April 26, 2010

Book Review: Valeria's Last Stand by Marc Fitten

You can take the writer out of the Caribbean, but you can’s take the Caribbean out of him. Even in the second generation. At least that was my impression after I read Valeria’s Last Stand by Marc Fitten.

Set in post-Communist Hungary, Valeria’s Last Stand, is ostensibly a love triangle involving the main character, Valeria, a potter, and the buxom tavern wench, Ibolya Nagy: “She arranged her top right in front of them. Her pillowy breasts shook while she adjusted her blouse. The men were mesmerized” (33).

Never mind that all of the main characters are over fifty, this is not a geriatric Harlequin romance. Valeria’s Last Stand is a subtle comedy of manners in which the villagers of Zivatar must cope with the change from communism to capitalism with their eager mayor as the midwife of progress: “The villagers liked him immensely. He seemed more cosmopolitan and sophisticated. He had traveled more extensively than any other citizen of the village” (44).

Valeria, however, will not have any of it. Her personal mantra is “Hard living gives life flavor. You should embrace your suffering” (163). She yearns for the good old days of communism, and is particularly incensed with the new fad of public whistling:

“Valeria never whistled. Nor did she approve of people who did. In sixty eight years, what Valeria had learned to be a truth about character was that people who whistled were crass. Whistlers were untrustworthy and irresponsible. They were shiftless. They were common. Butchers whistled. Peasants also…She was certain the queen of England did not whistle. The Hungarian president did not whistle either. She followed a line back through Soviet history: Trotsky may have whistled; Lenin, certainly not; Stalin only whistled in madness” (3).

But love is in the air: “the citizens of the tiny hamlet sensed that some strange gravity was tugging at them, tugging at that spot in the chest where the solar plexus resides. Tugging like they were being fished out of their habitat and pulled into space on a string of desire, only to be left dangling. Dangling there, unfulfilled, in that heavy orbit of pheromones and springtime yearning. For something. Anything” (63).

And in this hothouse of passion known as Zivatar, a scandalous rivalry between Valeria and Ibolya begins. Standing between both these formidable women is the unnamed potter, who confesses to his apprentice, “One’s a volcano, the other is an ocean. It’s a difficult choice to make. You can see my predicament” (99).

Yet falling in love changes the three main characters. Ibolya becomes even more flirtatious with her customers and a travelling Chimney sweeper: "Ibolya also noticed that he was staring at her breasts, but unlike her regulars he wasn’t shy about letting her know it. She felt a buzz in her head and straightened her back. Go ahead she thought. Get a good look. Take it all in.” (132).

Valeria, one of the most likable curmudgeons in recent memory, softens her contempt for the villagers and there is a visible change in her countenance: “Whispers tore through the market and out into the street. After a few more days passed like this even the mayor heard: Valeria was ill. Probably insane. Her normally stark face had become tinged, slightly sun kissed. Her lumbering gait had diminished, and she was almost gliding” (90). And the potter is transformed for a mere artisan into an artist:

“He was godlike, though, and that was no blasphemy. He was godlike, and that was not hubris. In a single moment, the potter understood that he had reached a level in his craft where all the fear, anxiety, and depression in his life could be sublimated into art. He recognized this. The potter recognized that there was nothing better for a man to do—to reflect his godlike image—than create something lasting” (83).

It still is a mystery to me why Caribbean writers such as V.S. Naipaul, Anthony Winkler, Kevin Baldeosingh, and now, Marc Fitten (his parents are from Panama) should be attracted to comedies of manners. But that’s my preoccupation, and it should not stop anyone from enjoying this remarkable novel.


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