Paradiseby Elena Castedo
“Filled with rich descriptions and vivid scenes. Ms. Castedo’s language is exuberant.” –The New York Times Book Review
In this ingenious satire, Solita, the not quite ten-year-old daughter of refugees from Franco’s Spain, is whisked from the urban ghetto of Galmeda to El Topaz, the lush hacienda of a wealthy eccentric, which her mother assures her will be paradise. But behind its beautiful fa”ade, El Topaz is a quagmire of social subterfuge, from its politicking adults to its spiteful children, and Solita finds herself alone in a glittery world where “you couldn’t trust anything. Or anybody. You had to navigate completely on your own.” In Paradise, ‘ms. Castedo has brought off, with acid wit, the far from easy task of revealing arrogance, folly, injustice and debauchery through the eyes of an observer who does not know what those qualities are.” (The Atlantic)
“Paradise is wonderfully moving and entertaining, with vibrant prose and vivid scenes. It will move your heart.” –Oscar Hijuelos
“Filled with rich descriptions and vivid scenes. Ms. Castedo’s language is exuberant.” –The New York Times Book Review
“A devastating portrait . . . . A story whose plot is as idiosyncratic as its themes are universal.” –Washington Post
“A fascinating and wonderfully different novel, one that forms a harmonious blend of two rich and fertile literary traditions, Latin America’s and our own.” –Washington Times
“Elegant, droll, and wise.” –Robert Stone
Nominated for the National Book Award
WHEN MY MOTHER TOLD ME I WAS GOING TO Paradise that afternoon, I had no idea what she meant. My father always said Paradise was a hoax invented by priests to seduce nitwits. In Paradise, my mother said, children were always happy, playing in unbounded spaces under clear blue skies, surrounded by fruits and flowers and the utmost good taste.
While my mother passed review of my dress, sandals and front cowlick, I looked through the open window of our pensione room to the small square across the hot street. I wanted to go climb its two squat palm trees, but my mother was attacking my cowlick, a vexing advertisement, she said, of a matching unruly spirit within. She wet it, wrestled with it, pinned it down, although we both knew it would soon dry with the heat of the summer day and spring back up again. My mother couldn’t do much about mv knobby thinness either. It was going to be the usual “What a pity, the girl looks just like her father” every time we met someone.
‘mami, is Paradise another country, another pensione, or what?”
“Not another country, silly. Paradise is a country estate, a magnificent country estate called El Topaz; the owners are rich–enormously rich.”
“Why are we going there?”
“We’ve been invited. We are their guests. It’s a vacation. Our first vacation in the New World.” She took a can of condensed milk, a can opener, a tin of crackers and three bananas from the armoire–all our clothes always smelled of bananas–and put them in her bag. “They invited us. It means they like us a lot, because ” we are interesting, we are educated. We can provide amusement.” She locked our pensione room and we went downstairs.
The reason we lived in a pensione and not in a house like other families was because our own country had been taken over by the Assassin. The little potbellied Assassin, whose real name was Franco, wore short little boots over his short little legs and was a monster, so my parents had to flee to France. But France came to be owned by the Nazis, and as luck would have it, the tall Nazis with their sinister big boots were monsters too. We had to flee again. My parents studied a map looking for a place that wouldn’t get into world wars all the time. That’s how we ended up in pensiones down here in Galmeda, a big city in the South American continent. We were very lucky, my parents said, very lucky to be here.
In Galmeda you mostly looked for jobs, for inexpensive food and for pensiones where the proprietress wasn’t so cheap she would do things like providing newspapers for the toilet–instead of brown wrapping paper–which left your behind full of ink. Cheapness like that made my father very mad.
‘mami, there’s no war or concentration camps here. Why are we going away?”
“A country estate’s a great place, Solita. A country estate is beautiful; it’s excellent for your health.” My mother handed me a small basket and struggled with my little brother, Niceto, the suitcase and her handbag, but she didn’t look disheveled. She looked commanding and determined in her blue suit and blue hat.
