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Fair Exchange

SIRENA SELENA A Novel By Mayra Santos-Febres Translated from the Spanish by Stephen Lytle; Picador USA: 224 pp., $21

October 01, 2000|PETER GREEN | Peter Green is the former fiction critic of the London Daily Telegraph

What do Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," traditional British pantomime, Aristophanes' "Thesmophoriazusae," movies like "Tootsie" and "Boys Don't Cry" and the novel reviewed here have in common? A phenomenon far more pervasive, in art as in life, than most of us generally suppose: transvestism, gender-bending, one sex masquerading as the other, the ambiguous world of drag queens, of "Victor/Victoria" and "Mrs. Doubtfire," of Barrie Humphreys' Dame Edna and--right at the other end of the scale--the Elizabethan male adolescent pretending to be Viola pretending to be Cesario, teasing reluctant Olivia in loaded verbal exchanges.

"I prithee," says Olivia--herself in Shakespeare's day played by a boy--"tell me what thou think'st of me." "That you do think you are not what you are." "If I think so," Olivia muses, "I think the same of you." "Then think you right, I am not what I am." The better the illusion, the more disturbing the impact on normality. The raunchy music-hall dame created by that great Victorian comic Dan Leno can be enjoyed and mocked; but Lady Chablis, the stylishly elegant transvestite made famous by John Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," is something else again.

Mayra Santos-Febres, a professor of literature at the University of Puerto Rico with a doctorate from Cornell, knows all this very well. I would hazard a guess that she has also made a careful study of Peter Ackroyd's "Dressing Up, Transvestism and Drag: The History of an Obsession" (1979). Literary precedent nudges at one throughout "Sirena Selena." The blurb invites us to locate its narrative "somewhere between 'The Blue Angel' and 'Kiss of the Spider Woman,' " but Hugo Graubel, the millionaire mesmerized by Santos-Febres' Caribbean teen diva, also has strong affinities with the gloomy middle-aged protagonist of Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice," here redesigned as relentless fragmentation in San Domingo.

Very little actually happens. Martha Divine, aging drag queen, hears a drugged-out adolescent crooning Caribbean boleros to himself one night as he picks through back-street garbage in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His voice is fabulous. Seeing him as her ticket to the easy life, Martha picks him up, transforms him into Selena the Siren and sets about promoting him/her as a class act for the wealthy hotels in the Dominican Republic, where travestis don't, it seems, elicit so much puritanical disapproval. Enter Graubel, a major backer of the hotel where Martha is angling for a deal, who makes the directors postpone their decision while he sets up Selena as the star entertainer for a big private dinner party, with the unspoken hope of a subsequent sexual conquest. Selena sees his/her chance, dumps Martha, moves up into the world of wealthy glamour and patronage. But it's all as brief, insubstantial and evanescent as the bubbles in the Veuve Clicquot champagne that flows so freely. Youth's a stuff ("Twelfth Night" again) will not endure, Selena will fade as Martha did, the perils of police and the 'hood always threaten, in the end everyone gets screwed.

Nor is this going-over merely metaphorical. Those with a low tolerance level for what, when all the drag is off, are simply bouts of high-octane sodomy are warned that "Sirena Selena" contains its fair share of such encounters. At the same time the writing in this novel is, no other word for it, superb. Santos-Febres, poet as well as novelist, evokes the sights, sounds and atmosphere of her febrile Caribbean sub-world with eloquent passion. (Her translator, Stephen Lytle, has done a wonderful job of Englishing so quintessentially Hispanic a text.) She slips without effort into a clutch of first-person styles: Martha's, Hugo's, Selena's (whose hopeful prayer to a highly syncretized local saint should delight aficionados of comparative religion) and, perhaps best of all, that of Hugo's embittered wife Solange, obsessed with every detail of what she sees as her dinner party, fuming at Hugo for importing a travesti, bitching to herself about her smart-ass guests, frustrated by her husband's odd habits in bed. It probably stamps me as hopelessly old-fashioned, but I have to confess I found Solange the most sympathetic character in the entire novel.

There was, however, one really insoluble problem Santos-Febres set herself. The magic generated by Selena depends almost entirelyon his/her voice. The rest is top-dressing. Unfortunately, to convey the impact of music by means of the written word is a virtual impossibility. We just have to take Selena's siren notes on trust. Like most writers, too, Santos-Febres is best at visual imagery, which means that we don't often hear things in this novel anyway. Laura Esquivel is quoted as saying of it that "the Grammys will have to invent a new category--Best Album of the Year in Fiction." What we really need, I'm afraid, is an accompanying CD of Selena in performance. Without that, the reactions to her voice all sound uncomfortably like publicity raves.

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