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The Cabrera family being welcomed at the Peking airport© Personal archive of Sergio Cabrera, Marianella Cabrera, and Carl Crook

The Cabrera family being welcomed at the Peking airport
© Personal archive of Sergio Cabrera, Marianella Cabrera, and Carl Crook

The novel form is capacious and elastic, in some instances deployed like a magnifying glass on a water droplet, and in others as a panoramic lens to encompass a vast landscape. Juan Gabriel Vásquez, the Colombian writer perhaps best known for his 2011 book The Sound of Things Falling, writes novels of the latter sort: his ambitious fictions tackle the darker sides of Colombia’s history and politics. His new book, Retrospective (Riverhead, $30), eloquently translated by Anne McLean, might at first glance appear a narrower undertaking: it simply tells the story of his close friend Sergio Cabrera, a filmmaker who has directed more than twenty movies, including The Strategy of the Snail, and was appointed as Colombia’s ambassador to China last year. Cabrera’s life, one quickly realizes, covers a wide and rich canvas.

An author’s note explains that the novel is “a work of fiction, but there are no imaginary episodes in it.” Vásquez recorded more than thirty hours of conversation with Cabrera over the course of seven years, and has distilled the filmmaker’s memories into a meaningful narrative. Vásquez frames his novel with Cabrera’s attendance of a retrospective of his work at the Filmoteca de Catalunya in Barcelona in October 2016, at a moment of both personal and national turmoil. A referendum on ending the long conflict between the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas has just failed; Cabrera’s ninety-two-year-old father, the actor Fausto Cabrera, has just died; and Cabrera’s marriage is in crisis. Though it returns periodically to 2016, Retrospective is largely concerned with the Cabrera family’s tumultuous twentieth century, ranging from South America to China and back again, from boarding school to guerrilla camps. Any novel balances summary and scene, telling and showing, but this is a novel largely of telling, because there is much to impart.

Cabrera’s family fled Spain as General Francisco Franco came to power, settling in Colombia in 1945, when Fausto was twenty. He took to the stage, became involved in radical politics, married a young bourgeoise from Medellín, and had two children: Sergio, in 1950, and then Marianella. He introduced Sergio to performance early, and the boy inherited his first camera from his aunt—nudging him toward his future in filmmaking. When Fausto’s acting jobs dried up in the early Sixties, he accepted an official invitation to teach Spanish in Peking and moved the family to China, a diversion that would last close to a decade.

In Peking, the Cabrera family was housed, like most other expatriates, in the comfortable Friendship Hotel. (The hotel was built for Soviet contractors who left the country after the confrontation between Mao and Khrushchev in the late Fifties.) But Fausto felt that his children were being spoiled, so he sent them to a Chinese boarding school: a Communist puritan “hell” from which they returned home to a guilty cosmopolitan “heaven.” At around fifteen, Sergio and his classmates were trained to use firearms and grenades, and also taught “hand-to-hand combat and how to charge with bayonets.” When their parents announced that they were returning to Colombia to “contribute to the revolution,” the kids stayed behind. Fausto wrote them a long letter in which he exhorted them “to reject all those books and magazines that you like, because they are true ‘poisonous weeds.’ ” It was the height of the Cultural Revolution, and Sergio participated in the vicious beating of a schoolteacher and renounced his first love because of her father’s occupation.

But these Peking years—living in an empty high-end hotel, working in a factory, undergoing intensive military training—are tame in comparison to what unfolds once Sergio and his sister return to Colombia (with an exhilarating stop in Paris on the cusp of the 1968 uprisings). Their eventual exfiltration from the guerrilla movement proves dramatic—in a twist of superb narrative irony, the family’s escape from Colombia lands them once again in Peking. Only there, and at last, does Sergio turn to Fausto: “Our whole lives you’ve been making us believe that we were deciding, but it’s not true: you’ve decided.” He wants to attend film school in London. “This is what I’ve decided to do now, these are my plans, mine, no one else’s. This is what I want to do with my fucking life.”

Tristan Dancing, Venus, by Louis Fratino © Louis Fratino. Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York City

The characters in Brandon Taylor’s The Late Americans (Riverhead, $28) have skipped the revolutionary phase in order to pursue graduate degrees in Iowa City. Taylor’s elegant works of fiction—this new book is in the vein of his two earlier ones, the Booker Prize nominee Real Life and his short-story collection Filthy Animals—keep a tight focus on their characters, like a magnifying glass. Whereas in Retrospective individuals stretch to meet their historical moment, in The Late Americans Taylor’s characters are preoccupied with work, sex, and friendship. History trickles through their lives and conversations, but their minds are elsewhere. This sense of the self as an ahistorical individual might broadly distinguish the American consciousness: novels of showing rather than telling, so delicious, are precisely the “poisonous weeds” Fausto Cabrera warned his children about.

The Late Americans is an ensemble piece, no more or less novelistic than Taylor’s linked story collection, and it revisits similar emotional terrain with compassion and precision. The narrative opens with a biting graduate poetry seminar (Taylor attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop), seen from the perspective of an alienated white working-class gay man named Seamus. How could they take this so seriously, Seamus wondered

as they wore on talking about the violence of the archive and Cherríe Moraga and Cecilia Vicuña, whose work was not even remotely on point for the poem at hand. This wasn’t poetry. This was the aping of poetry in pursuit of validation.

