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Fernando Contreras Castro: Única mirando al mar (Única Looking at the Sea)

I visited Costa Rica last year and found it very appealing. San José seemed prosperous and clean and people seemed to be content. It has a good reputation as a stable democracy and having no standing army. This novel shows that, as with probably every other country in the world, there is another side, a side of poverty, a government that does not really care about the poor and environmental issues not being dealt with.

Most of the book is set in a waste dump outside San José, by the village of Rio Azul. There really is a small village called Rio Azul just outside San José and there really is, or was, a waste dump there (link in Spanish).

Rio Azul means blue river but there is no river, presumably long since buried by the dump, and, if there were, it certainly would be no longer blue. The dump is just adjacent to the village, separated only by a fence. As we shall see, the people of Rio Azul are not happy about having a dump on their doorstep and it seems that it has moved twice, finally landing in Rio Azul, with the local inhabitants eager for it to move elsewhere.

However, the focus of the book is on the people who actually live on the dump, in a shanty town. These are people who, for one reason another, are completely broke and without employment. They either find an old shack – people move on or die – or build one from bits of scrap lying around – and then they forage. They are known as divers. They are looking for two things. Firstly, there is stuff they can sell, often recyclables and secondly there is stuff they can eat. A few are looking for a third category, namely stuff they can use. This can range from cutlery and other household objects to scent.

The heroine is, as the title tells us, Única Oconitrillo. She had been a teacher’s aide, without any formal qualification. She was recruited when there was a shortage of qualified teachers and planned to stay in the job her whole life. She started aged sixteen but, when she was thirty, there were enough qualified teachers and she was dismissed.

We follow her arrival, a very traumatic experience of course, and how she becomes an important influence on the other divers, a sort of mother figure, always willing to help and share. She is religious but because access to water is limited she rarely washes and the local priest bans her from his church. However, ever resourceful, she finds a rosary and leads the weekly prayers. When Carmen arrives, wearing a cassock and saying that he was a priest, he takes the role of priest on Sundays but during the week, he becomes an ordinary diver, which includes booze and sex.

Única finds a lot of interesting things in the dump but the two most interesting are a son and a husband. She finds Bacán playing in the dump as a very young child. No-one claims him so she does and she brings him up. Many years later, she finds a man lying on the dump, clearly not in good shape. She has him carried back to her shack and looks after him. He is Mondolfo Moya Garro but is known as Momboñombo as that is how he mispronounced his name as a child. I threw myself into the trash because I am no longer useful for anything, he tells her. He had been a security guard at the National Library but when he complained because the books were being sold to a toilet paper manufacture, he was fired. At the age if sixty-six, he was no use to anyone. They will live together and eventually marry.

Apart from the stories of the denizens of the dump, the key issue is, as mentioned above, the complaint by the inhabitants of Rio Azul about the dump. They want it moved and blockade the area to persuade the government to do so. This continues for a long time as the government carries out studies, makes promises it has no intention of keeping and tries to control the situation. There are strikes and blockades. Not surprisingly, the inhabitants of the areas suggested as a replacement make their objections known.

The divers are, of course, worried about what will happen to them. No-one cares. They march to the presidential palace. They are met with a water cannon but, to the surprise of the police, they love it. Momboñombo even writes to the president and hands in his letter at the palace (we see its not unexpected fate), not least because he had once met the president’s father.

The people on the dump are, for the rest of the world, no-one or simply a nuisance. The inhabitants of Rio Azul do not like them. The people of San José do not like them as, when they come into town, they dive into their bins and leave a mess. The police and government certainly do not want them. Even their former friends reject them. They are non-people. Contreras Castro’s skill is to show them as people, people with feelings, concerns and interests but also, of course, people trying to survive a life which has not worked out well for them. The main characters are very much individuals in their own right, with their own stories, their own feelings and their own struggles. They may live in a shanty town on a dump but Contreras Castro portrays them as just as real and human as any other characters living in better circumstances.

Publishing history

First published 1993 by ABC Ediciones
First English translation 2017 by Diálogos/Lavender Ink Books
Translated by Elaine S. Brooks