Every summer I take a mermaid on vacation to Formentera. Not a real one, it’s already hard enough for me to sneak the cat on the ferry Charlie and to the turtles Daisy flower Y rose (the snake, which is more independent, stays at home), but a book. It is already a tradition that has allowed me to enjoy novels like The mermaidof Christina Henry, who mixes one of those fantastic beings with PT Barnum and his museum (and it is not the siren fake of Fiji), or death of a mermaidby AJ Kazinski and Thomas Rydahl, which relates them to Hans Christian Andersen in a way that is not exactly that of The little Mermaid. The literary siren of the season has come to me from the Caribbean: she is the protagonist of The siren of the black conchby Monique Roffey, a renowned British author born in Port of Spain (Trinidad and Tobago) who won the 2020 Costa Book of the Year with her novel. The story, with echoes of magical realism but also of Hemingway and Derek Walcott, is about a mermaid that appears in 1976 to David Baptiste, a young black fisherman from the imaginary Caribbean island of Black Conch while he is so rich in his boat waiting for mackerel or snapper to bite while he plays the guitar and smokes a joint of fine dope.
The mermaid is later captured by a Florida American father and son while fishing for marlin and swordfish. After the surprise, they decide to sell it as freak or do business with the Smithsonian, National Geographic or Sea World; but when they unload her in port, the mermaid is rescued by the rasta fisherman, in love with her, who takes her to her house with the intention of releasing her into the sea, and, for the moment, puts her in the bathtub. However, the creature begins a process of change to become a complete woman before the bewildered and amazed gaze of the young man, who will try to help her integrate into modern life.
Aycayia, Dulce Voz, which is what the mermaid happens to be called, is actually a young Taino woman from the time of Columbus (“The murderous admiral”) transformed into a half-fish by a curse because of her beauty. The novel is beautiful and, unlike other siren stories to use, good literature. Roffey plays beautifully with the atmosphere, language and traditions of the Antilles to build a moving contemporary fable full of poetry, dream and a beautiful melancholy, without leaving, paradoxically, realism. In a closed environment full of endearing characters —and also villains— reminiscent of the series crime in paradise and in which the author pours drops of social and colonial criticism, and notes of reggae, Roffey places her review of the myth of the siren, which has a clear feminist reading: Aycayia is a girl who has long been condemned by a patriarchal society for breaking the rules. When they capture her, they subject her to abuse (the novelist recognizes in that scene the influence of Neruda’s poem Fable of the mermaid and the drunkards: “Insults ran over her smooth flesh / Filth covered her golden breasts”). You can also see the story through a prism queer: the protagonist has not resolved her identity, she wants to be a woman, but her mermaid part presses on her so that she is a hybrid, half and half, constantly changing to one side or the other.
Roffey also makes contributions to the imaginary of the fantastic. His mermaid, who sports tattoos and sings strange melodies, is powerful (fishing her requires as much effort as catching a large shark), with a dorsal fin, a very long tail, a body covered in fine scales, black hair entangled with jellyfish, barnacles on her hips, disconcerting mount of Venus, silvery eyes like stars, and very sexualized: it provokes a rare, unsettling and lustful desire in men. The transformation into ex-mermaid it is slow, fascinating and disturbing; she remembers, inversely, that of The fly of Cronenberg: it is losing pieces. His scales fall off like little silver coins. David throws the tail, which has detached to make way for two human legs, into a garbage bag. The novelist answers questions such as what a mermaid smells like or how she makes love.
I have conjured up the world of Black Conch, of tropical plants and animals and of colorful and most endearing people in Formentera. Reading has colored my experiences on the Balearic island, so distant from the other. I thought of the macajuel snakes (as Trinidadians call boa constrictors) at Sílvia’s house in La Mola when examining a trap for the invasive horseshoe and ladder snakes. The turquoise and yellow parakeets that escape before the arrival of the hurricane have come to mind rosemund of the novel by fraternizing with the parrot Lola in Pelayo. He reminded me of the guitarist fisherman from the novel, David (a fan of Bob Marley), my ex-brother-in-law and ex-bass player of Ojos de Brujo, Juan Luis Leprevost, as I followed him at his concerts all over the island, including the Barbaria lighthouse and the Plate Fund. And above all, I thought of the mermaid herself when I met Federica, a somewhat androgynous 32-year-old Roman woman who also travels from sea to land in the popular Migjorn beach bar and is a regular at the Ses Roques bar-restaurant, the Titty Twister of Sant Ferran, where this summer, under the motto “We sell drinks and give joy” meets for the night party the most lively and varied of the island: the Formentera that resists.
It’s not that Federica, blonde and blue-eyed, is nothing like the dark-skinned Aycayia, but she is surrounded by a similar mystery and, dancing under the moonlight next to the stage where Piero Ameli, the handyman of Ses Roques, brilliantly reinterpreted the Pink Floyd themes, has offered these holidays one of the emblematic images of the island, at least for me.
Federica, from the lineage of other notable characters from Formentera such as the wandering Belgian, Vincent de Froidmont; the diver pierced by a swordfish, Ernest de Longis; the enlightened pharmacist Joan Torres or the one-legged man, Philip Wright (his son is Maxwell, the director of the island’s jazz festival), sports a tattoo of a lighthouse on a bed of roses on his left arm. I asked him the other day, after introducing myself as a lighthouse enthusiast, if his was a famous lighthouse, and I told him it reminded me, with its red stripes, of the one on Sankaty, on another island, Nantuckett. He told me no, that it was a beacon from nowhere, imaginary, generic, and that it was made for his grandmother. As usually happens in Formentera, where it is easy to leave everything for later, I was left without knowing the rest of the story. And more things about Federica that I would have liked to know. Her friend Fernando Pardos, a psychologist subscribed to Pelayo and author precisely of The lighthouse of the new worldthat the young woman does not like journalists (nobody is perfect) and that she wants to keep her profile in the shadows. Which deep down doesn’t matter to me, because that way I can imagine what I want from her and, happily dazzled on the sand in radiant noon, weave a new story of islands, lighthouses and sirens. O Formentera Lady, sing your song for me
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