The Mortifications by Derek Palacio

The Mortifications BY Derek Palacio. Crown - Tim Duggan. . .
The cover of The Mortifications

Author Derek Palacio describes his relationship to Cuba, his father’s homeland, as one of “abstraction.” Since he’s never visited the island himself, he told the Kenyon Review, “the people, culture and landscape of [my stories] are not Cuban, then, but are the offspring of my Cuban impressions.” The same might be said for the characters of Palacio’s debut novel, The Mortifications. Its protagonist, Ulises Encarnación, his twin sister, Isabel, and their mother, Soledad, flee Cuba in 1980 and return six years later. But while the island is described with vivid sensory detail, the characters’ relationships to Cuba have perhaps more to do with their painfully abstracted relationships to each other than with the island itself. If other contemporary novels of the American immigrant experience have worked to portray the cultural slights and acute misunderstandings that arise from attempting to integrate, Palacio is more interested in the way the psychological resonance of past times and places is amplified by the experience of exile—and in meticulously chronicling the physical, bodily expression of this experience.

The novel begins with a separation. Soledad is convinced that the Soviet Union will collapse by 1985 and increasingly suspicious of her husband Uxbal’s rebel meetings, weekly events to which he brings their daughter. She flees with twelve-year-old Isabel and Ulises as part of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, a historic flood of refugees to Florida precipitated by an economic crisis and Castro’s decision to (briefly) allow emigration. They leave Uxbal behind, alone with his tomato vines at the family home.

After traveling north from Miami to Hartford, Connecticut, the family members begin the process of adjusting to their new American lives, which seem, at first, to have little to do with life back in Cuba. Soledad takes solace in the utter difference of Hartford, sheathing herself in layers of winter clothing. She becomes a stenographer for the county courthouse, an occupation that Ulises finds fitting as he compares his own inclination toward “remaking the world,” a trait passed down to him from to his father, to Soledad’s more passive stance: “My mother . . . transcribes the world. She records reality.” Soledad is able to forget Uxbal through her new lover, Henri Willems. But Henri brings another connection to Cuba into the exiled family’s lives, through his work as a horticulturalist cultivating Cuban tobacco in Connecticut.

Ulises also tries to find meaning independent of his father and his homeland, although he stays connected to both through a part-time job in Henri’s fields. In his downtime, he withdraws into the basement of the University of Hartford, where he draws a fascinated crowd of students as he reads aloud from Aeschylus’s Oresteia—a tale of familial strife that Ulises finds only too relevant. He’s jealous that Isabel was his father’s choice in rebellion and, with her radical embrace of Christian mysticism, the source of his mother’s worries.

The Mortifications is full of this kind of symbolism. Picking up strands of Homeric tragedy as well as Christian mysticism, the novel sometimes groans under the weight of its own conceptual scaffolding. Ulises, of course, becomes preoccupied with fate, and drawn to the study of Greek and Latin at his Jesuit high school. Back in Cuba, Uxbal’s carefully cultivated tomato vines come to represent his competing desires to raise a family, raise a revolution, and feed both. By the end of the novel the vines are heavy with tomatoes that remain unpicked, this promise of sustenance abandoned.

Part of what The Mortifications does remarkably well is explore the cacophonous coexistence and interaction of different, even contradictory, belief systems. Ambivalent toward Catholicism, Soledad and Ulises enter different kinds of spiritual spaces. While Ulises has chosen a basement as the scene of his pagan sermons, Soledad shuts herself in the courthouse attic, where she resolutely scrubs mold off the walls as a kind of penance, finding a strange comfort in the impersonal, legalistic documents around her. At other times, she seeks meaning by escaping with her lover to the bedroom, where her growing appetite for s/m alternately arouses and troubles him.