“Why isn’t Papi here yet?”
“In a country estate, there’re horses, lakes “” We crossed the front yard.
One problem with this pensione was that San Bernardo Street wasn’t paved like bigger streets. It had cobblestones, and if it ever came to pass that roller skates were loaned or given to me, how would I roller-skate over the stones? ‘mami, a war isn’t coming here, is it?”
‘stop it, Solita. You know very well only morbid people talk about those things. We don’t want to be morbid, do we? This is our big chance. You must help in every way you can. Having an opportunity to spend whole days with people is the way to ” get close to them. If things go well, this will solve everything. It’s very important. Very. For you and your brother.” We crossed the street. “Now, Solita, remember, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” You are a big girl now, you understand these things.”
Should I or should I not say that I didn’t understand anything?
Just when I was going to ask about Papi again, he arrived with his small suitcase. For the first time, we didn’t have to wait for him forever. His lanky face was surprised, and his red, windblown hair made him look bewildered. I dropped the basket and ran to be hugged, forgetting a girl my age should have dignified manners, like Mami. He had his new smell of sea and sweat. He was very proud to have found a job in the port of San Ildefonso, where they packed sea kelp. ‘my, don’t you girls look gorgeous!” Mami did look beautiful, like the ladies in magazines, except they smiled. She seemed annoyed at his flattery, so I happily took credit for it and went to see how it felt to lift his suitcase. “Where are you going?”
Papi didn’t know? How strange. Mami explained. Papi got agitated. I got agitated. I pressed the cowlick; it sprung up, mockingly. Niceto followed me to inspect the suitcase. “Long bird,” he said, pointing to the latch. True, the latch looked just like a crane. Papi’s green eyes grew very large. “I can’t believe what you’re doing, Pilar!” he said.
“I warned you, Julian. You’re not going to drag me into any more politics, any more danger again. You could have dropped that union stuff. As well as “” In her high heels, Mami was taller, so she leaned down to whisper to him.
“Pilar, I explained to you one thousand times, I’m just an advisor; I’m not involved actively; it’s a necessary step to establish my credentials. As for the other ” it won’t happen again, I told you. And, wasn’t it clear? Wasn’t it understood we weren’t going to accept any more invitations from those people?”
“The ball was in your court, Julian.” Mami’s voice was calm. “I don’t want to be here while you’re doing your ” advising. The children can use some country air, they can use a vacation.”
“The strikes won’t be violent, Pilar; this is not Spain! You don’t know what you’re doing; think about the children” .” Papi’s whispers about the people we were going to visit were hard to understand. With the blank voice she used when Papi got excited, Mami said if he didn’t wish to help her to the trolley and the bus depot, she would go alone.
All the way to the bus depot, Papi kept trying to talk Mami into turning back. I wanted all of us to stay in the trolley and go for a ride downtown. At the cavernous depot, Papi went to buy tickets. The buses were violet on top, dark blue at the bottom and had a red band in the middle. Mami said, “What awful colors; what poor taste.” Papi came back. “What superb New World colors! What a rich expression of the popular imagination!” Papi always found something good to say, even when things were bad.
The driver started the bus. Papi waved among the steam and bus colors, his face so upset it made my nose and eyes tingle. I got up. “I don’t want to go anywhere without Papi,” I said firmly.
‘sit down!” Mami said. “There’ll be no nonsense from you.”
“I want to stay here.”
“You want to stay here, do you? What if Columbus had said that? We wouldn’t have had a New World to escape to. You’ll love the country. Your father, well, he will come later, no doubt.”
Soon Papi’s upset face was replaced by the flight of sunny streets. Flocks of houses left together in blocks, not a house out of step. The city market left in one chunk. We went under a railway pass out into the countryside: soft hills sprinkled with fleeced sheep, covered by a blond fuzz that near the road turned into delicate wheat stalks; dashing trees fluttering their leaves upside down in the rivers; rows of vineyards running madly to huddle together in the distance; small adobe dwellings; tortuous trees with black pods.
