José Luis Gonzalez’s Story of Puerto Rico

What follows is a slightly compacted version of the original foreword to The Americas Series edition of José Luis Gonzalez’s “Ballad of Another Time.” (You can read a chapter from the novella here.)
“There’s a lot of things a person doesn’t want,” Jose Luis Gonzalez (1926-1996) wrote in Ballad of Another Time: “If you stop to think about it, there’s more things he doesn’t want than what he does want.” Gonzalez voiced, perhaps, more than any other writer of the Americas of his time, what he did not want, and lived his life accordingly. Part of the price was his exile to Mexico, which he preferred to call “transtierro,” (trans)exile, a term carrying a more fluid sense of interconnectedness than the fixed uprootedness of the commonly used “destierro” or “exilio.” His play with words, a trait in Gonzales closely tied to his love of life, was one of the main instruments he used to awaken our knowledge and understanding of ourselves. Yes, you may say this about any good art, but in Gonzalez’s case the attempt is made even more resonant by the stakes: Puerto Rico.

Thus island was, for him, a country in the making, one that did not lose identity with the 1898 U.S. occupation but instead underwent transformation. To the scandal of intellectual peers set firm on a romanticism of language and, of course, a modernism turned toward Europe and Spain (former “motherland” and only recourse against what was seen as cultural erosion stemming from Anglo rule and influence), Gonzalez’s socio-historical analysis did not conform. What had been disappearing since 1898, he explained, was not a national identity as such. The identity of the elite was giving way to an identity of the masses propelled by North American industrial presence. If Puerto Rico was not independent it was because it was not ready to be: “The oldest families living in most towns were only first generations in 1867,” Gonzalez often quoted Puerto Rican historian Fernando Pico. This meant that scarcely eleven years before U.S. occupation the island lacked a leading national class. “But this should not be cause for shame,” Gonzalez said time after time to the anger of many. It all only meant that people fight for their independence when independence is necessary to an important sector of its population and in Puerto Rico this had not been the case. “Is fine for politicians and poets to speak of a fatherland,” Gonzalez joked, “but people struggle and fight for life. What do some people want for God’s sake, for the country to rise up in arms against food stamps? This has never happened in the world and if it did here, I would suspect a case of collective dementia!”

There’s a lot of things a person doesn’t want. If you stop to think about it, there’s more things he doesn’t want than what he does want…

Many of the interviews Gonzalez gave in the late seventies and eighties repeat the same tender plea: let us attempt to know ourselves in the way only we can know ourselves, with no anguish, no shame, and no inferiority complex. We are not inferior or superior to anyone else. We are simply a people like any other with a very particular history. If one wishes to affect history one must walk along with it. If history goes one way and one insists it’s all wrong and heads another way, nothing will change. You might feel good with your conscience, you might even become a hero or martyr, but you would only have succeeded in entering a ghetto, the patriotic ghetto, and I have always disliked ghettos.

In his many books, then, and in the face of insurmountable rifts in national politics, Gonzalez set out to reconstruct the national soul, finding on the way a foundational face-off between the coast and the countryside and exploring its effects on the collective psychology of the Puerto Ricans. The soul of the country, he concluded, the essence of our culture is made of the first Puerto Ricans, those who first felt the island as their only home, and who were no other than the blacks. Even when using the historical model of the Soviet L. Vladimirov, and guided by Marxism, Gonzalez’s essays were able to work out a reasoning organic to the realities of the Caribbean. For over forty years, his socio-political ideas informed his stories. From his legendary “La Carta” to his “El Oido de Dios,” the questions who are we, where did we come from, where are we going—the substance of a national culture—framed his subjects. How Puerto Ricans live, work, interact, celebrate, and struggle is the social experience Gonzalez considered foundational to culture, and to the articulation of its symbolic meanings he directed his literary passion. “Puerto Rican nationality has nothing to do with the delicate, literate, parasitic fatherland of the hacendados,” he wrote, “but everything to do with a stubborn Caribbean and lumpen identity, filled with visceral, creative vitality, resistant, rebellious, nasty when it needs to be and generous when it can afford it, fully aware that to live has meant simply to survive.”

