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Yo soy la Rumba.

In Yo soy la rumba Venezuelan writer Angel Gustavo Infante recreates the past several decades of his nation's history through its popular culture, in particular, the music. The adolescent narrator Sebastian dreams of learning to play percussion and forming a rock band, but his hopes seem dashed when his hippie brother, Alfi, arrives from San Francisco, where he traveled with the Venezuelan Navy, without the promised battery of drums.

Sebastian is not all that surprised. Alfi has disappointed his family before. As a child he was a rebellious, unruly troublemaker and now that he is back home, nothing has changed. Through his association with Alfi and Alfi's far-out friends, Sebastian comes to know the sex and drug scene of the 1960s, which finds expression in the music of Janis Joplin and other culture heroes, but his youthful exuberance, his propensity to fanatisize, and his attachment to his mother help him to maintain a certain distance from this group of dangerously self-destructive youths.

Sebastian's mother, Virginia, finds refuge in the myth of Alfi's ruination in the Navy. According to her, the boy's bizarre behavior is due to an accident he had in the service. She shares her grief with her neighbor La Gorda Elisa ("Fat Elisa"), whose penchant for uniforms once turned her into a sexual demon who actually swallowed up three sailors. After serving time in jail, Elisa returned to her husband, and now the couple and Virginia pass the hours pouring over the newspapers in search of a spiritualist capable of solving their problems. Infante has incorporated into his novel actual ads from Caracas newspapers in which psychics and fortunetellers advertise their wares.

Although Sebastian's observations and the ads promising to "take away all curses, distance your evil neighbor, and bring your loved one to you, no matter how far away he or she is" inject humor into the tale, Infante conveys powerfully the desperation that permeates the sordid lives of the inhabitants of Sebastian's lower-class Caracas neighborhood. The adults, raised on boleros and sentimental radio soap operas, struggle to understand their wild children, who speak a jargon infused with English and listen to a music that incites them to violence. Infante provides a chilling view of the North American counter-culture of the sixties and seventies--already warped by despair over the Vietnam War, disillusionment with established institutions, and experimentation with drugs--distorted still further by transposition to the mean streets of Caracas.

In spite of the despondency and squalor that surround him, Sebastian manages to transform his day-to-day existence into something of an adventure through fantasy and music--not just rock music, but a wide range of Caribbean rhythms, romantic melodies, and traditional Venezuelan songs. He can also count on the good will of his teacher, Nestor Ortega, a "cool guy" who is as much a pal as an instructor to his young charge. It is with Ortega that Sebastian shares his anguish over his first love, over Alfi's misadventures, and over his life in general. And it is with Ortega that he begins to blossom intellectually.

The first part of Infante's novel introduces a plethora of outrageous but fascinating characters and immerses the reader into a pathetic, horrifying, yet funny world so grotesque that fantasy and reality merge. In the second part the focus changes to a crime that has been committed in the neighborhood--the murder of a Portuguese shopkeeper named Fantima--and here the story gets muddled. Worse yet, the writing becomes disturbingly self-conscious. Infante drops names all over the place--from Quevedo to Oscar Hijuelos--and instead of evoking music, he hurls popular singing artists at the reader in lists.

In spite of its weak ending, Yo soy la rumba is an intriguing first novel by a promising young writer. And Sebastian is a loveable character who conveys beautifully the resilience as well as the confusion of youth.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:I am the Rumba
Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Words:637
Previous Article:En Cuerpo y Alma.
Next Article:Mundo, Demonio y Mujer.
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