I saw everything through a wisp of my mother’s black hair that had escaped from her hat. Niceto slept on her lap. Niceto always missed the best of everything. The basket with the gift for the owner of Paradise rested at my mother’s feet. You always had to bring a gift when you were invited to a country house. Inside the basket slept Pell”as and M”li-sande, two tiny puppies. Their last name was Chihuahua. They were foreigners too. They slept in the heat and rumble of the bus with their eyes closed, like dead chickens. “They look like aborted fetuses,” Papi had said, and Mami had smiled nervously. The thought of Papi’s face made me sad; I couldn’t swallow the crackers. How could we go somewhere without him?
There were many things to learn about presents. It wasn’t easy for a refugee to buy one for a wealthy host in this New World. From the little money you had left after buying food, you bought something you were reasonably sure they wouldn’t have, something that would amuse and excite them, that showed good taste and a certain flair, that made them forget the bearer was poor, that made them think the bearer could be a source of fun, someone they would enjoy having around and introduce to their friends. Giving a rare animal showed good taste. “You be very pleasant, Solita, cheerful and pleasant.”
I got thirsty. I got sleepy. After a long time, the bus stopped next to a dirt road spanned by an iron arch. We got off.
‘reMEMBER, my little daughter, first impressions are very important.”
“I have to go to the bathroom.” My mother didn’t hear me, walking under the arch that read EL TOPAZ in iron letters. She went to meet a man who stepped down from a red, two-wheeled buggy. I looked around; there was no suitable place to pee.
It was hot, but the man wore a poncho down to his boots. He kept putting his hat on and off between greeting us, loading the suitcase and helping us into the buggy. I sat in front, next to him. He shook the reins, clucked his tongue and the horse took off at a trot. Up and down the horse’s hilly buttocks went, an exhilarating view, playing rhythmically with the passing of the eucalyptus trees bordering the road. The man pushed his poncho off his shoulders, revealing a red waistband with a knife. I tried to be polite, not staring at his pockmarked skin, whiskery cheeks or colorless eyes, only at his hands holding the reins, each finger a tree root, each nail a miniature yellow roof tile. He seemed amused when my mother inhaled the eucalyptus smell. “In the houses they have more pretty trees,” he said.
“What houses?” Maybe we would end up in another city.
“Where the patr”n lives; it’s called the houses,” the man said.
Through another arch the buggy entered a never-ending garden. We stopped in front of a long, low, columned house, lit and shadowed by the afternoon sun. Dogs of many colors and sizes ran around in great excitement. Women in sky blue aprons came hurriedly from the interminably long veranda. My mother whispered, ‘remember, be nice, be nice at all times.”
Blue-aproned women and men in blue jackets helped us down and got our suitcase. Three girls, dressed alike in pale green pinafores with rows of tiny buttons, ribbons in their curls and tiny earrings, watched me with curious amusement. Dressing children alike in a family was very bourgeois, a refugee had told me once. The exact meaning of “bourgeois’ escaped me, but it had something to do with being dull, not knowing important things. It didn’t seem to apply to these girls. I held on tightly to my underwear through my dress. You could never trust panty elastics; they had a way of giving out when you least expected it.
Suddenly, loud music poured from the house and a lady wearing men’s overalls came out. Everybody stopped and looked at her. Her hair was cut short like a statue’s. She rushed to hug and kiss my mother as if she were her child and hadn’t seen her in years. After a while I was introduced.
“I’ve seen you sleeping, my pretty,” the lady said, “the day we took your mumsy and popsy back to your pensione.” I hoped my thumb hadn’t been in my mouth. Parents’ habits of bringing guests to see the children sleeping was irritating. “Call me T”a Merce,” she said. She bent down for me to kiss her. Her cheek smelled like herbs. In a babyish tone, she introduced me to the oldest girl, a gorgeous creature, maybe eleven or so, with a noble head of black curls. “Her name is Patricia, not Patti,” T”a Merce said with a stern flash of her eyes. Patricia welcomed me with a dimple. Some people had everything. I was then introduced to her slightly younger sisters, Graciela and Gloria, twins who looked like shiny, well-fed cats. They were my age, I was told, and it was all right to call Graciela Grace.
