Tentacles and trips

by Jutta Person

Heroes (Issue II/2018)

Androgynous bodies dressed in black with huge shoulder pads dance on a futuristic globe that drifts through space, battered and screaming, while psychedelic monster flowers writhe to electro-beats. This isn't Rita Indiana's new novel, but the video of her song "La hora de volvé". But her literature and her music share a lot, from their experimental edge to the African-carribean quotes to their laid-back female singers and storytellers. Those who search the Internet for Rita Indiana will first find the songs of her band "Rita Indiana y los Misterios", even though she started out as a writer and only later came to music.

Born in 1977 in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, the author and singer-songwriter, who also speaks out politically, has long been a star in Central America. Rita Indiana is her first name and goes back to her ancestors. Her full name is Rita Indiana Hernández Sánchez. She has already published several stories and novels, including the novel "Papi", on which the American book cover includes a comment by the Dominican writer Junot Diaz: "Rita Indiana is one of a kind." Now her novel " Tentacle" is published in English and German, but unlike the Spanish original "La mucama de Omicunlé " ("Omicunlé's maid"), the German title immediately focuses on a spectacular detail: the tentacles of a sea anemone. It is possible that these sea creatures, which belong to the group of corals, have superpowers in the novel and are able to produce human rescuers.

But one thing after another, as far as that is possible with this shrill story: we are in the year 2027 and the sea has degenerated into a cesspool. Robots patrol the streets of Santo Domingo, tracking down and destroying refugees from Haiti. Acilde, a teenage domestic servant of a voodoo priestess, desires nothing more than a sex change. Her boss, who carries the ritual name Omicunlé, keeps a precious sea anemone, which she worships as a divine water being. When the priestess is murdered, Acilde gains possession of the anemone and can finally have her sex changed. This is still very expensive in 2027, but with only one syringe called "Rainbow Bright" it can be done in a few hours: "Her abdomen was shaken by contractions until she was excreted by the vagina, which had once been her uterus. At twelve noon, Acilde Figueroa was a man." In between, there is the story of Argenis, an artist who has been stumbling from one losing streak to the next in the 1990s and 2000s. Argenis may be a technical genius, but he has no idea of contemporary art, so he remains an outsider. The "rich kids" at the college of design never let him play along anyway, and when he is invited by Giorgio, a patron of the arts, to a workshop at Playa Bo near Sosúa, this seems to be his last chance. Giorgio and his wife, an environmentalist marine biologist, want to set up a research and breeding station in this bay to protect the coral reef (which actually exists in real Sosúa). Meanwhile, the local artists are working on Goya's work, although Argenis does not have connections here either.

Rita Indiana now gives the novel a surreal quality by equipping both Argenis and Acilde with special abilities: they can travel in time - without a classical time machine. Argenis, also moves into a second life: After a painful snorkelling encounter with a sea anemone, the artist finds himself back in the 17th century with a small group of Buchanians - French, blacks and indigenous people - hiding from the Spaniards on the island of Hispaniola. The rough buccaneers force Argenis to scrape off cattle skins for days on end - which doesn't boost his artistic ambitions in his first life.

Rita Indiana uses the buccaneer story to incorporate the country's colonial past, while the novel focuses on marine biology: the destruction of the environment set in motion by greed and frenetic egoism. Acilde, ordained priest of the sea gods Olokun and Yemayá, is beamed back from the future to the present in order to save what can still be saved. In this way, Rita Indiana feeds Caribbean cults and sea gods into the novel, which, for salvation's sake, is a journey into the future.

On the contrary, the true form of this story is farce, whether in the past, present or future. The performance artists in the Sosúa project resemble a sad heap of remote-controlled show-offs, and the fact that the (real and fictitious) politicians are criminals is self-explanatory. The name dropping of art, culture, cool music, fashion and design that runs through the novel, however, is at times exaggerated: from Giorgio Moroder, Goa-Trance to Matthew Barney, from Gertrude Stein, Marc-Jacobs-Jacketts and Lydia Cabrera to Homi Bhaba. The hipness of the characters also seems to impress the narrative voice, which with its fast, stylistically uncomplicated snobbish style actually wants to keep its distance. Yet one reads this exuberant dystopia with curiosity and sympathy - not least because Rita Indiana avoids helpless pathos when it comes to the destroyed sea of the future. Her eccentric, angry and grotesque story comes closer to reality than any sensitive realism.

Tentakel. By Rita Indiana. Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, Berlin 2018.

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