away from the stultifying boredom of her life in Havana. She has married a teenage sweetheart who is a decent man and has two daughters but finds herself thinking about her first love and the wonder of the country. Psychology lovers would probably claim Danae had a midlife crisis and sought to return to the moment when she first realized what it is to be happy. The other girls in the camp are all given nicknames that not only confirm their individuality but make the prose almost flow.
So at its heart this is a story about what ifs and the pull of your first love and your first sexual experiences. The scenes between the girlfriends were treated well with a delicacy that quite frankly was lacking in the heterosexual scenes which highlights the otherworldliness of the first love experience.
That’s the rational part of the book. Intertwined into this is are the narrative voices of the music of the city, the Ceiba tree, Danae’s suitcase, a manatee, among others. Tierra Fortuna Munda is the result of an incestuous family and thus has six nipples, six fingers on each hand, and her navel secretes guava jelly. She is the goddaughter of the ceiba tree and thus she triumphs over the hardships she faces as she is protected by the spirits of the landscape. Valdés weaves this story about the pull towards each other the rational urban Danae and the mystical embedded-in-the-landscape Tierra feel. Valdés is often crude and the story often violent and full of tragedy and yet there’s a strange beauty about it all.
It’s a heady environment that completely echoes my own experience. There’s something about a country in which whole forests may be torn down but out of mythology, the ceiba are left standing as they are considered "more solid than walls and revolutions". It’s hard to capture in speech but Valdés does well at dancing around it to allow the reader to feel it.
I’d say the story has three endings: the sad and tragic one, the martyrdom, and the miraculous mystical one. By separating these threads apart for the ending, Valdés effectively refuses to answer what is natural and what is unnatural.