Ballet star Acosta’s debut novel follows a Cuban family from slavery days to modern Havana.
Pata de Puerco (Pig’s Foot) is the name of the tiny village founded by friends Oscar and José, fresh from their victory in a slave revolt. Oscar, whose origins are a pygmy tribe, the Korticos, and José, a Mandinga, forge a bond despite tribal rivalry, marry and start families. Unfortunately, Oscar is soon beset by tragedy—his wife Malena dies giving birth to son Benicio, and Oscar kills himself. Benicio is raised by José and his wife, Betina, alongside their son Melecio and daughter Geru. Melecio, a gifted poet, is taken into the household of rum baron Emilio Bacardi to be educated. As Benicio grows, he resembles Oscar less and less, mostly since he is much larger in stature. In fact, he resembles, in size and temperament, the village outcast, an ornery giant known as El Mozambique. Thereby hangs a tale, of course. The return of Melecio and Benicio’s attraction to his “sister” Geru cause further complications, and eventually, Benicio and Geru depart for Havana. Here, the feisty narrator, Oscar Mandinga, a descendant of Benicio and Geru, whom he refers to, inaccurately it emerges, as his grandparents, takes over the story. Under suspicion for his political cynicism, Oscar undergoes interrogation at the hands of “whiteshirts” (the Cuban Ku Klux Klan) and embodies the contrast between the apathy and disillusion of young Cubans today and the revolutionary zeal of elders like Benicio and Geru, who witnessed and welcomed the advent of Castro. The shift in tone between the idyll of Pata de Puerco, with its storytellers, wise women, magic amulets and rustic whimsy, and the realities of dystopian Havana are almost too jarring for this relatively short book to encompass. Other than latter-day Oscar, who narrates what is essentially a frame story, no clear protagonist emerges to lend direction to this episodic rags-to-riches-to rags tale.
The pyrotechnics of Acosta’s writing would benefit from a more tightly choreographed structure.