Only Isabel continues to embrace Catholicism, though not always in an orthodox way. As a hospital volunteer, she seeks out the dying in their final moments and has such a knack for finding those on the brink of death—the “Death Torch,” some begin to call her—that her very presence comes to be seen as a curse. Her house of worship is the convent she decides to join after taking a vow of silence, even though the church leadership is wary of her mystical-seeming connection to the dead. Of the three family members, Isabel is the one who won’t sever her connection to Cuba. Indeed, we learn that as a child, she made a vow to her father: She promised to return to Cuba and bear a child, who will become part of a new, stronger rebel generation. It’s a pact that Isabel recalls along with the strange, disturbing sermons that her father, in a packinghouse church and meeting place, pronounced on Jesus in the wilderness:

And you realize this: he disgusts you. The body is repulsive. It smells terribly. The skin is like wet paper that breeds disease. His breath is raspy. It rots like the guavas in the back. That’s what you find if you go into the desert: human filth. But still you do what God has commanded. You serve him. Or you try to, and he tells you to go away.

These eerie phrases find an echo in Isabel’s feelings of exile and alienation. But Palacio channels these feelings into a somewhat disappointing plot point about Isabel’s desire to become pregnant. Her decision is rendered with pathos rather than a more critical examination. Isabel finally does run away, back to Buey Arriba where she finds her father drunk and bitter—all his political aspirations abandoned—and decides to get pregnant and have a child on her own terms: “I am Christ in the desert, Isabel told herself, and I am not forgetting my body, which makes me human.” The book proposes having a child as a way to claim agency outside paternal authority: “The baby, Isabel said, is for no one but me.” But in 2016, do we really need another female character finding her identity through having a baby?

The Mortifications is fascinated with bodies—especially the physical manifestations of emotions. The novel takes its ideas of suffering and sacrifice in part from Catholic theology. Here, mortification is a sanctified means of purifying the body through privation. Although Palacio shows an interest in the joy, even if fleeting, found in sex, he is more concerned with the physical expression of shame and sacrifice, two kinds of Catholic mortification. As Ulises becomes jealous of his parents’ obsession with Isabel—her body, her religious choices—his body responds with a furious growth spurt, his limbs and torso swelling until he can no longer fit in the kitchen of his home. Here, the realm of ideas and physical reality interact in a playful way reminiscent of magical realism. But the book also hearkens back to an earlier, nineteenth-century focus (as explored by naturalist writers like Émile Zola) on the emotional truths that physiology can reveal: Ulises’s limbs feel “the void of love with greater sensitivity and urgency,” and his growth spurt reveals the truth that he “wanted to be seen.”

If one of the book’s trajectories is circular, from home to abroad and back home again, another, perhaps stronger, motivating structure is that of slow, physical degeneration. Eventually, the other characters are also drawn back to Buey Arriba, where Ulises and Isabel bear witness to their parents’ dying—Soledad by breast cancer, Uxbal by the effects of alcoholism. Bodies in this novel stink, secreting scents of remarkable specificity. Uxbal’s rancid body emits what Isabel characterizes as a “mushroom odor.” Emotions impact physical health—Soledad’s breast cancer seems to have been caused in part by her grief at Isabel’s running away: “Soledad was sick, first of the heart and second of the body.”

It’s only as Ulises begins to recount his own story of exile and return, as Homer’s Odysseus sometimes speaks in his own voice, that the novel presents a potential remedy to the inevitability of physical decline. Two orphans from the rebel camp that Isabel meets and takes care of in Buey Arriba are curious about their own past, and Ulises finds himself having to begin their story with his own. He explains to himself who he is and how he’s found himself back in Cuba. In his tales physical details like his parents’ odors, or the rough, uncomfortable guava crates on which the rebels sat and heard Uxbal’s sermons, become the means by which he shapes his story and finds his voice. The novel doesn’t seem to want to sublimate the ugly, the putrid, or the decayed; it’s aware that describing abject bodily realities, in fiction, can in a sense turn them into objects of beauty.

Victoria Baena is a writer and PhD candidate in comparative literature based in New Haven, Connecticut.