This search for the popular grounding of the national culture is a constant throughout Gonzalez’s almost Kafkaesque biography. His literary self is practically split in three: the very young author living on the island who wrote award-winning stories between the tender age of sixteen and twenty-seven (1943-53), the author in exile in Mexico (1953-72) who mostly withdrew from writing, and the author anew (1972-96), inspired, as he told Angel Rama in the foreword to En Nuevo y Otras Desgracias, by his reading of Solzhenitsyn’s novels (his discovery in them of a telling that was passionate yet simple and straightforward) and by what he did not say, but is evident: his return to his homeland. The six books of stories he wrote between 1943 and 1953 transformed Puerto Rican narrative with a piercing mixed reality of the urban and the mythological, and a chilling simplicity some called the new realism. The story “En el Fondo del Caño hay un Negrito” is a world classic, translated into many languages, and a standard classroom text in the Americas. After leaving precarious political circumstances in Puerto Rico that had forced him to sign his works with different names and send his mother to collect royalties, he arrived in Mexico a writer ignorant of vanguardias. He understood and felt kinship with the writer Juan Rulfo but that was about it. He had been a spontaneous writer and suddenly felt the urge to master the craft, even his own language, which he discovered in Mexico was like a Swiss cheese, filled with holes. For close to two decades he worked different jobs, studied, read, made a life with his Czech wife, Eva Benes, raised their son Jose Enrique, and taught at the University of Mexico. Resigned to an exile at first prompted by his marriage to Eva, who could not get a visa from the U.S. in the midst of the Cold War, and then by his own public political declarations, he made Mexico his second home and helped form generations of students of literature. Gonzalez’s return to his homeland in 1971 after being granted a few days’ visit by U.S. immigration officials coincides with his return to writing. In 1978 he published Ballad of Another Time in Mexico (Nueva Imagen) and Puerto Rico (Huracan) simultaneously…

The year is 1936. The characters are a husband (Rosendo), a wife (Dominga) and the wife’s accidental lover (Fico), three people in the sort of tangle that has inspired innumerable tales. Rosendo and Dominga are archetypal characters. Owners of a small coffee farm, they each have the typical attributes of their social and historical station: he a cold, calculating, seemingly abusive husband; she a grown silent woman, seemingly abused, clearly oppressed. And in the background of the bitterness outlying their lives is the battered Puerto Rican countryside of the 1930s. Fico, on the other hand, is drawn in a subtle Dostoievskian undertone, a mix of Myshkin and Raskolnikov, whose consistency in what he does not want is almost frightening at times. In fact, Fico’s predicament is subsumed in the two phrases that so often come out of his mouth: I don’t want to and I don’t know. Fico is, in my eyes, the great achievement of this novel. “I know nothing,” Fico tells himself. “And what makes it worse, there’s no reason for me to know.” Fico is a man from the coast, not a blanquito, a whitey, like the folks from the uplands—a man with no relatives that we know of, no home, no allegiance to anything but his visceral need to not be asked to do what does not want to do. A fleeing man anchored to history and time by a wound to his maleness, a wound that led him to almost kill a man, be jailed for it, and not want to return to his home town on the coast ever. In this self-imposed internal exile he wanders off to the highland in search of work, is hired for his keep by Rosendo, humiliated repeatedly, and asked by Dominga to take her away. In a story of flight and pursuit the reader gets a privileged glimpse into a nation in the making and one that Fico himself will come to personify. What is most remarkable about Fico is his resistance. He does not have a discourse for this resistance beyond his silence and repeated assertion of what he does not want. We don’t know what he does want but this does not seem to be relevant. We witness, though, how character after character is drawn to trust him and seek either to protect him or to be protected by him. It is not difficult to come to read Fico’s meditation heading this introduction as the voice of the island itself.

Rosario Ferré, loyal admirer of Gonzalez described Ballad of Another Time to me wonderfully as “a perfect miniature.” I can’t help but realize that my other two most beloved works of literature, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Pirámo, are also miniatures. Gregor Samsa, Juan Preciado, and Fico Santos are all three tossed about by events outside of their control: one stuck in a house ruled by The Law, the other in a town besieged by memory, the last one on an island baffled by History. Each story is rendered in about a hundred book pages in such condensed perfection that every compositional aspect of its novelistic background is seen in close-up, a magnification that makes events of long traditional novels seem almost imperceptible. Indeed, Ballad of Another Time, is the great novel of Puerto Rico, one, that, better than any other in my eyes, has done for the island what Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Pirámo did for Mexico.

Though winner of the prestigious Premio Xavier Villaurrutia, the novel never caught on. Its translation into English by the great Asa Zatz and publication in 1987 failed to reach a wide enough audience and quickly went out of print. Puerto Rico: The Four-Storeyed Country and Other Essays, Gonzalez’s nonfiction masterpiece of socio-historical analysis and a classic in Puerto Rican studies programs across the United States, is his only other book translated into English. Unfortunately, Ballad of Another Time has not received the recognition it deserves and remains an undiscovered jewel, a privileged moment in the history of Caribbean literature. The Americas series edition of Ballad of Another Time attempts to remedy this.