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Swimming in the Volcano.

Although Shacochis has written two collections of stories - both have received important literary awards - he is not as well known as he should be. I want here to look briefly at his first novel - a work of exceptional beauty and violence. It is set, for the most part, in a Caribbean country called St. Catherine. It is a tropical, hallucinatory realm that is trying to confront its identity. It is possessed," unsure whether or not it can remain stable, whether or not it can rule itself. Although we encounter various natives and expatriates, we are troubled by the fact that their desires - revolutionary, subversive, and transgressive - appear to be overtly familiar. The hero, Mitchell Wilson, an American economist, isn't especially interesting, although he is puzzled by the secret motives of his governmental agency. His former lover Joanna is a cliche - a troubled young woman more in love with drugs and romantic warfare than with Wilson. Even the native authorities (who oppose one another) are not clearly drawn; they remain ambiguous propagandists for the correct way to rule the island.

The novel is striking because Shacochis tends to be "possessed" by the language he uses to describe the lush and rapacious nature of St. Catherine. We read the novel, therefore, not to learn about political strife or amatory adventure but to marvel at the beautiful metaphors, at the significant meanings they contain. It is, indeed, possible to claim that the novel's authentic power lies in its very style. I am tempted to quote passages from almost every page to plead my case; the novel, despite its somewhat easy characterization and "trendy" revolutionary themes, keeps us hypnotized - "possessed" - so that we are less disturbed by the absence of ideas than we should be. We are made victims - shacochis is the true ruler of St. Catherine - and we yield to his powerful and magical words, recognizing that he has drugged us. We are, finally, unsure about the political and epistemological questions raised. Perhaps Shacochis suggests, in effect, that the "spirits" - of landscape and wordscape - resist our reasoned, mature inquiry.
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Author:Malin, Irving
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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