Written by Jens Hylander, 24 March 2020
Tentacle by Rita Indiana is a short novel, but don’t judge a book by its page numbers. The 130 pages is thick with social commentary and cultural references stacked on top of each other to reach so high it is hard to overlook. It took me almost one hundred pages to actually grasp the story, and even then, I was left wondering about many things. In this sense the translated title, Tentacle is a fitting one, as the book wriggles and writhes its way through racial, gender, class and cultural relations against the backdrop of environmental destruction, and it left me with the feeling as if stung by an anemone after I finished reading.
The initial scene takes us to a post-apocalyptic future, where a series events have turned the waters of the Dominican Republic into black sludge, and where virus-infected poor people are exterminated at the doorsteps of the rich’s gated communities. Inside one such community we find Acilde, a sex worker-turned-maid whose primary desire in life is to obtain a drug so that she can undergo a sex change to become a man. What she doesn’t know is that she has been chosen to go back in time to undo the oceanic environmental catastrophe. And, without disclosing more details, from there the story unfolds. I will now turn to a few central themes in the novel.
Time travel is central to the story, and it can be interpreted in several ways. First, and most obviously, future catastrophes are connected to the past in direct as well as indirect ways. Both the (in)actions of now living generations, but also the long trajectories of history; in this case the catastrophe in the Caribbean started already with European colonization. Second, the episodes occurring in different times in the novel could just as easily be different (or perhaps even the same) places in the present. Perhaps the novel tells us not that the time to avert future catastrophes is already behind us, but that the apocalypse is already happening, here and now, among peoples and communities experiencing floods, monsoons, disease epidemics, and, crucially, a lack of resources to tackle these environmental disasters. In this sense, it is not a post-apocalyptic novel so much as a peri-apocalyptical one.
This interpretation doesn’t leave the reader with much hope, but this novel is not intended to provide hope. Rather its mission is to – in a satirical fashion – uncover the flaws of all people in the story. From the vile, chauvinist artist to the upper middle-class environmentalist embarked on a project of identity creation, and everyone else in between. The protagonist of the story, Acilde, is basically engaging in high level escapism, changing her body since there is no changing society. In fact, there is no person in the story who is genuinely likable (which is one reason why the novel is hard to work through. Like life in general, stories are easier to stand if you like the people you’re spending time with). But just because they’re not likable, doesn’t mean they’re not interesting.
Another aspect of the book is its artistic ambitions. I found it hard to interpret and understand all the violent and sexual references throughout the book, but a fellow book circle member with more knowledge in the field interpreted it as the writer writing herself into traditions of Goya (who is a central art reference throughout the book). Overall, the novel is sprinkled with art references, creating an interesting relation between nihilistic contemporary art, Caribbean Santeria culture and environmental protection; especially when you’re using the two former to save the latter. All in all, I can’t really say whether the book is a homage to art, Santeria and environmentalism, or if it is a satire about the futility of all of them. Perhaps it’s a bit of both?
As with anything these days, the Corona epidemic has created a filter through which we see the world. In our book club we spent quite some time discussing the concept of uncertainty in the face of crisis. Reading the novel as a symbol for climate change catastrophe, a parallel was drawn between the Corona virus and climate change, where it was suggested that the key issue in both cases relates to the political and ideological response to uncertainty. With the Corona virus uncertainty lies in the effects of different measures to mitigate or suppress the spread of the virus, whereas with climate change uncertainty lies in exactly how much the temperature and sea levels will rise, or exactly when these things will happen. This uncertainty is what causes the majority of disputes regarding the responses, in both cases (here I am willfully omitting outliers, like people claiming that the corona virus or climate change are just hoaxes invented by the deep state). Of course, with climate change, while there may be uncertainty regarding the exact impacts, in terms of when, where and how it will play out, there is a fundamental certainty that climate change will impact societies and people across the world, and that it won’t be pretty. And here is where we return to the book: the central moral question in the book may be if people – given that they knew with certainty that their inactions in the present will cause untold suffering in the future – would be willing to give up the comfort that is causing the inaction?
So far, the answer has been no. But who knows, maybe the world that comes out on the other side of a global pandemic sees things differently?
Tentacle, written by Rita Indiana, was originally published in Spanish as La mucama de Omicunlé. It was translated into English by Achy Obechas.