Thursday, July 23, 2009

Uncertain welcome

In 1939, a number of German ships carrying Jewish passengers arrived in Havana, Cuba; the passengers were seeking asylum. Kristallnacht had occurred the previous November, which many German Jews recognized as their signal to leave their homes if they could. In Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, poet Margarita Engle imagines a young man named Daniel, whose parents only have the money for one exit visa and ticket. He arrives in Havana, knowing no one, determined to hang on to his woolen coat, hat and scarf in the Cuban heat -- it's the only thing he's got left connecting him to his family. He might be wise to keep his warm clothing, even though he has arrived in Cuba, he may not be welcome there. The Cubans are insisting that additional fees (huge bribes) must be paid in order for the Jews to get to safety.

Daniel is eventually allowed into the country and trades his woolens for a guayabera shirt provided by a new friend Paloma. Although she doesn't tell Daniel, it is Paloma's father (El Gordo) who is demanding the bribes from the Jewish refugees. Daniel also makes another friend, David -- a Jew who fled Russian pogroms thirty years earlier. David guides Daniel in assimilating without sacrificing his Jewishness. These three people tell the slender story of Tropical Secrets in the form of first-person poems. (Very occasionally, there is a poem from El Gordo.) Engle tells us in an afterword that her paternal grandfather was a Russian Jewish refugee whose American son wooed her Cuban Catholic mother after World War II.

There are four readers for this audiobook and they disappoint. The narrator reading Paloma, Vane Millon, just did The Forest of Hands and Teeth. She still reads with that neutral dispassion, that unvarying delivery, but here her Spanish-inflected English is allowed full flower. She pronounces her name, Paloma, at the beginning of each poem with a force or emphasis that was kind of offputting for an Anglo listener. I'm hoping to ask a Spanish speaker to give it a listen, as her accent sounded utterly appropriate to me, but I want to doublecheck that it's my Anglo ears recoiling from that pronunciation.

The two men reading the adult parts, David and El Gordo, were unfamiliar to me: Ozzie Rodriguez and Roberto Santana. El Gordo is terrifying loud and demanding in the few poems in which he appears. But David had an accent that I couldn't place: Was it Spanish (Cuban), was it Russian/Mittel-European? Was it a blend? I spent too much time pondering this and not quite enough listening to what he was saying.

But it was Matt Green, reading Daniel, who really doesn't belong in this story. Daniel sounds like he lives a nice suburban life in the Midwest (or someplace equally as neutral vocalwise); never for one minute did I hear a German Jewish boy telling me his story. Green doesn't even try (which probably would have been worse), he just concentrates on delivering Daniel's sadness and loneliness -- which gets dull after awhile. I enjoyed listening to him in an earlier audiobook, but here he sticks out so obviously. We hear poems from Paloma and from David and we know we are someplace foreign, slightly exotic. Then we switch to Daniel and we're in the comfort of our own home. It's like visiting Pizza Hut in Shanghai.

As I've said before, poetry is not the thing I will pull off the shelf to read. All four readers chose to read it in those somber, "this-is-literature" tones that sound so, well, fake. They don't attempt to make it interesting, only important. And, as young readers/listeners will tell you, important isn't what makes you keeping reading/listening.

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