Salt Crystals by Cristina Bendek

Translated by Robin Myers

Released earlier this month, this is the latest title from Charco Press, the Latin American translation specialists, by Colombian author Cristina Bendek.

The setting is San Andrés, a small island in the Caribbean Sea which although geographically closer to Nicaragua, is under Colombian rule. It wasn’t always so, the Dutch settlers discovered it in the early 1600s, but the British chucked them out, and brought in slaves from Jamaica. A Spanish invasion failed and privateers including Sir Henry Morgan based themselves there. Eventually the English handed the island over to the Spanish, then the islanders declared independence and ended up as a department of Colombia. That’s an extremely truncated summary of the island’s past.

Its recent history is complicated too. The Afro-Caribbean ethnic group of African or Afro-British descent, known as the Raizal makes up over 50% of the island’s population, and over the years has become increasingly politicised in the race and class arenas.

This is the situation that Victoria discovers on her return to the island after her divorce and years of living in Mexico.

I was born twenty-nine years ago on a curious coral formation, home to all sorts of people who have converged here, some against their will. I’m only just beginning to recognise the surreal nucleus from which I banished myself fifteen years ago, taking off like a shot after high school, which is when anyone who can escape will do. The mosquitos haven’t recognised me yet, or the sun; I’ve become more foreign than native. The expressions, the accents, the way people move and act – they all seem exotic to me now, no longer ordinary, as they once were. Every mispronounced word sets off an alarm. Every sign of overconfidence, every thrown-together plan, the sense that everything’s half-done. It all feels like knocking on closed doors, trying to wake a horde of unknown and slumbering inhabitants inside me. […]. Life here is a continual conversation between lethargy and longing.

[…] Years ago, I would rather have died than retrace my steps and return to San Andrés, which is what you do when you don’t know what the fuck you really want.

As the novel begins she is undecided how long to stay, but she needed to get away from Mexico. Her parents had died in an accident some time ago so her contacts on the island are limited to her old girlfriend Juleen, who works with tourists and is doing OK. Juleen will introduce her to many others who will open Victoria’s eyes to the Raizal situation on the island, and with their help and through old photos she will begin to uncover her own heritage.

There are two sides to this novel. The first is political, and to be honest, there was an element of info-dumping by Jaime, who takes on Victoria’s education. There is no doubting his earnest activism, but not previously knowing anything about this small island’s history and place in the world, it went over my head and frankly was less interesting.

What I did enjoy though was Bendek’s evocation of life on this tropical island, the mosquitos, the humidity, the constant feeling of wetness. All compounded by Victoria’s diabetes, which she has to re-learn how to manage under these new living conditions. A roadside sugar mango windfall comes in useful when on a walk with her new friends and sugar levels start to dip. The island now depends on tourists for its income and there is also the contrast between the decaying old buildings and the new gleaming tourist hotels and lodges; it is a beautiful paradise but can also be something more squalid at the same time.

An interesting translator’s note helps to distinguish between Spanish, Colombian Spanish and Caribbean Spanish – the particular Creole language spoken by the Raizal on San Andrés, a tongue that Victoria has to relearn.

I ended up feeling rather ambivalent about this book due to the large amount of island history and politics which got in the way of Victoria finding out about her own more intimate family history, which although totally rooted in the island’s heritage got rather swamped by it.

Source: Review copy – thank you. Charco Press flapped paperback 216 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

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