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Rosario Ferré: El Vuelo del Cisne (Flight of the Swan)

The eponymous swan was Niura Poliakoff, though known simply to Masha Mastova, the narrator of this novel, as well as to the other ballerinas in the Ballets Russes, as Madame. Niura came from a poor background. Her mother, Lyubovna, was a laundrywoman in St. Petersburg, before the Russian Revolution. Lazar, the son of a rich Jewish family, the Poliakoffs, took a fancy to her and she became his mistress. The result was Niura. Lazar then stopped coming – his family had found out about the relationship and sent him off to The Hague – but Lyubovna was given a regular sum of money to look after the child. When the Poliakoffs heard Niura liked dancing, they paid for her to go to the Imperial Ballet School. Niura did well, even meeting the Czar. She went on to have a career as a ballet dancer and, because she was a very good dancer and an attractive young woman, she found a rich patron, Victor Dandré, who bought her a large apartment.

Under the patronage of Dandré, the company toured Europe and the United States. She even danced with Nijinsky. Finally, she created her own ballet company in London. But then it turned out that Dandré had been embezzling and he was arrested in St Peterburg. Niura bailed him out and paid for him to leave Russia but it meant that he could not go back. By this time, the couple had secretly married.

The company continued to operate, even after World War I started. They did a tour of the United States, which was not very successful, so Dandré, who was managing the company, suggested they try Latin America. The landed in Puerto Rico and discovered the Russian Revolution had taken place. Given that Madame, Masha and many (though not all of) the dancers were Russian and, in the case of Niura, associated with the Czarist regime, they could not go back. Things were made more difficult when the Puerto Rican authorities said as they were essentially stateless, they had to leave. They managed to negotiate a short extension and Dandré said he would go to New York to try and get UK passports for them (some of the dancers were British nationals).

As this a Puerto Rican novel and not a Russian novel, much of the action takes place in Puerto Rico. Madame and the company try to struggle to carry on while Dandré is in New York (seeing his mistress, according to Niura). The background to their lives is the situation in Puerto Rico. The United States has ruled Puerto Rico since 1898 and, while it is agreed that they are better Spain, they are still not liked.

There is a strong independence movement and we follow some of the individuals involved. The US Congress has given Puerto Ricans US citizenship but the Puerto Ricans believe this is so that the United States can recruit Puerto Ricans to fight for them in World War 1 and we see their efforts at recruiting/drafting Puerto Ricans. Those that do not or cannot fight are pressurised into contributing food or money for the troops, even if they cannot afford it. This very much reminds Niura of what the Czarist soldiers used to do to the Russian peasants, i.e. make them contribute their food even if they were starving. This is not the only comparison between the Puerto Rican and Russian situation that is made.

Puerto Rican politics and corruption are well to the fore. Someone tries to shoot Niura but it is hushed up. She meets a young man Diamantino Márquez. His father had been prime minister and had struggled against the Spanish but was too tired to start again against the United States. He left the country but returned, when he was broke, and a local millionaire looked after him and, when he died, now looks after his son. Diamantino seems to be in favour of revolution. He states We’re the only Latin American country that never became independent: the little caboose at the end of the train, held up by American troops at the close of the Spanish-American War. However, he becomes close to Niura and they start an affair, though he is twenty and she is is thirty-nine. Masha is worried that he is using her to help his revolutionary aims.

Other issues that cause concern include Prohibition. The Puerto Ricans like their rum and when prohibition comes in they try to resist but not too successfully. The US governor, who does not speak Spanish, is considered aloof. Things are more complicated by the activities of the terrorist/freedom fighter group, Los Tiznados (it means something like sooty or blackened, as they blacken their faces).

Meanwhile, to the annoyance of Masha and others, Diamantino and Niura are continuing their affair. Masha’s decidedly sexist view is When an older woman falls in love with a handsome swain, it’s an insult to nature. She turns into a clown but, for Niura, Love was more important than Art. Inevitably, the politics, the Tiznados, Dandré, the dancing, a Lindbergh-like US pilot and love all clash, leading to a colourful climax.

The interesting thing about this novel is the comparison between Puerto Ricans and Russians. Clearly, they are very different people, as Ferré points out, but they have two things in common, at least as shown in this novel: sexual passion and a hatred of oppression. As we know from the very beginning, Masha will stay on in Puerto Rico, marrying a Puerto Rican and, presumably, becomes sort of Puerto Rican, not returning to Soviet Russia. While not a great novel, it is certainly interesting seeing the clash between the two cultures and seeing the politics of the time in Puerto Rico, something we know that Ferré, as the daughter of a former governor, felts very strongly about.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 2001 by Vintage
First published in English 2001 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux