Mayra Montero’s novel The Messenger begins with a real historical event. In June 1920, a bomb went off in the theater where famous tenor Enrico Caruso was performing. Caruso fled the theater and proceeded to disappear for several days. The Messenger imagines what might have happened to the singer during that time. At 218 pages, this is a short book, but it explores questions about life and death, fate and free will, love, family, and the mingling and conflict of cultures.
Aida Petrirena Cheng works with her mother as a seamstress. When a dazed Caruso stumbles into the kitchen of the hotel where she’s delivering some of the clothes she and her mother have mended, she senses that he’s connected to a prophecy about her future made by her godfather, an African Babalawo (mystic). A question hovers over the rest of the narrative: How much of what’s happening has been preordained?
Cuba’s population is comprised of several ethnic groups, and many Cubans are multiracial. This diverse cultural heritage is represented by the Cuban characters in The Messenger. Aida has African, Hispanic, and Chinese heritage. This doesn’t always make life easy for her: some people sneeringly refer to her as “Chinita” because of the facial features she inherited from her Chinese father. But she’s also able to draw on the support of both the Afro-Cuban and Chinese-Cuban communities when she becomes entangled with Caruso. The syncretic nature of Cuban culture is also demonstrated with respect to folk magic and spiritual beliefs. Aida and her mother believe in the mystical power of both the babalawo and a Chinese man who holds a similar role in his community. Neither is truly better or worse than the other, just different, and the characters don’t see any mutual exclusivity in their truths.
Montero grew up in Cuba, and The Messenger was originally published in Spanish. I’m hoping more of her work is translated in the future, as her unique voice is one I’d like to hear more from.