Chiquita: A Brilliant Novel / Angel Santiesteban

by Antonio Orlando Rodriguez   Winner of 2008 Alfaguara Award

by Antonio Orlando Rodriguez
Winner of 2008 Alfaguara Award

The last time State Security allowed me to leave the country was in 2008, to a Book Fair in the Dominican Republic, which I attended as a judge for a literary prize; and from where I returned with my blog “The Children Nobody Wanted.”

But that’s not what I want to talk about in this post, but rather about a novel I discovered on that trip, the winner of the Alfaguara Prize, by Cuban author, Antonio Orlando Rodríguez: Little One (Chiquita); although the magnitude of the novel should indicate that it’s not (so little) since the author tells the story of the immense life of Espiridiona Cenda del Castillo, a Lilliputian who was born in the city of Matanzas one 14th of December, 1869.

This miniature-sized human being achieved fame once she decided to travel—with her brother and a pianist cousin—in order to triumph in the artistic world and capitalize on her voice lessons and 26-inch size.

Her ups and downs began after June 30, 1896, when she left Cuba for New York with a vaudeville show. In New York she performed on the best vaudeville stages and became one of the genre’s most successful artists. She traveled the world.

Oddly, she had a charisma that made people want to enlist her in the important causes of the time. The most righteous of these was the cause for Cuban independence, and she was visited by no less than a group of Cubans led by Tomás Estrada Palma, who had the dual charge of delegate of the Cuban Revolutionary Party and ambassador-at-large of the Republic of Cuba in Arms against the United States, and who would eventually become the first President of Cuba.

She was also welcomed by, among many other celebrities, millionaires and people of influence, U.S. President William McKinley, who was later assassinated while in office.

In a rewarding, literary subplot—from the moment she meets Alejo Romanov, third son of Alexander the Second of Russia, on his visit to the city of Matanzas, during which he gives her a gold chain with a tiny watch face as a good luck charm—an intriguing story begins in which the author himself acknowledges at the end of the novel he has “unscrupulously interwoven historical truth and fantasy,” license that adds intriguing turns of events and raises readers’ interest as well as the literary level of the author, who hails from Ciego de Ávila, Cuba.

The author’s humor and trickery, which interfere in the novel with mastery and achievement, provide a fresh, very Cuban flavor to the reader.

My first reading of this novel was ruined, as I told you in the beginning, at that Book Fair in the D.R., while reading in sessions at the same booth where it was for sale and, consequently, once I finished, I promised myself to come back to it and give it a more thorough and uninterrupted reading.

Thanks to life’s lovely coincidences, oppositional and independent journalist Lilianne Ruiz handed me a copy of the book, which life long journalist, Reinaldo Escobar, had sent her from his personal library and for which I will be forever grateful to them both; because I enjoyed this reading more than the first—so much so, that I re-read it in three days.

My pretense for sharing these brief comments is to invite Cubans who have not already done so to find this book and have the pleasure of reading it, enrich their personal library and, best of all, add culture and historical knowledge to their mental archives.

For my part—even though I’m a colleague of the author, who claims that being a writer is synonymous with being a “professional liar”—I only have tried to tell you the truth.

December, 2014. Jaimanitas Border Control Unit Prison, Havana.

Translated by: Kathy Fox

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