Luis Negrón’s debut collection Mundo Cruel is a journey through Puerto Rico’s gay world. Published in 2010, the book is already in its fifth Spanish edition. Here in the U.S., the collection has been published by Seven Stories Press and translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine, winner of the 2012 PEN Center USA Literary Award.
Negrón lives in Puerto Rico and works as a bookseller, and is also coeditor of an anthology of queer writing from Puerto Rico. Other than the recently translated Mundo Cruel, his only other work in English is the essay “The Pain of Reading,” which appeared in the Sunday Review of the New York Times, and was also translated by Levine.
The characters in Mundo Cruel constantly face prejudice, heartbreak, poverty, gossip, and death. Is the fictional world in Luis Negrón’s stories cruel? Most certainly. But Mundo Cruel is peopled by resilient, funny, and surprisingly optimistic characters. The book consists of nine tightly constructed stories mostly set in Santurce, a neighborhood in the outskirts of San Juan. What’s truly surprising in Mundo Cruel isn’t the queer themes it explores, but the degree of narrative control and skill present in Negrón’s work.
The first story, “The Chosen One,” is about a teenager’s unique relationship with God and the allure he exerts on certain members of his congregation. In “The Vampire of Moca,” a person’s crush gets out of hand, paving the way for jealousy, rage, obsession, and finally forgiveness. Sound heavy? This is actually one of Negrón’s funniest stories. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Santurce. The story’s setting seemed to enhance the protagonist’s feelings of entrapment:
Blocks and blocks full of doctor’s offices and temples—Catholic, Evangelical, Mormon, Rosicrucian, Espiritista, Jewish, and yoga-ist, if that’s what you call it. The stench of sewers 24/7. Unbearable heat. Reggaeton, old school salsa, boleros, bachatas, jukeboxes, pool halls, slot machines. Topless bars, Dominican bars, gay bars. Catholic schools, beauty schools, vocational schools, and schools where you get a professional degree in just one year and without much homework. Fabric stores, arts and crafts stores, no-prescription drugstores, barbershops and hair salons.
“For Goyama” is a terrific rendering of the melodrama found in the telenovelas so prevalent in Hispanic society. With campy humor, Negrón portrays the protagonist’s loss, loneliness, and desperation as he tries to get a hold of a friend who owes him money. This is so he can send his dog, Goyama, to a taxidermist. Here, the entire action takes place through the letters the protagonist sends his friend during the weeks he’s trying to track said friend down.
“La Edwin” and “Junito” are monologues told through a phone call. Negrón’s acute ear for dialogue and urban orality is immediately evident, and Levine’s translation shines. Many Puerto Ricans are in fact bilingual, or understand quite a lot of words in English. So Levine’s decision to keep certain Spanish words in her translation is a nod to the code-switching that occurs in both countries.
Me, I talk polito chicken, you know, Spanglish, but I get by. If they talk to me slow I can follow, but when they start talking fast with all that guachulín, man, that’s when they lose me.
“Botella” shows a hustler who, after having sex with a jon, finds him dead several hours later. I don’t want to give too much away here, but let me just say that after you read this story, you’ll never look at a bottle of bleach the same way again.
The seventh story in the collection, “So Many or On How the Wagging Tongue Sometimes Can Cast a Spell,” is structured like a dramatic script. Two intolerant mothers discuss the upbringing of a queer boy living in their neighborhood. Under the guise of good Samaritans, they unleash their prejudice, xenophobia, and cruelty on the boy, his family, and all who do not conform to their expectations.
The collection closes with “The Garden” and the title story, “Mundo Cruel.” The former is narrated by Nestito, whose lover, Willie, is dying of AIDS. This is the most somber story in the collection and Negrón establishes himself as a deeply humane writer. “Mundo Cruel” is a satire on a world without homophobia, where the main characters, José A. and Panchi, must confront their biggest fear: tolerance.
Mundo Cruel might be a quick read, yet this is the type of book whose characters will linger in your imagination—it might take some effort to shake them off. Negrón is an incredibly gifted writer whose vivid prose, diverse writing style, and humor makes reading this book a true joy.
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