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La Villa.

Marcelo Fernandez Zayas' charming recreation of small-town life in Latin America is sure to fill many readers with nostalgia. Fernandez, who was born in Cuba and currently lives in Washington, D.C., captures beautifully the essence of the typical town, where tradition is sacred and progress is anathema: "Tomorrow was not part of the future in this part of the country," he writes. "It was, rather, the continuation of yesterday, with another date in the almanac." Fernandez's Villa epitomizes what Unamuno called intrahistoria--the pith of human existence, which is untouched by political or historical developments. "Political events only affect those who are fighting for the future," explains the author, "not those who live in the past claiming to be part of the present." Although the town is quaint and charming, the author does not completely sanitize his subject. He admits that La Villa offers few opportunities, that its intolerance and narrow-mindedness can suffocate new ideas and choke a budding genius: "Children--rich or poor--who showed intelligence and initiative were marked for exile. One of the unwritten laws of the town was that intelligence and initiative could not be used to alter the rhythm of the place."

La Villa begins with a description of the town, which is followed by vignettes and portraits of archetypal characters reminiscent of those in Miguel Delibes' Viejas historias de Castilla la Vieja. One of Fernandez's most winning characters is Don Alberto, "The Dictionary," who is the town's ultimate authority on language usage. One day the town priest, Don Serapio Almeida, uses a word incorrectly in a homily, provoking a public challenge by Don Alberto. The stand-off, which captivates the townspeople, occurs in the cafe that serves as the local gathering place. Don Alberto waits armed with dictionaries. Not only is Don Serapio no match for him, but the priest's humiliation is so great that the poor man of God dies shortly after the confrontation.

Another town idol is Macario Paredes, the boxer. A little on the slow side, Macario is a gentle, candid fellow who uses his fists because he has trouble expressing himself verbally. When he gets the chance to fight for the world heavyweight championship in New York, he almost declines for lack of travel funds, but two townspeople resolve the problem. Soon reporters and photographers flood La Villa, making its inhabitants feel like celebrities. When the great day arrives, the towns-people gather in the cafe to listen to the fight on the radio. Macario is about to be KO'd when the priest jumps up on a chair and begins to pray frenetically to Saint Luke, the town's patron. Soon all of La Villa is praying. Miraculously, Macario suddenly gets a second wind and knocks out the reigning champ, thereby becoming the new world champion and the town hero. Naturally, the entire town turns out to celebrate, even the Protestants. When the priest confesses that he bet parish funds on Macario, the understanding bishop absolves him and allows him to use his winnings to renovate the church.

Through whimsical yarns such as these, Fernandez conveys the extraordinary faith of the townspeople, their cohesiveness and their goodness. Many of the stories deal with local customs--for example, courtship and marriage rituals. Others deal with external pressures, such as the influence of the cinema. But Fernandez does not limit himself to the picturesque and he does not shy away from prickly issues such as mental illness, illegitimacy, prostitution and cruelty to animals. La Villa is an engaging and informative book that is not only a good read, but could also be an excellent teaching tool.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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