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Jeannette Miller: La vida es otra cosa [Life Is Something Else]

Miller’s novel tells the story of a small town in the Dominican Republic, called Vengan a Ver (Come and See)) and all the many problems it goes through in the Trujillo years and afterwards. Miller tells the story from the perspective of a few of the inhabitants, with short chapters devoted to an individual or a group. None of them has a happy life and it ends badly for most of them. There is no doubt that Miller blames Trujillo and his associates for many of the problems, even well after his death.

We start with María, a forty year old woman who has borne twelve children to Tito. Most of them turn out to be no good. The girls sleep around while the boys do drugs, drink and gamble. She has time for only three of them. Felipe is a lieutenant in the police, Maritza has a steady relationship, albeit with a married man, while her youngest, Chino, her favourite, has a job in the customs-free zone. Unbeknown to her but known to us, Chino hates living in Vengan a Ver and is eager to move out. In particular, he wants to go to New York with Miguel, a drug dealer. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Tito has been having an affair with a young woman whom María had taken in and looked after and she throws them both out. Tito will later be found dead.

Miguel Padilla is the son of Martina. When he was three months old his father died, leaving Martina with nothing. She has struggled to bring Miguel up but he is determined not to be poor and, from peddling marijuana as a teenager, he has become a drug dealer in New York, However, he is not a bad man. He helps not only his mother but other people in the village. He despises drugs and does not sell any to the locals but has no qualms about selling them to Americans. Twice he has nearly been killed and he knows his time will come one day. When told that Miguel makes his money from drug dealing, Martina refuses to believe it, thinking he has a trucking business. Everyone else does know about his drug dealing and María tries to prevent Chino hanging out with him but Chino will not be stopped.

Chino used to have a girlfriend called Yudelka but she had dreams and moved to Santo Domingo, where she works as a prostitute. She works for Petra who runs a massage parlour and is very proud of the fact that her girls are not forced into prostitution, as happens elsewhere, and can leave when they want. Yudelka is happy doing the work. She has a boyfriend, Rafael, who is killed, and she then falls for Tuto, a gigolo of Haitian origin. Meanwhile, Lurdes has come to live in Vengan a Ver. She has trained as a teacher and has sought to come out to the South West. She is the nearest to a saintly character, being demure – nun-like is the expressions used – who dresses conservatively, and who is always looking to help people. Chino falls for her but she is not interested. There is one other semi-saintly person and that is the local priest who is now nearly eighty and has been there fifty years. He tries his best to help the locals. For example, when the local army colonel decides he wants Maritza when she is thirteen, Tito disguises her as a boy and hides her away in a convent. The local army colonel makes life very difficult for Tito, so much so that none of the local land-owners are willing to give him work. The priest, however, manages to help him and his family, despite the risk. Indeed, he will pay the price, being held for seven days in prison and only released because of pressure from foreign governments.

There is also one irredeemably bad person, Santo Beningo Cuevas, known to everyone as Tiburón (Shark). During the Trujillo years, Tiburón has worked for the local guard, specialising in shooting Haitians fleeing from Haiti. Once Trujillo has been assassinated, he has to flee but returns two years later and takes up where he left off, only this time capturing the Haitians to be used as slave labour by local land-owners. It is he and his hatred for Chino and Miguel that will precipitate the tragedy at the end of this book. Other characters include Pulé, the Haitian who had escaped Haiti with his parents when he was six and seen his mother killed. He had escaped and been brought up by a Dominican woman. However, he is still called the Haitian and lives by begging. The forces of law, from Felipe, María’s son, to the local police chief, are also represented.

To state that most of the inhabitants are unhappy is an understatement. There are no freedoms in the Dominican Republic and all are subject to harsh treatment and economic deprivation. Drugs, prostitution, both male and female, and often enforced, AIDS, arbitrary laws and brutality are just everyday events. That the book ends in a tragedy involving all the main characters is no surprise. Miller tells her story well, with sympathy for the deprivation of her compatriots but leaving no doubt where the blame lies.

Publishing history

First published in 2005 by Alfaguara
No English translation