The Five Heridas
Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 22.
About a month ago, The New Yorker published a short story called “Five Wounds,” written by Kirstin Valdez Quade. It’s posted here. Aside from the distinction it was granted by being published in The New Yorker, I read some encouraging remarks on it yesterday. Plus, I just looked the story up online, and I found rave reviews, with people celebrating that there’s “not a word out of place” and sharing other ebullient comments. All of this foregrounded again a subject I had mentioned before, about the wide appeal of exotica in literature. An exoticized Latin culture has become a popular choice.
Before we go on, yes, the story is finely built. It picks up momentum as it goes, as the story centers on its strength: a tortured, guilt-laced relationship between the main character (Amadeo Padilla) and his daughter (Angel). Amadeo is 33, Angel is going on 15—and eight months pregnant. Every family mentioned here is a mess, but Amadeo’s relationship with Angel has been especially distant; it is only now, when Angel is so close to giving birth, that Amadeo finds out that Angel is pregnant. Amadeo is ashamed of his daughter’s pregnancy, and this is made worse when an ominous figure of the story, the crippled Manuel García, calls her a “puta whore.” Amadeo feels guilty for having nearly abandoned her all his life (he “left her to rental after rental, money always tight, the long series of [Angel’s mother’s] boyfriends—some worse even than Amadeo—around his daughter”).
The plot of the story revolves around a reenactment of the Passion, in Easter. Amadeo, a very unlikely candidate, has been offered the part of Jesus. He prepares himself for the event by rehearsing his pained gestures in the mirror, and improving his habits (trying not to drink, for instance). The reenactment, Amadeo explains to his daughter, is “like a way to pray.” There is plenty of real pain involved when the time comes: whips, thorns, nails, flesh torn by grinding against the cross’s rough wood, blood. All of this adds up to an epiphany, built with heavy religious imagery, which transforms Amadeo’s understanding of his life and his relationships.
Having said all that, I wonder why the story bothered to play up its exotic streak, its impenetrable Latin quality, so much. Take this paragraph, for instance, the fourth paragraph in the story:
“Amadeo builds the cross out of heavy rough oak instead of pine. He’s barefoot like the rest of the hermanos, who have rolled up the cuffs of their pants and now drag the arches of their feet over sharp rocks behind him. The Mayor Hermano—Amadeo’s grand-tío Tivé, who owns the electronics store, and who surprised them all when he chose his niece’s lazy son (because, he told Yolanda, Amadeo could use a lesson in sacrifice)—plays the pito, and the thin piping notes rise in a whine. A few hermanos swat their backs with disciplinas. Unlike the others, though, Amadeo does not groan, and he is shirtless, his tattooed back broad under the still hot sun.”
I’ve written in bold every word drawn directly from Spanish; in the story, they are presented in plain font. So why not just say brothers, and horn, and lash? To people who are fluent in Spanish, this is just pointless. Awful, even. Perhaps the point is to force-feed those readers who are not fluent in Spanish with enough strange words to make it seem we are entering an alien and indecipherable world. If that was the point, it doesn’t seem very satisfying.
An alternative would be to be bolder about all this: if there’s going to be so much Spanish littering the narrator’s own voice, how come dialogues are not truly drenched in Spanish (like you’ll hear people flipping from Spanish to English and back in Puerto Rico)? It may be because it would be asking for too much. The longest Spanish phrase in the story is this: “Bendito, bendito, bendito sea Dios, los ángeles cantan y daban a Dios.” If you know enough Spanish, the last verb will sound weird; the verb tenses don’t match, and the meaning is just off. And that’s because it’s a mistake. The prayer really says “alaban a Dios,” not “daban.” Maybe it was for the best that dialogues were not crammed with this kind of Spanish.
As the story advances, Spanish words are not nearly as abundant as they were in that fourth paragraph, which seemed to set the stage. You get an occasional “hermanos,” an occasional “morada,” an occasional “puta.” But the story moves on to focus on its strengths, as I had mentioned. It gets better. And it would’ve been much better without all that mishandled interference. I don’t want to think that if “The Five Wounds” had been just a good, intense father-daughter story, without all those exotic elements, it wouldn’t have interested a top-notch publication.