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The King and Queen of Comezón (Chicana and Chicano Visions of the Américas Series) Paperback – September 4, 2014
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There is a wonderfully seedy cast of characters, most of whom are inspired creations. The novel begins and ends with the "hero" Arnulfo hosting the town’s big fiestas. In between, we watch the comings and goings of Comezón as if watching a telenovela. Arnulfo’s daughter, the saintly Juliana, confined to a wheelchair, falls in love with the less saintly Padre Manolo, a rapidly unraveling priest. Isa, the ugly and indispensable maid who takes care of Juliana, is a supremely earthy creation who eventually leaves Arnulfo's family, never to return. And bar-owner Rey is a haunted ex-immigration officer, too compassionate for the tasks life has set him. Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character, and through these we get a portrait of the town.
The characters are terrific, but the novel’s biggest appeal lies in the narrative voice. Code-switching deftly between English and street-Spanish, Chavez’s narration is hilarious, profane and poetic – and sometimes all three in the same sentence. If the voice and the characterizations are an unabashed delight, the novel’s form occasionally slows down the story. We start afresh in the mind of a new character every chapter and this sometimes comes at the cost of narrative drive.
But overall the voice is so compelling – so wise and warm and full of humor – that we find ourselves swept along and wondering which itch will be scratched before we reach the end. This novel is Chavez's latest love song to the borderlands and the people who live there. And what a song it is.
A Review of The King and Queen of Comezon: a Novel by Denise Chavez, 310 pp, University of Oklahoma Press, 2014
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, Scholar in Residence (Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, Public Policy), Western New Mexico University
Comezon is a town in Southern New Mexico like hundreds of other dusty little towns of mesquite and nettles, towns that dot the landscape of the Rio Grande and can be seen day in, day out. In Denise Chavez’s novel, Comezon is a fictional rendition of those small towns, especially those small towns full of raza—Mexicans and Mexican Americans. It’s a hoot of a story in terms of setting, characters, human foibles, and language—especially language.
The novel reminds me of Chaucer’s pilgrims and Boccaccio’s fugitives from the plague. It also brings to mind Miguel Mndez’s Peregrinos en Aztan (Pilgrims in Aztlan). The narrative abounds with details about the town and its people bringing to mind the perspicuity of details by Flaubert—especially in Madame Bovary. The King and Queen of Comezon is undoubtedly one of the most well-crafted novels of la mise-en-scène I’ve ever read. It’s a fantasmagora (eye candy for the soul) of creativity and delight.
On reflection the novel is about “connections”—how each of us, every human being, every liv-ing thing on earth—the Cosmos—is connected to each other, warts and all. Philosophically, the novel is about the brevity of creation and the impermanence of beauty as well as the myopic mystery of life and the search for meaning in—of all places—Comezon, New Mexico. Throughout the narrative Chavez mines the characterization to reveal for the reader the actor behind the act.
It takes a while to plumb the message of the author that life is about the eternal “Itch”—comezon, resident in most everyone’s heart and memory. The evocation of pathos arises with the realization that that plot of earth called Comezon is a dead sea of errant souls—feral children—each seeking absolution for esa comezon (that itch) from a God or gods unknown. At the seventh level of existence the novel is about the conflict between good and evil, between the Brothers of Darkness and the Brothers of Light.
On first reading the opening pages, the linguistically deprived reader who reads only English may be dumbfounded to run smack into an expression or a break in the English syntax that changes into Spanish. The uninitiated reader might be tempted to call this unexpected shift in language: Spanglish. But that’s not the case. Spanglish is taking the word “truck,” for example, and transforming it into “troca.” What we have in Denise Chavez’s English lexical line is “code-switching,” inserting Spanish words or phrases into the flow of an English sentence then continuing on with English.
This is not a phenomenon unique to Spanish and English. Code-switching occurs everywhere that two languages come into contact with each other. This phenomenon is akin to consenting adults who get together with resulting issue that can be surprising. Linguists call this phenome-non intrasentential alternation—nothing to be alarmed about—linguists like to use these kinds of terms.
The Spanish-English bilingual reader will chuckle or bust a gut in reading The King and Queen of Comezon, not because of the binary code of the narrative but because the binary code (English and Spanish) creates more powerful metaphors yoked together. In the voice of a skilled writer like Denise Chavez, the result is gut-wrenchingly funny—especially if you’re a bilingual (binary) reader.
Lest I leave the impression that you’ve got to be a bilingual or binary reader to understand or enjoy The King and Queen of Comezon, let me assure you that you don’t. For the most part, Denise Chavez provides an English translation or clue to the meaning of the Spanish word or utterance—not always directly but nuanced in the narrative. Where this is not the case, the context of the line provides the meaning. This is not a rigamarole but a genuine experience in the evolution of languages globally. In this sense, Denise Chavez is weaving her narrative on “the enchanted loom”—a real “menscha” (Spanish equivalent for the Yiddish word “mensch”—which means “to be a real man”—in this case “a real woman.”
The protagonist, Arnulfo Olivárez, wannabe mayor of Comezon “es mas pendejo que cabron”—more of a dope than a muddler—not the bartender’s tool but someone who muddles through things without fully understanding what he or she is doing. This pretty much characterizes Arnulfo Olivárez, poet laureate of Comezon, who dresses up for the Cinco de Mayo activities in Comezon in a too-tight Charro suit that has seen its best days.
The narrator of the story is not Denise Chavez in propria persona. The narrator is a Comezonite participant observer part metiche (a yenta) and part fisgona (a sees-it-all) who knows a lot about a lot of people. The language of the narrator and of la gente (the folks) in Comezon is sermo rusticus as the Romans identified the Vulgate Latin of the people in their time compared to the sermo urbanus of the privileged and educated.
The novel is a rollicking story of what could have been (or should have been) and the memories of the best of times and the worst of times—por eso tomaban en Mil Recuerdos, why they drank in the tawdry, darkly lit, urine-aromatized bar in Comezon, habituated by the specters of yesterdays couldabeen (contenders), today’s wannabees, and tomorrow’s gottabees.
The most crucial spot in town is the Cantina Mil Recuerdos (a thousand memories), the inner sanctum of oblivion and recherché du temp perdu (pursuit of times past). Mil Recuerdos is a hovel of walls full of holes with Jerusalem Crickets, niños de la tierra (scorpions) where dreams ravel and unravel as in an opium den to ease el dolor de los recuerdos (the pain of memory).
What we learn from the novel is that “love” is the most irritating comezon of all. And “sex” is a close second. A pesar de todo (despite everything), at the end of the novel Arnulfo’s wife, Emilia, fat and with a deformed foot, sick and near death in the hospital squeezes her husband’s hand back when he squeezes her hand transmit to each other gestures of love. In the end, the novel turns out to be a “love story” despite Arnulfo’s conundrum of life as a choice between chicken-soup and pea-soup.
After the read, we are left to ponder that which itches us the most—that ubiquitous comezon. “El burro al maiz”—manos a la obra! The burro to the grind stone—hands to the task. Renvoyez l’ascenseu—send the elevator back which really means “do a good turn for someone else.” That’s the injunction we are left with at the end of the novel.
In this work, Denise Chavez has plowed new ground, fearlessly, scatalogically but more im-portant linguistically. She has chosen to write about la gente, the people, in the language of the people. Linguistic purists call that language Spanglish*, a derogatory and calumnious term that characterizes that language as bad Spanish and bad English, failing cognizance to perceive the emergence of a new language in the same manner as the emergence of Spanish, French, and Italian breaking away from Latin.
It’s a great read, illuminating and instructive in the cadence of a seasoned storyteller.Ay caray! Ajua!