We tell ourselves stories in order to die. At least that’s the case for María Sirena, the senescent narrator of Chantel Acevedo’s uneven fourth novel, “The Distant Marvels,” which turns Joan Didion’s line on its head. María Sirena finds relief in narratives, though for her, they’re not so much life-affirming as they are palliative. Nearing the end, she needs to let go of her most closely guarded secrets in order to greet death with equanimity. This is storytelling as hospice.
It’s 1963, and only the specter of Hurricane Flora’s disaster rouses María Sirena from her stupor — and just barely. Despite her protests, a mandatory government evacuation forces her to trade her home on the coast of Cuba for the company of other “solitary women” her age in the crumbling governor’s mansion, Casa Velázquez. As the storm rages on, the women — friends and enemies alike — grow restless and seek succor in María Sirena’s stories. She should be up to the task, they figure, since she was once a lector in a cigar factory, where she regaled the laborers with classics like “Hamlet” as well as her own stories — passed off under the name of a “famous” author, whose fictitious novel she called “The Distant Marvels.”
Acevedo pivots between these scenes at Casa Velázquez and the grisly, lurid and mythic stories themselves, which transport us to the front lines of the Cuban war of independence in the 1890s and gradually make their way forward in time. Thanks to María Sirena’s self-proclaimed eidetic memory, the details of her earlier life — including captivity, squalor and various other misfortunes — spring to life, albeit not without a touch of melodrama. Here we glimpse Acevedo’s capacity for searching psychological insight, though the book’s strongest moments take place in a tent city, where quotidian dramas and the residual effects of war coalesce to chronicle the narrator’s cruel new reality.
“The Distant Marvels” ends with a shocking plot twist that hinges on the failure of translation — a failure that is inadvertently echoed by Acevedo’s novel. Acevedo has a distracting habit of using Spanish and then immediately repeating herself in English (“ ‘¡Luz!’ she’d yelled. ‘I need light!’ ”). This attempt to increase verisimilitude backfires, since technically all of the dialogue is already “taking place” in Spanish. (It’s not as if different languages can never coexist on the same page: Junot Díaz’s Spanglish, for example, succeeds because his characters inhabit a hybrid, multilingual milieu — it’s their natural patois.) Less frequent but also noticeable are instances of pedagogy within the text; one wonders, for example, why a native Cuban would take the time to explain that José Martí, the country’s emblematic statesman-poet, “had inspired Cubans on the island and abroad to rise up over Spain.”
Martí happens to furnish the novel’s epigraph, a paean to the archetypal Cuban woman. Rather improbably, one could also make the case for an epigraph from Edmund Spenser, whose “Faerie Queene” foreshadows the novel’s plot in two lines: “Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas, / Ease after warre, death after life does greatly please.” A sibilant incitement to suicide, these lines allow us to empathize with María Sirena’s desire to endure the hurricane at home, a certain death wish. One can hardly blame her: A survivor of war and far worse, she tells her life’s stories not merely to preserve them for another generation but to prepare herself for death. This need not be such a gloomy prospect, however; she ultimately realizes that what gives meaning to both a story and a life is precisely the fact that they must come to an end.