“Ema and Eda, I said do not put so much pomade on the twins’ hair,” T”a Merce scolded the two look-alike women in green aprons standing behind the twins.
Instead of welcoming me, the twins giggled and ran down the veranda, their curls and ribbons bouncing behind them. The twin nannies ran after them, calling, “Behave yourselves, little ones, come back, little ones, come back!” After careful consideration, I decided that ‘do as the Romans’ didn’t apply in this case, even though the twins were my age. First, I didn’t have a woman in green to catch me and bring me back, so there was no way to know when to stop running. Second, it was impossible to run as fast as the twins while holding onto my panties, and it wouldn’t have looked very refined. Third, I had to go to the bathroom badly–this was no time to engage in bouncing or undue excitement.
The twins came back, apparently very satisfied, and stood observing me. Nobody said “You children go play” or anything to us. After ages we were finally taken to a bathroom as big as a living room with tiled blue arches.
Throughout the warm afternoon, more guests arrived. Some came in the buggy, some in automobiles, masking the smell of lime leaves with a hint of burnt gasoline. In the open back seat of one car sat calmly a tall, llamalike creature with a long neck. “The guanaco!” the girls yelled. After the crunchy sound of hoofs, wheels and tires over the graveled driveway, new arrivals were greeted by the same cheek-pecking and noisy excitement. T”a Merce kept introducing my mother with great pride. The girls observed this intently. My mother smiled happily at every new guest, showing her beautiful teeth in ways she never did around Papi’s friends. Everyone brought candy and toys for the girls. Some people had more than everything.
Following every introduction, the twins put on their little performance. Since no one told me anything and my mother had said to keep an eye on my brother, I kept as quiet as possible and looked from time to time at Niceto, who was busy counting the teats of a shaggy dog the girls called Coca-Cola.
AFTER THE BLAZING LIGHT FADED, dinner was announced by a brass bell. The guests walked down the veranda toward one end of the house–or rather houses– where the dining room was, chatting above the rising clamor of strange garden creatures.
Children sat at a round table, next to a huge bay window over the side garden. “This’s called the “old skin table,”” Patricia said. “Because there’s always milk or juice or soup spilled on it, and when you pull the tablecloth up, like this, it looks like old skin, see?” Crystal salt containers and butter dishes toppled over. The twins giggled. “Just like the skin in T”a Loli’s cheeks,” one said, and both laughed.
Niceto kept to himself, observing the raised, contorted leaves and nymphs on an iron wood stove. The girls ignored him; there wasn’t really that much of interest in a four-year-old.
Through an opening in the wall, trays were passed from the pantry to maidservants in navy blue dresses with white aprons. The maid serving the old skin table seemed to be in a bad mood. The girls ignored whatever she said.
“You may get creamed spinach tonight,” Grace warned me. “It’s like green glue.”
‘don’t worry, just use the usual ways to take care of the puky mess,” Gloria said. “I’m using the simplest; spread it around the plate, then claim it’s been eaten.”
“I’ll put it in other places,” Grace announced.
“With this maid you have to be firm for the tricks to work,” Patricia advised.
I didn’t, of course, say it would please me no end to eat creamed spinach, or spinach in any shape or form, or any food they cared to serve me. I was very hungry, but it was obvious that being hungry wasn’t the thing to be around here.
‘do you like Christmas better in the country or the city?” one of the twins asked.
I shrugged. The only reason I had known it was Christmastime was because my parents kept saying they couldn’t get used to Christmas in the summer.
“What school do you go to? We go to the Villa Sainte Marie. It’s the best, of course. We’re here for summer vacation; in the winter we go way up to the ski chalet in Llotera.”
