Saturday, 2 March 2013

Honduras - Life in the Big Banana

I chose The Big Banana (1999) by Roberto Quesada, as an example of modern Honduran literature.  Honduras seems to have a fairly healthy writing scene, although it's difficult to find Honduran novels that have been translated into English and I had to order The Big Banana from the United States.

It's an interesting novel - mostly set in 'the Big Apple', it tells the story of a young Honduran wannabe actor, Eduardo Lin, who moves to New York seeking fame and fortune, but mostly ends up working on building sites and living in the Bronx.  The Big Banana is a play on words, as Eduardo is nicknamed bananero because he comes from Honduras, a banana republic

When he first arrives in the Bronx, he's frightened by the burnt-out cars and the rubble - it looks like a war zone and his first experiences of New York are far-removed from the Hollywood images most Hondurans (and the rest of us) see on TV.

Theme: Escapism

New York subway by Raymond Larose
A major theme of the novel is escapism.  Eduardo's girlfriend, Mirian, who he leaves behind in Tegucigalpa, suffers from an extreme form of escapism where she fantasises about the James Bond actor Roger Moore.  Her parents are so worried about her obsession that they send her to a therapist.  In the novel, Roger Moore actually turns up in Tegucigalpa and I think this is based on a real event - before I read this novel, I didn't know about his humanitarian work or that he became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador!

Eduardo also escapes, during periods when he feels anxious or bored, he travels to his past in Honduras or to an imaginary future in which he is a famous actor.  Eduardo's flat-mate, Casagrande, escapes to the past through his story-telling and memories of his male lover in San Francisco.  Eduardo's friend and compatriot, Javier, uses cocaine to escape the failure that his life has become.  The Ecuadorians that Eduardo and Casagrande live with, get drunk and listen to Julio Jaramillo 'El Ruiseñor de América' - the nightingale of the Americas. 

I get the sense that escapism is a reality for many Hondurans (and Latin Americans), that goes beyond the confines of fiction.  Escape from poverty, seeking out a new life in the affluent north. 

Theme: National Pride

Another theme is the pride that Eduardo feels in being Honduran, despite the backwardness of his country and fellow-countrymen.  In New York, he mixes with lots of different nationalities - Chilean, Columbian, Mexican, Ecuadorian, Bolivian - he gets teased a lot, because he's from Honduras, which is considered to have 'sold out' to the United States by allowing the establishment of US military bases in their country.  Eduardo quietly defends his country and wins people over with his natural charm and unassuming modesty. 

He praises the beauty of Tegucigalpa, which he contrasts to the supposed beauty of the United States:

'Tegucigalpa is unravelled from a distance and at nighttime.  Neither the White House Christmas tree in Washington nor the Golden Gate in San Francisco with all its lights can compare to it from a road a few miles outside the city, from some nearby mountain.'

Eduardo also offers a really interesting description of Hondurans:

'Intelligent but lacking opportunities; full of projects but with no money to make them happen; with a bad reputation because people don't know us personally; we're not lazy, it's just not worth working if you're not well paid; a bit quaint, which we take not as a defect but a virtue'

It really struck me how often I've come across descriptions of beautiful countries with fantastic people and great resources that, for one reason or another, haven't fully achieved their potential - Eritrea, Cambodia, Yemen, Paraguay - the list goes on!

Theme: Winter and broken dreams

Central Park snow by Raymond Lerose
Coming from Honduras, where temperatures rarely get below 15C/60F, Eduardo is fascinated by snow.  He feels that it makes him more artistic and he sees a beauty in the snow that makes New York seem other-wordly.  180 pages into the novel, winter comes to an end.  Mirian comes to New York to visit Eduardo and he 'wakes up' and decides to return to Honduras and make a life for himself.  Winter symbolises stagnation, sleepwalking through life, as though in a dream.  Many of the immigrants in Quesada's New York have had their dreams crushed and broken.

Eduardo's dreams are also crushed, that is, until he gets a once-in-a-lifetime audition with Steven Spielberg.  The audition is a success and, just when it seems that Eduardo is on the cusp of realising his ambitions, he decides that it's not really what he wants and returns to a simpler life in Honduras.  I guess that this is symbolic of Honduras itself - being on the cusp of opportunities, but not really knowing how to make the most of them?

Theme: Sex and Literature

It's quite a sensual novel and, despite his love of Mirian, Eduardo spends much of the winter seeking solace in the arms of a series of 'conquests'.  The woman he loves most, out of all, is the beautiful Columbian, Andrea.   

The first time Eduardo makes love to Andrea, it's on a bed made of books by some of the world's best writers; Pound, Kafta, Borges, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, Cabrera Infante, Chekov, Umberto Eco, Carlos Fuentes, Allen Ginsberg.  The novel is full of references to writers that have influenced Eduardo; Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Fernando Alegria, Milan Kundera and the love-making scene combines sex and literature in a way that is both funny and sensual. 

Theme: Race

Grand Central station by Raymond Lerose
When he first moves to New York, Eduardo lives with Mairena, a Garifuna friend from home, who is a preacher.  Throughout the novel, Mairena raises the issue of race and how Garifuna people are treated as second-class citizens back in Honduras because of their culture and the colour of their skin. 

The novel introduced me to the real-life nightclub fire that happened in the Happy Land club in the Bronx in March 1990. Many Honduran immigrants died in the fire, most of them being Garifunas.  The fire was started deliberately by a Cuban immigrant who was having a fight with his ex-girlfriend, who worked as a cloakroom attendant at the club.  87 people died as a result of the fire - ironically, one of the four survivors was the Cuban immigrants' ex-girlfriend. 

There's quite a poignant scene in the novel, where the characters gather for a memorial service to victims of the fire, which takes place in Van Cortlandt park.  The scene is full of tension, because of Mairena's anger at the racism of people's response to the fire, because of the despair and sadness felt by the characters, as a result of such a horrific event.  The fire marks a turning point in the novel - Casagrande decides to leave New York, as does Eduardo, Mairena returns to the safety of his family and congregation, Javier gets lost in a vortex of drug-taking, eventually ending up on the streets. 

It was a good read and an interesting insight into the life of a Honduran immigrant in New York.  

Image credits:

For this blog post, I want to highlight the work of a photographer I really admire, flickr member, Raymond Larose who is originally from Connecticut.  Raymond has taken some pretty amazing pictures, which you can see on his photostream or website

Thanks Raymond for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons License. 

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