Paradise found ... in two worlds.
After a tragic first marriage in the United States, Castedo was widowed with two children and no means of support. During the difficult years that followed, she and the children lived in rented rooms or in condemned houses and moved from coast to coast. They searched the trash for old furniture and other necessities and bought clothes for a few cents at church charity sales. Castedo had no professional qualifications or college degree, and the jobs she held were barely enough to support the family. She worked as a door-to-door saleswoman, a private teacher of Spanish, a model, a day-care center attendant, a social worker and an electric appliance demonstrator.
Through good fortune and a fighting spirit, Castedo came into contact with people who opened doors for her in the academic community, helping her secure grants for study and research. While supporting her children, she earned a master's degree in Hispanic American literature at the University of California in Los Angeles, where she also won awards as the best humanities student. Next came a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literature from Harvard University, followed by work as a consultant in cultural affairs, a teacher of literature at a number of universities, and the directorship of the Inter-American Bibliography Review, published by the Organization of American States.
All lovers of literature wonder how a literary success comes about. In Castedo's case, she claims to be the one most surprised. After her basic problems were solved, knowing she could pay for her children's college education and secure in a stable second marriage, she decided to do what she had always dreamed of: write fiction. Although she fantasized that someday her books would grace library shelves and even appear on reading lists in literature courses, she never expected that her first novel, Paradise, would be a huge and immediate success. As noted in the Spanish newspaper El Tiempo, "critical response has been overwhelmingly positive." One reviewer after another in Chile, the United States and Spain heaped lavish praise on Paradise and treated its publication as a major event. When asked about what influenced her work, Castedo says that she grew up steeped in Spanish literature, from the classics El Lazarillo de Tormes, and El Buscon and Cervantes to the stylists of the Generation of '98. Chilean and other Latin American literary traditions also left their makr. She read the authors "required" in her generation: Flaubert, Proust, Gide, and Camus. In Spanish translation she absorbed Hesse, Mann, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Ibsen, and Tagore, and after learning English, there were the British and North American authors to catch up on. She turned to more contemporary authors only after her own style was fairly well formed.
In "Mi libro favorito" (my favorite book), a literary column in the Spanish newspaper Diario 16, Castedo says: "Don Quijote continues to be my favorite book. The self-awareness of twentieth century literature, the avant-garde, Joyce, Kafka, characters blending into reality like those of Pirandello and Agapito Perez--all that arrived more than 300 years after Don Quijote which explores all of these different levels of reality." In a similar column of the Spanish newspaper El Sol, Castedo expalins, "I believe in a vital thread, the inner change experienced by the characters stemming from what happens in their lives in the time of the novel, although some secondary character--a useful contrast--may have a bullet-proof inner self that refuses to change one iota. Some readers of Paradise will be content with external incident. Others, interested in the character's inner development, will follow how the narrator tests their assumptions from chapter to chapter, finally leading to her own theory of life."
As for Castedo's style, everyone agrees on what it is not but not on what it is, except to say that it is original. It is not magical realism, one is told, or minimalism, nor can it be labeled post-Joycean or lumped with any other style currently in fashion. A group of young writers trained at George Mason University in the United States maintain that Castedo has created a new style which they dub essentialism. It is said to combine objectivity, subjectivity, topicality, humor, comedy, lyricism, emotional truthfulness and psychological insight, thus distilling an "essence" from reality. Others have tried to draw comparisons between Castedo's style and that of other authors, but these have included a dizzyingly wide range including the Frenchmen Raymond Queneau and Moliere, the Englishmen Dickens and St. Aubin de Teran, the North Americans Mark Twain and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the Latin Americans Vargas Llosa and Garcia Marquez, in addition to Beckett and Nabokov.
But in whose literature does Castedo belong? Spain and Lain America have enshrined her. The April 13, 1991 issue of ABC (Spain) had this to say: "The critics have been unanimous: Paradise's central character, Solita, as well as the language and structure of the work, place Elena Castedo in the first rank of fiction writers. Chile's El Mercurio asserts, "Suddenly and with her first novel, the author has stepped to the forefront of Chilean fiction." The same has happened in the United States, where Publisher's Weekly reports that Castedo is the first woman of Hispanic origin considered "mainstream." Writers of the stature of Jerzy Kosinski, Richard Ford, Robert Stone, Oscar Hijuelos and Paul West--the New York Times critic--have situated Paradise in the forefront of English-language writing. As might be expected from Puerto Rico, the locale where English/Spanish bilingualism is most highly developed, the San Juan Star sums up the writer's linguistic prowess in the the title of an article about her: "Castedo scores in two languages."
