I hope my geographical labelling is appropriate, one issue that I sometimes have with ‘reading the world’ challenges is knowing which books belong where. Rita Indiana herself dislikes labels but is generally categorised (by others at least) as a Latina or Caribbean writer, both of which suggest a conglomeration of varied cultures without falling into a narrow ‘single-nation’ focus. ‘Papi’ fits more or less under this bracket. It’s an urban novel, it’s about drugs, violence and corruption, but it is told through the eyes of a young girl who lives in a surreally evocative rather than strictly realist landscape.
Our young narrator is a child with a powerful father. The topic and length of the novella are reminiscent of Juan Pablo Villalobos’s ‘Down the Rabbit Hole,’ in which a young boy lives in isolated macho splendour with his drug baron father. The style is totally different however, because this is not a story from within the system, but the babbling narrative of a girl who desperately wants to find where she belongs in a family, city and world where rules are always fluid and objective truth almost impossible to unpick.
As with ‘Down the Rabbit Hole,’ the central list of characters is small. In this book though, they are surrounded by a cast of thousands, all of whom claim some kind of relationship with the monumental figure of the narrator’s father. There are hordes of girlfriends who love and despise Papi and give birth to swarms of his children. There are business associates who were originally loyal, but can’t always be trusted. There are also terrifying, primeval monsters:
‘Then there’s the royal family, which is me, my abuela, my aunts, and the twins, Puchy and Milly. There’s also my mother, recognized by Papi’s royal family as Papi’s only wife cuz she was the first and they married the way God intended, in the church. The family is in charge of the safekeeping of Papi’s attributes. They’re also in charge of revealing his mysteries to me at the right time if they see I have the potential to take on this adventure…
One other thing: sometimes these creatures, monsters and heroes both, don’t look the part, and they get mixed up cuz they act as if nothing is going on. Some don’t even realise they are pterodactyls or business associates or part of the royal family.’
Indiana’s prose, wonderfully translated by Achy Obejas, is dizzying as the non-stop inner monologue of our confused narrator chases, over-reaches and desperately tries to understand her father’s life. The misunderstandings that arise are both funny and heart-breaking, especially with the important role ascribed to the armies of girlfriends that form such a central part of Papi’s entourage and mystique.
If you’re looking for a book that goes far beyond the expected, I highly recommend ‘Papi’ and I personally am going to keep an eye out for more Caribbean literature published in the UK. There are a lot of incredible stories out there, and so much to learn about different voices, cultures and ways of writing the world.