The world about which Taylor writes here may in some ways seem small—many MFA students and alumni will find exquisite provocation in this chapter—but he has a Chekhovian generosity that enables him to convey character with something like tenderness; he depicts not only Seamus’s bombastic arrogance, but also his suffering and self-loathing. Seamus shares one of his poems with his friend Oliver, and the two men sleep together in an emotionally complicated and moving scene (Taylor writes brilliantly about sex). Oliver then admits that he’d come up to Seamus’s room because he “looked so sad,” and Seamus is enraged. “Pity, he thought, pity, what was worse than pity.”

Seamus holds the novel’s roiling, slow ground bass, but Taylor offers, in counterpoint, a series of relationships between a group of friends and lovers, mostly queer men of color. Fyodor and Timo, who are both mixed-race, are a sometime couple, the former a butcher, the latter a logician and pianist. Fyodor’s frustration with Timo arises from the fact that he is “very naive in the way some black people could be when they’d grown up with money and parents who believed in them.” They argue, repeatedly, about Fyodor’s job, which Timo characterizes as “just murder.” Taylor reveals their hypocrisies, along with their quiet grace.

Then there are the similarly ill-matched Ivan and Goran. Goran, who studies music, is black but was raised in a wealthy adoptive white family; for Ivan, who isn’t black, this almost negates his partner’s blackness. Formerly at a ballet school, Ivan chose finance “because he knew that he could make a living that way,” and is nearing the end of his MBA program. Ivan and Goran have stopped sleeping together, and each finds solace elsewhere: Ivan with his dancer friend Noah, who suggests that Ivan supplement his income by making porn. His decision complicates his relationship with Goran, and provokes Timo’s voyeuristic fascination with his friend’s partner. There are women in this novel, too—Fatima, a modern dancer who works in the local coffee shop; Bea, a lonely teacher and artist in her thirties—whose experiences are carefully rendered but barely impinge on the central narrative.

The relationships move like an eighteenth-century quadrille, at once restrained and spritely. Each of the characters is granted interiority, even when they don’t quite know or understand themselves. People pass in and out of intimacy; several older men, more and less sinister, serve as catalysts, altering the choreography. Taylor’s vision is unsparing, but never bleak.

“Ngwana o tshwana le dinaledi II,” by Lebohang Kganye, from the series Ke Lefa Laka: Her-story. Kganye’s work is on view this month in the exhibition Sue Williamson and Lebohang Kganye: Tell Me What You Remember, at the Barnes Foundation, in Philadelphia. Courtesy and © The artist

“Ngwana o tshwana le dinaledi II,” by Lebohang Kganye, from the series Ke Lefa Laka: Her-story. Kganye’s work is on view this month in the exhibition Sue Williamson and Lebohang Kganye: Tell Me What You Remember, at the Barnes Foundation, in Philadelphia. Courtesy and © The artist

Cassandra Jackson’s passionate new book The Wreck: A Daughter’s Memoir of Becoming a Mother (Viking, $28) is an account at once individual and universal. It weaves her journey to motherhood—a challenging path through rounds and rounds of IVF—with her effort to understand the trauma borne by her father and carried, by Jackson, in her family nickname, San. In June 1960, Jackson’s paternal grandmother, Bernice, Jackson’s aunt Maggie, Jackson’s father’s first wife, Willodene, and Jackson’s cousin Sandra died following a car accident in Alabama. Sandra, who also went by San, was not yet four. Only when Jackson is in her late thirties, struggling to conceive, does she venture to the library with her father to look up the newspaper reports. What she discovers is difficult to bear—the details of the accident are distressing; the racism of the reports themselves constitutes a further injury. They can’t find obituaries in the paper until an embarrassed white man points them to the News about Negroes section. Bernice died ten days after the accident, and Jackson imaginatively reconstructs her father’s grief: “They would tell you that time heals, and you would call them liars and fools,” she writes to her father. “Time is more like a train that changes tracks, going forward one minute and backward the next, until the passengers have forgotten which way they should be moving.”

At the same time, Jackson tells the story of her desire for motherhood, a desire to move forward while carrying the past with her. She also does battle with society’s myths about black women’s sexuality. “Even the receptionists at the fertility clinic cannot process the idea that my body is both Black and infertile,” she observes. “They regularly direct me to a sign-in list for egg donors.” Jackson and her husband enter a hidden realm. “My life splits into two: a visible life as a professor and an invisible life as an infertility patient.” For anyone considering IVF, her account is invaluable; but more than that, it explores the particular experience faced by black women. There’s the white therapist who questions Jackson’s longing to have a child: “How is a baby waking you at two a.m. going to lead to fulfillment? Aren’t there other, better ways?” Another therapist, white and elderly, suggests that she “can choose to give up the desire.” Her surreal experiences in various fertility clinics add dark comedy. She encounters a doctor who, having all but promised success, stops treatment, claiming the odds are too low; another doctor believes in alien abductions. Time after time, Jackson and her husband are disappointed. “My last IVF is a medicalized version of the film Groundhog Day. I do nothing that I have not done before.”

The memoir’s two strands are inextricable. As Jackson explains, “I have not always been this woman longing for a biological child,” but when she is sent a photograph of Bernice, she is overwhelmed by the resemblance. “It’s like seeing you, just in another time,” her husband says. Conception coincides with the death of Jackson’s maternal aunt, and the progression of her pregnancy with her father’s cancer. Then Jackson’s brother dies unexpectedly. Even as it welcomes new life, the family suffers a further tumult. Jackson arrives at what might be called wisdom. “I vowed to bide my time in sharing our losses, to tell my children about our family before I told them what happened to them.” So she shares with her young daughter “the story of Bernice,” a woman who demanded that “anyone who could not love her children at least have the respect to leave them be. She didn’t take no shit off white folks.

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