AUTHOR: Pedro Juan Gutiérrez
GENRE: Literary fiction
READER’S NAME: Andrea Shah
DATE: April 19, 2017
Set in Matanzas, Cuba, in the years immediately before and after the Revolution, Fabián y el caos tells the story of an unlikely friendship. The titular Fabián is the only son of two Spanish immigrants to Cuba, and the first section of the book tells his family’s story, from his zarzuela-singing grandmother in Madrid through the moment in which his father loses his livelihood in the wake of the revolution.
Fabián is timid, pampered by his mother Lucía, and aware from a very young age that he is gay. He meets his foil, Pedro Juan, while in school; with little in common, the two are both fascinated and repulsed by one another. Pedro Juan – as made evident by his name – is a fictionalized version of the author, a clever, athletic teenager who struggles with authority and obsesses over women.
Their stories are told in parallel – in third person, we read about Fabián’s cloistered life with his elderly parents; his passion for the piano, which gains him entrance to the conservatory when he finishes high school; and his love affairs with a cross-section of Cuban society. Pedro Juan’s story is told in first-person, and also focuses on his love affairs, as well as the pleasure he takes in physical pursuits such as kayaking, and his inability to adjust to the strictures placed on Cuban citizens by the state.
They meet again in a pork-processing factory where both work. The shiftless Pedro Juan has been sent there as part of the government mandate that all citizens work; Fabián has been expelled from the conservatory due to his sexuality, and he struggles with the physical labor and with the loss of his artistic goals.
The novel has echoes of familiar authors from both the English and Spanish languages. There are elements of Gabriel García Márquez and Philip Roth in how he chronicles the appetites and love affairs of both men, and Roth in particular comes to mind with his depiction of coming of age in a very specific place and time. While the milieu is different, the skill at making it come alive is similar.
Fabián y el caos is well-worth translating into English, and ought to find a receptive audience among those interested in Cuban literature, especially given the success of the author’s prior work in English. The novel does present some real challenges for the translator, particularly in its use of vernacular language and differing registers for its characters, who have a wide variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, the difference between the formal, continental Spanish of Fabián’s parents and the slangy, abbreviated Spanish of the musician Papito, is instantly obvious, and will be tricky to render in translation.