Writing the novel in two languages was no easy task, says the author, since her intention was not to translate but to create. As soon as she had found the right word striking the correct cultural note with the desired cadence and resonance, she would have to start all over from scratch because that word's equivalent in the other language would somehow miss the mark. A whole day could be spent wrestling with one sentence. Apparently the effort was not in vain, for Paradise became the first novel written in Spanish and another language to win major nominations or prizes in both languages, in different countries. In English, Paradise was one of five works nominated for the 1990 National Book Award. The Spanish version was nominated for Spain's prestigious Cervantes prize and named "book of the year" by the leading Chilean daily El Mercurio. At present it is on the reading lists for both English and Spanish literature courses at several universities, making the author a bridge between two cultures.
Castedo's previous publications in Spanish have included poetry, short stories and essays on literary subjects and a book on the Chilean theater. In English she has published articles on literary subjects, a short story that won the Phoebe prize in 1986 for the year's best fiction work, and another story that won the 1991 PEN Syndicated short story contest. The latter has been selected to be read over National Public Radio and will appear in two anthologies next year.
If Castedo is a bridge, the traffic on it is increasing rapidly: Grove Weidenfeld's second hard-cover edition of Paradise is almost exhausted. The Spanish version, published by Ediciones B of Barcelona, is in its third printing in Spain and its fifth in Argentina. In the United States a quality paperback edition from Warner Books is scheduled for late 1991, and Castedo's agent is negotiating several European editions. The writer stresses that success has its drawbacks. Her life has become a whirlwind within which she has to struggle to write her second novel and keep some time for her family. Requests for talk show appearances, interviews, articles and opinions pour in relentlessly.
Castedo responds to questions about feminism with a number of observations. In her view, while the movement can take pride in some real achievements it has yet to solve the most important problems: the rights of so-called "unemployable" women and children's rights to receive proper attention from their parents as required at each step of their emotional development. The social sciences, says Castedo, have amply shown that most problems of mental instability, including drug addiction, stem from difficulties rooted in childhood and adolescence; yet this has not prompted parents to devote more time to their children. The author feels that international organizations, governments and private businesses should bring about reforms in the workplace whereby the two parents would have alternating work schedules so that they could take turns looking after their children personally.
In her philosophical, political and intellectual positions, Castedo displays a practical beint which can lend an apparent tongue-in-cheek quality to some of her statements. When asked in Spain, along with other prominent intellectuals, which book she had found the most interesting to read in her entire life, she replied without hesitation, "Baby and Child Care by Dr. Spock, which lost much in its translation into French." Those who know the author say that neither critical acclaim, nor the fact that Maria Pilar Donoso and Eugenio Gutierrez are writing books about her, nor the stunning success of her first novel have affected her in the slightest. The Washington Post reports that when asked how success had changed her she observed, "I still have to take the trash out of my kitchen, just as before."
However, this occasional puckishness is more than offset by the seriousness of remarks like the following: "The key to peace and well-being for all lies in the actions of the individual, starting with the most obvious and perhaps for that reason the most easily forgotten: absolute devotion to one's children in their formative years. Once that is done, personal fulfillment can be pursued in a wider sphere: school, neighborhood, town. To a lesser extent--but this is also necessary--one attempts to influence municipal, provincial and national government. We individuals are all-powerful: there is a reason why the Bible says man is made in the image of God."
Thus Elena Castedo sums up her vision of a better world, learned over long years of struggle for survival. Instead of leaving her bitter, the trials of the past make her success now that she is a grandmother all the more marvelous. She can enjoy press accolades describing her as "the literary phenomenon of the decade" feeling she has fulfilled herself as a human being and mother and is now making her contribution as an artist.
That contribution has already secured a place for her in the highly select group of authors--of any nationality--who have achieved distinction in an adopted language as well as their own. Castedo's accomplishments should be a source of pride for the entire Spanish-speaking world.
Georgette M. Dorn is a specialist in Hispanic Culture at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and curator of Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape.
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|Title Annotation:||Elena Castedo reaps acclaim for her novel 'Paradise' published with original versions in Spanish and English|
|Author:||Dorn, Georgette M.|
|Publication:||Americas (English Edition)|
|Date:||May 1, 1991|
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