Ah, love: if it didn’t end badly, it wouldn’t end at all, especially for two star-crossed lovers in modern-day Puerto Rico.
This prizewinning novel is the best-known work by Lalo and his first to arrive in translation. It’s a bleak but emotionally resonant work that finds weighty things to say about writing, culture, Puerto Rican identity, and the dangers of projecting one’s desire upon another. The unnamed novelist who narrates the tale is a dour, nihilistic creature who is deeply unhappy with his life teaching at a local university. “The world of the future (the future?): people wandering through the streets, the plaza, the highways, the stages of life, without understanding any of it,” reads one of his sunny musings. Life throws him a curve when a young Chinese émigré becomes infatuated with his novels and starts leaving him arcane notes, obscure quotes, and murky clues, modeling her persona on the late French philosopher Simone Weil. Upon meeting the real thing, a self-educated waitress named Li Chao, the mismatched lovers discover an intense attraction that's doomed by his expectations and her psychic scars. “You don’t realize you’re looking at an anonymous work,” she says. “Li Chao doesn’t exist. She’s just one Chinese woman from among 1,300,000,000 Chinese, not counting those who’ve emigrated and are living overseas, and from among 4,000,000 Puerto Ricans who don’t even look at themselves. A lesbian who took to using the words of others to pursue a writer whose failure is eating away at him today.” This is a very eerie bit of fiction which is erotic without being romantic, psychically raw without collapsing into ennui, and linguistically expressive while using characters that live and breathe and cry right on the page. There are missteps here and there—the narrator’s distaste for Spanish fiction borders on xenophobia—but the book’s human hearts ring true in the end.
Like the song says, you can’t always get what you want.