It was probably not a good idea to tell them I had never been in school. At my age I should have been in fourth grade or so, but we had never stayed in a neighborhood long enough. My fondest wish was to find out what school was like. My mother and the other refugees had given me books and taught me things, like the history of Spain. A tall, lazy dog that moved under the table saved me from having to answer the girls.
‘don’t look under the tablecloth or they’ll take Vodka away,” Grace said. ‘she’s a Russian wolfhound,” Patricia informed me. “What’s your mother’s name?” the twins asked.
“There’s something funny about her. She’s beautiful, but she dresses funny. She speaks and acts funny. She’s so tall and her skin is so white and her eyebrows are too black.”
My mother, sitting very erect at the big table, on the right side of T”a Merce–who wouldn’t take her eyes off her– listened to a lean, tanned man with colorful patches on his jacket. It was customary for my mother to get attention from men. I tried to figure out how she was acting funny, but I couldn’t see it.
‘mumsy now sits at the head of the big table, where Popsy used to. Maybe Popsy ” will come one of these days. We know everybody from the big table,” Gloria said.
“Not true,” Patricia corrected with authority. “The quiet man with the plump cheeks is the world-famous pianist Claudio Arrau, and he came here yesterday for the first time, so you don’t know him.”
“Patricia knows all about pianists,” Grace said. ‘she takes lessons from Tatoff.”
“Tatoff’s the best piano teacher in Galmeda,” Patricia explained matter-of-factly.
‘she gets presents from him; she’s so lucky. We never get a thing from Se”ora Ruimall”, our piano teacher,” Gloria complained, dropping a blob of spinach in her milk. “You have to drop it forcefully so it goes to the bottom,” she explained.
Since no one was looking at him, Niceto emptied a salt cellar into his mouth. He couldn’t have done that in the pensione; salt cost money. Niceto’s claim to fame was his absolute tolerance of unlimited amounts of salt.
The serving maid kept bringing more dishes. The girls moaned about all of them and competed to see who could tell more about the people at the big table, which made me feel important.
“The man with the bright patches on his silk overcoat and on his pants is T”o Juan Vicente,” Gloria said.
“He’s your uncle?” I asked admiringly. All my relatives were in Spain. People who had them made me envious.
“He’s not a real t”o, we just call him that. He owns the lands beyond the train station, many kilometers away.”
“Why does he have patches?”
“Because he’s an eccentric. You know what that is, don’t you?” Patricia asked.
I shook my head.
“It’s when somebody does things that everybody says are terrible and everybody loves,” Patricia explained.
“We know other eccentrics,” Gloria bragged.
“T”o Juan Vicente comes here a lot; he gets awfully bored with his vineyards. They turn mountains of the most delicious grapes into wine. Ugh, I hate wine,” Grace said.
I observed the patched man gesturing with his long fingers to explain something to my mother.
“T”o Juan Vicente’s an Echaurren.” I made the mistake of asking what an Echaurren was. The girls looked at me with suspicion. My mother wouldn’t have liked it. ‘don’t you know? An Echaurren’s a person from the Echaurren family, a very old, very important family with lots of eccentrics; they do all sorts of original things. You do know what an aristocrat is, don’t you?”
“T”o Juan Vicente says it’s not fair for the peasants to be so poor, and he ought to dress like them. So he has Santos, the best designer in Galmeda, put patches on his clothes so he looks like a peasant,” Patricia said.
“I’ve never seen a peasant with patches,” Gloria said. “They just wear the tears. Have you?” She asked me.
I hadn’t either. We did have things in common. Actually, I don’t think I had ever seen a peasant. “Which one’s his wife?” I asked.
The twins giggled and spouted droplets of milk, which fascinated Niceto. Patricia hushed them. “He doesn’t have one.”
“He likes to put on little performances dressed like Mozart or Pontius Pilate.”
“Children aren’t invited, but we know all the secret ways to see everything and hear everything we want in the houses.”
