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Rita Indiana: La mucama de Omicunlé (Tentacle)

I am only going to give a very broad summary of the plot of this novel, primarily because the plot is so complicated that you will probably need to read it several times to fully understand what is going on. Suffice to say that it is set primarily in 2027, but also in the early 2000s, in 2037 and the seventeenth century. Some of the characters appear in both the seventeenth century and the later periods. Not only is it time-fluid but it is also gender-fluid as our heroine ends up as our hero thanks to a sophisticated drug that can (fairly) easily change a woman into a man. And, yes, the full details are given. It is not clear whether the reverse is possible.

Our heroine starts as Acilde Figueroa. Her early life had not been happy. Her mother was from the Dominican Republic but had become a prostitute in Rome. After six abortions, she decided to have the child who is immediately shipped off to her parents in the Dominican Republic. They are not good parents and, in particular, object to her masculine ways, so much so that they have her raped by a local boy. She leaves the next day and is very happy that, when a huge tidal wave hits the Dominican Republic in 2024, they and their property are destroyed.

She initially makes a living giving oral sex to men who think they are getting oral sex from a boy. (She has short hair and a flat chest.). She wants to save up enough money to get hold of Rainbow Brite (no, not that Rainbow Brite), which is a sex change drug. One of her clients is Eric Vitier, a Cuban doctor, who tries to rape her and continues to do so even when she tells him that she is female. However, he does offer her a job. He is the right-hand man of Esther Escudero aka Omicunlé (hence the Spanish title, which means Omicunlé’s Maid). Esther/Omicunlé is a santera, i.e. a Santería priestess and a very successful one, even advising President Said Bona.

Though we are only a few years into the future, things gave changed. The huge tidal wave not only killed Acilde’s grandparents and destroyed a lot of property, it had another disastrous effect. Said Bina had agreed to store Venezuela’s biological weapons by the shore. The tidal wave had destroyed the store and the biological weapons had fallen into the sea, with a devastating effect on marine life. Indeed, marine life is now so rare that sea creatures are bought and sold for huge sums. Esther, for example, has a sea anemone worth thousands. Another effect is that many Haitians have an unpleasant virus. There is a quarantine in Haiti but many have fled to the Dominican Republic, where they are routinely exterminated. Indeed, Esther has a device by her door so that when one approaches they can be instantly killed. We are told of three disasters but no further details are given.

Acilde goes to work as a maid for Esther and it soon becomes clear that Esther is very much taken with her and treats her as one of the family. Acilde, however still has the ambition of becoming a man and then becoming a chef. She has one other ambition – to find her father, whose name she knows but nothing else. After her sex change operation, she will take his name. She realises that the anemone is worth a lot of money and could pay for her operation but things go terribly wrong.

Meanwhile we are following other stories. Argenis is currently working for a psychic hotline, extracting money out of gullible Americans. He had had an ambition to be an artist. We follow in some detail why this went wrong but he is rescued by Giorgio Menicucci, a successful businessman. He and his wife, Linda, are trying to rescue some of the shoreline and set up a marine reserve. However he is also setting up The Sosúa Project… a cultural, artistic, and social endeavour that he hoped would give something back to the country that had made him rich. He wants Argenis to be part of it. That does not go well, either, particularly when Argenis, Giorgio and Co slip back to the seventeenth century. Its also becomes apparent that the he now male Acilde is something special and that he can go back in time and, perhaps, save the world, or, at least, the Dominican coastline.

The Servants of the Apocalypse, the Chosen One, performance art, an underwater god called Olokun, pirates, invading Spaniards, President Said Bona, with his voice like Balaguer’s and face like Malcolm X, video art, fishing and its difficulties, rare engravings about buccaneer life in the seventeenth century and, of course, quite a bit of sex, murder and mayhem, are all grist to Indiana’s mill.

This is a wonderfully inventive novel. Indiana clearly makes her points about corruption in high places, environmental issues, colonialism, gender fluidity, artistic fluidity, performance art, santería, the poor, self-reliance and what the future may look like. While these issues are brought to the fore, Indiana is certainly not overly preachy about them, using them both to tell her tale and to show what is what in contemporary and near future Dominican Republic. The story and plot do not let up as we plunge further into complications. We jump around in time. We get an idea of what is going on in the Dominican Republic. Above all, we are never bored as Indiana tells a fast and furious tale.

Publishing history

First published in 2015 by Periférica
First published in English by And Other Stories in 2018
Translated by Achy Obejas