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Rudolfo Anaya: Tortuga

While not as successful as his two previous novels, this one is still a fine work. It is set in and around a hospital for handicapped children. The novel starts with the arrival of the unnamed hero/narrator at the hospital. He is sixteen years old and, as we later learn, was injured in an accident at home when he inadvertently put gasoline into a kerosene heater. His legs are paralyzed and one of his arms is injured. We also learn later that he is from the Barelas community, which was the setting of Heart of Aztlan. On the way to the hospital, the driver stops to show him the Tortuga mountain, a mountain shaped like a tortoise/turtle (Tortuga is the Spanish for tortoise/turtle). The mountain will take on a mystical significance for the boy and others and, once he has been wrapped in a body case, like a tortoise, he will adopt Tortuga as his name.

In some respects the hospital reminded me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There is an unnamed nurse in charge who gives him and the other patients a hard time, the patients form a sort of bond, though with their own differences, and are eager to get out and get drunk and get laid (which they do manage to do) and they are, in some respects, victims of an uncaring bureaucracy. Much of the novel is about the interrelationship between the patients and about the long drawn out healing process they all face. The hospital takes on the role of a prison – a happy prison, but still a prison. It seems that no-one gets out. This applies not just to the patients but, as we later learn, to many of the staff who are former patients. For many of the patients, getting out is what they yearn for but fear they will never attain. One patient does escape, Jerry, a Navajo, but foolishly does so on the day of the worst winter storm of the year and he is found, on the mountain, frozen to death. Ironically, while searching for him, they find Buck, who has been injured in a car accident while drunk, and he takes Jerry’s bed.

Tortuga, of course, has a quest. Part of it is to be cured but part of it is to find out who he is and, more particularly, what the world is, represented by the microcosm of the hospital. He meets Salomón, the wise man found in Anaya’s books, who is almost completely paralyzed and who reads incessantly, turning the pages with a pencil and his tongue. It is Salomón who speaks to Tortuga and shows him how to grow up and deal with his pain and the problems he faces. Tortuga also accidentally goes to the ward where the totally paralyzed patients are – none of the others in his ward has done so – and sees and is frightened by them, not least because it represents a possible outcome for him. He almost dies – the boys have a way of killing those of their own who want to die – but soldiers on. While most of the action takes place in the hospital, the best scene is when the patients go to the cinema to see Frankenstein and they identify with the monster, a creature created by a doctor. They whoop and cheer, have sex with another in the cinema and then, when they are called freaks by the local jocks, beat their tormentors up.

Thanks to the very caring Dr. Steel, the voluptuous occupational therapist, K C, who uses her breasts as much as anything else to help the boys, Salomón and the Tortuga mountain, Tortuga makes progress, though not all of the patients do. He falls in love, comes to term with what has happened to him and seems more or less ready to deal with the rest of his life.

Publishing history

First published 1979 by Justa