‘mumsy adores him,” Patricia said.
Niceto knocked over his glass of milk. The maid came running to clean it up, complaining that the housekeeper hated her, assigning her to the old skin table. The girls ignored her.
“The man in the chocolate suit with the pinkish glasses, he’s a psychiatrist. He visits on a schedule. He spends hours on the toilet. He’s got a thing about toilets. You know what a psychiatrist is, don’t you?”
I had heard of it, but I wasn’t sure. I nodded anyway. It was obvious the girls wanted you to know what they did. “Why does he visit on a schedule?” Maybe they would give me a hint.
The twins looked at Patricia. “All psychiatrists visit on a schedule.” There was something strange about this, but I had no time to think while the girls talked about the other people. The psychiatrist’s wife, with graying hair and the big up-fronts, believed in communicating with the dead. The children called her Melons, but never in front of grown-ups. The dancer with raccoon eyes was called Mile. Vicky; she had come with Gunther, the German photographer sitting across from T”o Juan Vicente; she was out to catch him. Gunther’s feet stank when he took his shoes off to take a nap in the garden; Germans had bad foot smells, they couldn’t help it. If I wanted to verify this personally, they’d tell me when to catch him at his nap. Gunther’s eyes were beautifully blue, but he pestered the girls, asking them to hold a flower, or a kitten, so he could take their picture. It was embarrassing. The owner of the guanaco, the hairy man with the overflowing neck next to Mile. Vicky, was bored with his huge factory, which turned beets into sugar, and now painted pictures like chicken droppings. They called him the Walrus, but never in front of grown-ups’ .
After a while, I realized I wasn’t catching half of what the girls were saying, and I worried about not making the good impression my mother had ordered. My stuffed stomach was making me drowsy. On top of that, the girls’ New World Spanish was different from the language in the streets where we had lived; it went up and down, and sometimes was sucked into the lungs, almost cutting their breath. They also giggled or whispered. They spoke, spouted, spilled and sucked, and by dessert–a heavenly structure of semolina topped with dark red honey–I couldn’t hear anything anymore. I just concentrated on picking the right proportion of semolina and red honey in each spoonful, so that at the end I wouldn’t be left with one without the other.
These girls were very knowledgeable, and most of the people they kept mentioning were very important. And they seemed to like me. They hadn’t called me a Goda (Goth), the worst insult for Spaniards in Galmeda. Sometimes children in the pensiones where we had lived had called me that, forcing me to chase them, which made the owners of the pensiones say we were going to be thrown out. When someone called one of my parents’ friends a Godo, it always started a fight. My mother said their nerves were raw.
My parents’ friends weren’t important–just refugees like us who lived in rented rooms. Some rented a dilapidated house together. They visited each other a lot. They never brought me candy or toys, but sometimes an avocado, a pear or a bunch of dates if they were available in the yard or in a park nearby. They talked to me in the same way they talked to each other. There were few children left after the war, the exodus, the concentration camp in France and the exile to faraway countries. I was a survivor, they said.
The refugees didn’t act at all like the guests at the big table. They didn’t move slowly, leaning smoothly toward their dinner partners on one side or the other with a soft smile. The refugees were bony, noisy, and plopped themselves anywhere, even on the floor, with their legs and arms sprawled. They argued, got mad, laughed, patted each other, became sour or excited, but never had soft smiles. They sang songs often, some from the very old days, some from the war. One owned a radio and another a guitar, which they took when visiting. They exchanged newspapers, magazines, books and information about butchers. In Galmeda people didn’t eat animals’ insides, so the butchers threw hearts, kidneys, brains and livers to the floor for the dogs. It was the refugees’joy. The bad part was that when the butchers saw the refugees beating the dogs at grabbing the innards, they started charging money for them. If a refugee made a great food discovery–maybe a big sack of rice at a bargain–they shared that too. Sometimes Papi clowned around and made everyone laugh, except Mami. I laughed when he tickled me.