July 12, 2016
by Eduardo Lalo
Translated by David Frye
by Alcy Leyva
As a child, I spent summers getting to know San Juan. For ten years, I grew from an adolescent into a young man, and alongside me, the city of San Juan also began to age. I returned there just last year, to finds the birthplace of my mother unrecognizable. Gone was the romance of its cobbled streets and tiny late-night markets where you could fetch a drink and chopped chicken platters for cheap. Gone was most of the history of its music and folklore, now zoned into a central place in “Old San Juan” for tourists to dump their money. Reading Eduardo Lalo’s amazing love story Simone, which calls back to the beauty and mystery of the San Juan I knew, albeit through unconventional means, excited me with the prospect of rekindling lost memories, and filled me with dread: maybe that San Juan is gone.
The unnamed narrator in Simone is seduced by the prospect of a possible lover, a woman who has hidden notes for him throughout the gorgeous city. Prior to his mysterious courtship, he is unconnected to the streets and citizens he passes every day. Though the love affair between the two characters, upon their eventual meeting, turns into something that the narrator (as well as the reader) cannot foresee, the true essence of the book, the entire lesson carefully crafted by Lalo’s patience and language, is revealed in stunning prose. When it is asked, “What are these streets but my own life?” we realize that Lalo has personified the long forgotten voice of the city.
Though he does not spin romance into the streets of San Juan; Lalo sets the city into the skin of the narrator. This new world, invigorated by the mystery of a deep connection to another person, is set to hold its ground when it compared to the deterioration of the commonwealth’s capital. It is not until the narrator enters the Chinese minority slums— a place nearly invisible and yet highly important when discussing Puerto Rico’s declining economic culture— does the story take an amazingly dark turn. Lalo has crafted a rich tapestry of lives for us to discover, weaved into the history of the island. Both the narrator and his admirer are “survivors” of an entire culture dealing with disconnection and loss.
There was only one time in which less could have been more. One major debate erupts between the narrator and two other writers in the later chapter of the book— one which drives head-on into colonialism and the weight of influence given to Puerto Rican artists. Though this is a vital topic to delve into, and indeed the perfect setting to attempt a proper discussion (mainly because it reinforces what Lalo himself is trying to accomplish by writing Simone), it is the only time in the entire book where what the author is trying to say steps too much into the forefront, obscuring our view of the characters and their plight.
I find hints of the San Juan I knew in the quiet lives of the characters Lalo has revealed to us in the pages of this amazing story. The most poignant line in the entire book evokes my own personal divorce from the city I use to love, a tragedy he forces us to claim within the narrow streets of San Juan. “Escribo para reivindicar nuestro derecho a la tragedia”.