Estupinan Bass, Nelson. Al norte de dios: The Other Son of God.
Ecuador, the most geographically and ethnically diverse nation in Latin America, has a literary tradition that has reflected for centuries its unique geopolitical and racial makeup. Most Ecuadorian belles-lettres of the twentieth century refracted the economic and social tensions that shaped the country's destiny. The literary production of the early twentieth century was largely social and was influenced by a series of economic disasters, revolutions, strikes, and repeated attempts to oppress its indigenous and African-descended population. In the larger context of the Latin American literary canon, the nation is known primarily for novelists and short story writers such as Demetrio Aguilera Malta (1909-81), Jose de la Cuadra (1903-41), and Jorge Icaza (1906-78), the author of Huasipungo (1931), considered the finest example of Ecuadorian relating to the oppression of Afro-Ecuadorians, economic exploitation, and class struggle: themes that both reflect his Marxist ideology (he spent long periods in both the Soviet Union and China) and his position as a black man within the context of Ecuadorian society.
Although Ecuadorian writers did not form part of the Latin American "Boom" of the 1960s and 1970s, with its attendant flow of awards, recognitions, and translations by international publishing houses, the same period saw a discovery of the nation's own unique African-based cultural heritage. Ecuador has had an African-descended population since the sixteenth century (by some estimates up to 7.5 percent of the total population), largely located in the northwestern province of Esmeraldas. It would be during the late 1970s and as part of a growing interest among scholars for the study of the coextensive relationship among African-descended authors in the Caribbean and the Latin American mainland, rooted in an underlying Africanist poetics, that led to the founding of organizations such as the Afro-Ecuadorian Studies Center in Quito in 1979, the publication of the short-lived but important Meridiano negro: Una Revista de los Afro-ecuatorianos (1980), the founding of The Afro-Hispanic Institute at Howard University in 1981, and the subsequent establishment of the Afro-Hispanic Review (1978-) that would lead to the discovery, rediscovery, and dissemination of the works of Afro-Ecuadorian authors such as Aldaberto Ortiz (1914-2004), author of Juyungo (1942), and Nelson Estupinan Bass (1912-2002). It was, in fact, the Afro-Hispanic Review that served as the primary venue for publications by and about Estupinan Bass beginning in the 1980s and continuing unabated to the present. Critical articles, interviews, book reviews and translations of his works appeared that in many ways shaped his canonical status. Henry J. Richards also published the opening chapters of Al norte de Dios under the title Lucifer: The Other Son of God in the Spring 2003 issue of the Review (22.1, pp. 78-94).
Estupinan Bass was a towering presence within the African Diaspora and is clearly the most renowned Afro-Ecuadorian writer of the twentieth century. In addition to poetry, drama, essays, and short stories, he authored ten novels, which masterfully combine literary experimentation with a strong sense of social justice. It is for his work as a novelist that he is primarily recognized in the broader context of Latin American literature. He published ten novels over the course of four decades: Cuando los guayacanes florecian (1954), El paraiso (1958), El ultimo rio (1966), Senderos brillantes (1974), Las puertas del verano (1978), Toque de queda (1978), Bajo el cielo nublado (1981), El crepusculo (1992), Los canarios pintaron el aire amarillo (1993), and Al norte de Dios (1994). His literary reputation to some extent rests on his first six novels, in which he imaginatively mined a set of thematic constants relating to the oppression of Afro-Ecuadorians, economic exploitation, and class struggle: themes that both reflect his Marxist ideology (he spent long periods in both the Soviet Union and China) and his position as a black man within the context of Ecuadorian society.
Published when the author was seventy-five, Al norte de Dios culminates a long writing career during which Estupinan Bass repeatedly challenged traditional modes of narration and often used humor and irony to deconstruct and rewrite Ecuadorian national and literary history. Henry J. Richard's delightful translation of this raucous, transgressive rewriting of biblical history under the title The Other Son of God is at once amusing as it is emblematic of the author's rejection of received notions of religion, politics, and Western culture. Here Estupinan Bass deploys the topos of the mundus in versus (the world upside-down), a cultural phenomenon that has found expression in many artistic, sociopolitical, and religious spheres across the centuries. In this fantastic, heretical, version of the Bible, the Almighty--unsatisfied with Jesus' failure to reform mankind--imprisons him in Hell for a year, to be replaced by Satan, his "other son," whom he had fathered with an African woman in the remote past. Satan (also referred to as Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Mephistopheles) is assigned the task of rehabilitating the world and rewriting the book of Genesis: "It should be in keeping with the time in which we are living, based on science, and purged of allegories that many who consider themselves well-informed take literally" (5).
The initial chapter, "The Battle of the Stars," sets the plot into motion and is followed by a series of chapters modeled on biblical structures: "Sister Etelvina's Revelations," "Roberto Cascante's Revelations," "Temistocles Revelations," "Jacinto Trueba's Revelations," "Monica Torres Revelations," "Dominga Pantoja's Revelations," "Feliciano Canga's Revelations," "Zacarias Bones Revelations," and "Genesis: Earth, Man and God." The novel closes with a postscript that at once summarizes the fate of the characters and serves as a parody of the Book of Revelations, the last book in the Bible, which plays a central role in Christian eschatology. In particular it is the literary genres expressing the apocalyptic and the prophetic that Estupinan Bass deploys so well. In The Other Son of God, the biblicalnumber of the disciples of Christ (now the disciples of Satan) has been reduced to seven. This motley collection of converts--an ex-nun, a former drug dealer, a poet, an ex-prostitute (among others)--wander the cities of Equinoccio (translation: twentieth-century Ecuador) where they comingle with all members of the modern social strata. The chapters consist of a series of embedded stories, structured as a sort of Chinese box that allows the author both to challenge four hundred years of theology (Jesus Christ marries Jane Mansfield, and they have a child; Mary Magdalene is revealed to be the concubine of Judas; the stories of the Prodigal Son, David and Goliath, and Samson and Delilah are radically transformed) and to offer a strong critique of political corruption, racism, neocolonialism, the corrosive role of the church, the destruction of the environment, and US imperialism. There is little doubt that the time frame to which the author refers is the late 1990s, when Ecuador experienced an economic crisis that had a profound impact on both the country's demographics (thousands emigrated to the United States and Spain) as well as its economy.
The title under review reflects a careful blending of the academic and the creative. Richards has not only published translations of two of Estupinan Bass's earlier novels--When the Guayacans Were in Bloom (Washington, D.C.: The Afro-Hispanic Institute, 1987) and Curfew (Washington, D.C.: The Afro Hispanic Institute, 1992)--but also has published multiple interviews with the author, a series of important academic articles, and unquestionably the definitive book on his fiction: La jornada novelistica de Nelson Estupinan Bass: Busqueda de la perfeccion (Quito: El Conejo, 1989). Richards's latest contribution to the dissemination of Afro-Ecuadorian and Diasporic literature is a fitting tribute to the author and serves as well as a reminder of the central role small presses have played in the construction of a more inclusive literary canon.
EDWARD J. MULLEN
University of Missouri
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|Author:||Mullen, Edward J.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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