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Fernando Contreras Castro: Cierto azul (Blue Note)
This is a short novel about jazz and cats. Cool cats, yes, but, in this case, also felines. Our narrator is a cat called Freddie Freeloader. Jazz aficionados will recognise the name as the title of the second track on Miles Davis‘seminal album Kind of Blue, claimed to be one of the great jazz albums of all time.
The cats consider themselves great, particularly when compared to dogs and we are reminded of this frequently. Have you ever seen a “police cat” or a “shepherd cat,” whatever the nationality may be? And nothing could be more ridiculous than the term “cats of war” instead of“dogs of war. He goes on to tell us that, unlike dogs, We cats won’t accept ill treatment and We cats don’t have a master. I can only agree.
Freddie lives in an unnamed Caribbean city, presumably San José or based on it. His grandfather was born in Birdland’s ceiling on 52nd Street, a New York. Birdland was a famous jazz club and still is, albeit at a different location. The grandfather was lost in a bet to a sailor and ended up in the Caribbean city, hence Freddie’s location.
The grandfather brought his jazz traditions with him. (Dogs are dumb; they don’t know anything about jazz.) His grandson has kept up the tradition, playing in a feline jazz sextet. He plays the double bass, because of his admiration for Paul Chambers.
One day Freddie sees a young human struggling. He is soaking wet, as it is raining, and it seems he is blind He has no mother or father and nowhere to go. Freddie adopts him. He is called Arturo. Freddie’s five co-sextet members are not immediately impressed but soon join in with looking after Arturo. We chose the child, as you might expect because we cats always advocate for abnormality. Dogs, on the other hand, are only happy within the norm.
It soon becomes apparent that they are going to try, as far as possible, to make him cat-like, which means associating smells and sounds, identifying secret entrances into buildings and even eating mice. Above all, they want him to appreciate jazz music. As they are presumably in San José, jazz is not too popular, with most cats playing salsa and other types of Latin American music but they are convinced that their devotion to jazz is the right way.
For them jazz comes from the slaves and is therefore a music of resistance but also a music of love. To sing was to resist and to resist was to survive in the midst of the most lamentable condition in which a person could be debased.
Inevitably, Arturo is influenced by thus music and he soon takes up the trumpet. Unlike the cats, he can play outside and in public and, when he does, people give him money. He has no idea what money is and leaves it, till the cats educate him. Gradually, he becomes a virtuoso and the cats follow him as musicians followed Miles Davis.
He soon learns about the cats that play classical music and, like Miles Davis, learns from classical music and classical music players.
This could have been a whimsical tale, with a cat narrating, but though it seems to start in a whimsical manner, it soon becomes serious, albeit with a degree of humour in it. Firstly, the cats, though very much remaining cats, have to a considerable degree, human traits. They play musical instruments and are interested in jazz (and, for other cats, other forms of music). They can talk. Though most humans cannot understand them, Arturo and Miles Davis clearly could. They do drugs (it is called raticide). In short, they are cats with human traits,
The music is, of course, key. Contreras Castro is clearly a jazz aficionado as other Latin American writers have been. Julio Cortázar is an obvious but by no means the only example. The sextet are keen devotees of Miles Davis and his Kind of Blue. Our narrator is even named after a track on that album.
However, while the story is about cats and jazz, it is also about how a young boy finds himself, thanks to the love and affection of the cats, and becomes, on his own, a great trumpeter, seeking out his own path. You are going away because you have become strong, you have become free, because you are a creation of your own invention. It is a short novel but a very enjoyable and original one.
First published 2009 by Editorial Legado
First English translation 2020 by Diálogos/Lavender Ink Books
Translated by Elaine S. Brooks