(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022)
Translated by Anna Kushner
Reviewed by Daniel Rey
Call Me Cassandra. With these words, the Cuban writer Marcial Gala evokes the ignored oracle of Troy and the opening line of Moby-Dick. It’s a title that indicates the layers of literary allusion that characterise this short and ambitious coming-of-age novel of identity and fate.
In 1970s and 80s Cienfuegos, a port city in southern Cuba, Cassandra is a clairvoyant and bibliophilic trans person, born Raúl Iriarte. After turning eighteen, Raúl is sent, unwillingly, to join the Cuban brigades fighting apartheid forces in Angola. As the reader soon learns, Raúl will die there at the hands of a captain.
Gala tells the story from Raúl’s first-person perspective, an approach that lends intimacy whilst leaving the reader unsure how the protagonist identifies. Their (or perhaps his or her) narration flits easily between their early adulthood in the military camp overseas and their bookish childhood at home.
Too short, too blond, too blue-eyed, and ‘too feminine’ for a model Cuban, wherever Raúl goes, they stand out. ‘I want to be Cassandra’, they tell us at the start of the novel. Like the Trojan oracle, they are consistently ignored.
Instead, almost every character foists an identity on Raúl. Their mother, who dresses them in her late sister’s clothes, wants Raúl to reincarnate Aunt Nancy. Later, she will reimagine Raúl as a man almost six foot five inches tall. The captain, who sexually abuses them, calls them ‘Katerina’ – the name of his faraway wife. ‘I hate you,’ the captain says, ‘because you look like her, but you’re not her.’ Other interlocutors call our narrator ‘Rauli’ and ‘Raulito’, or impose nicknames based on Raúl’s distinctive appearance – ‘Olivia Newton-John’, ‘Marilyn Monroe’, and ‘Wendy’ (from Peter Pan).
On an island that exported the macho image of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, Raúl is a rebel – an embodiment of a vilified counterculture. On their last night in Cienfuegos, they go to a dance club, passing as a woman. If they are discovered, they will be sent to jail. ‘I feel comfortable when I dress like this,’ they say. ‘No one knows me and I can say I am Cassandra.’ At the club, our narrator attracts the attention of an Olympic boxer, who suggests exchanging palm readings. The boxer’s analysis is spectacularly inaccurate. In return, Cassandra reveals the boxer will win a silver medal but conceals that, shortly afterwards, he will die.
Raúl’s short life is brightened by literature. Whilst they are in pre-school, the goddess Athena urges them to buy The Iliad; their schoolteacher gives them a copy of José Lezama Lima’s banned homoerotic novel Paradiso; and their father’s Russian girlfriend introduces them to Tolstoy. In a rare moment of short-sightedness, our oracular narrator leaves Anna Karenina on their hammock. When they realise, they fear a comrade ‘could steal it from me to wipe their ass.’
The incident recalls the memoir of Reinaldo Arenas – the Cuban poet to whom Gala dedicates his novel – who was imprisoned in the 1970s for his anti-government writings and his homosexuality. Arenas believed his fellow inmates wanted to use his copy of The Iliad as cigarette paper. The connection between the character of Raúl and Arenas is strong. The Iliad is a source of the Cassandra myth and, like Arenas, who was persecuted, exiled, and died prematurely, Raúl is a would-be writer who is denied their identity and must die abroad.
Death does not perturb Raúl. ‘I know I will die at nineteen, very far away from Cienfuegos, here in Angola,’ they say. ‘The captain is going to kill me so that no one finds out.’ There is no reason why it should be otherwise. Not only has Raúl foreseen their fate, but an early death is the natural consequence of living transgressively in their society.
Raul’s voice reflects their personality. As befits an oracular character, their first-person narration is calm, even blasé: ‘“What happened to Marilyn Monroe? Did she desert?” my sergeant Carlos will ask the next day when he confirms that I’m not in formation. “He probably overslept,” Johnny the Rocker will say.’
In keeping with the dispassionate tone, Gala’s writing is spare, its only indulgence the many pieces of literature and music to which it pays homage. Although Homer, Tolstoy and the Brazilian singer Roberto Carlos are the anchors of Raúl’s short life, at times the references seem excessive. Given this, Gala’s titular allusion to Moby-Dick is curiously underdeveloped. Perhaps Raúl is an inversion of Melville’s Ishmael – someone who does not want to leave their island and dies when others survive. Perhaps the captain, who does not receive his comeuppance, is a kind of Ahab, with impunity?
Moby-Dick or no Moby-Dick, Call Me Cassandra delivers big ideas. Though Gala’s protagonist hardly develops, this short novel is a meticulous, powerful, and unusual Bildungsroman. You don’t need to be Raúl to predict that many bookworms will read it twice.