Luis Rafael Sánchez 1936–
Puerto Rican novelist, poet, short story writer, and dramatist.
Sánchez is considered a significant dramatist in Puerto Rico where his plays have been performed since the late 1950s. He is best known in the United States for his acclaimed first novel, Macho Camacho's Beat.
Sánchez's novel is a portrait of Puerto Rico as a society in a state of spiritual decay, its members corrupted by their obsession with the products of American popular culture, simultaneously funny and pathetic in their inability to communicate meaningfully with one another. It is a sociopolitical work in its indictment of American and European colonialism as the cause of what Sánchez clearly considers the death of a culture.
The structuring of Macho Camacho's Beat has been compared to that of James Joyce's Ulysses and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. In Sánchez's novel, "nothing happens." Characters are not so much developed as they are presented in their various locales speaking a language that is a bizarre mixture of American cliché and Puerto Rican slang. Through monologue, dialogue, and quickly shifted and juxtaposed shots of Puerto Rican society, Sánchez creates a fictional world that is credible and, in the opinion of many critics, engrossing.
"Macho Camacho's Beat" is a funny, mordant first novel about modern-day Puerto Rico…. It comes to us with high praise from Gabriel García Márquez, Piri Thomas, Juan Goytisolo and José Yglesias, who calls Sánchez "a regular Philip Roth let loose on the island." But to me Sánchez seems closer to the Russian symbolist, Andrei Bely, than to Philip Roth. Like Bely's "Petersburg," "Macho Camacho's Beat" snakes through an urban landscape (here it is San Juan) that feels like a nightmare of poisonous quills. It's a novel that lives more in tones and moods than in specific characters—an extended, raucous song.
The novel floats from character to character, while the salsa beat of pop singer Macho Camacho, "Life Is a Phenomenal Thing," begins to strangle San Juan with its noise and sexual invitation….
Sánchez gives us a sense of an island culture awash in American artifacts: Libby's pear juice, Little Lulu and Sara Lee cake. But he slaps at this a little too hard. The music descends into a monotone that undermines Sánchez's parody. When we hear for the tenth time that "Vince is a prince and his mind you can't rinse," we are no longer listening. The litany of slogans that invades the book begins to numb us. The wordplay becomes tiresome….
Who is to blame? I suspect that the music of "Macho Camacho's Beat" is impossible to catch in translation. Perhaps you can't have a salsa for norteamericanos.
Jerome Charyn, "Swinging through San Juan," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 18, 1981, p. 12.
[Macho Camacho's Beat], which functions brilliantly on linguistic, structural, and socio-political levels, is defined by an extravagant and mordant sense of the comic. Like all excellent comic writing, the laughter is generated by language, not situation. At the heart of Luis Rafael Sanchez's book is rage and despair, without which comedy never rises above the level of bobhopeism or the animated cartoon….
Permeating the island of Puerto Rico in the middle of the Nixon administration is the runaway hit recording, "Life Is a Phenomenal Thing," a guaracha by Macho Camacho and his band…. It is woven through Sanchez's novel as leitmotif and chorus; it is, clearly, a manifestation of the apparent "spirit" of modern-day Puerto Rico.
Macho Camacho's Beat is an evocation of the island's true spirit, given us through an accumulation of information concerning four major characters. As the lie of the guaracha meshes with the truth of the island, a mood of profound irony envelops the novel as we see that the colonial culture of contemporary Puerto Rico is as false and debased as the guaracha that so bitterly represents it: The irony deepens as we become aware that the guaracha is accepted by the islanders themselves as symbolic of their true, lost culture, as if Italian-Americans were to believe that the fat, happy mamas who ceaselessly stir "real" spaghetti sauce on commercials for one or another brand of processed garbage are images of themselves….
In brief chapters, [the four main...
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[Macho Camacho's Beat] is lively and admirable, a good first novel by an industrious and talented writer. (p. 280)
[Freed from] ethnic cheerleaders and translation-workshop booers, Macho Camacho's Beat prances into the cosmopolitan form of the city-in-a-day book invented and patented in English by James Joyce, that other colonial writer, and delicately pirated by Virginia Woolf, that other oppressed individual. Sánchez swaggers beyond those two in submerging his characters in a swarming choreography of people, motifs, and expressions, so that his novel is almost all corps, no principal dancers, even though there are a few identifiable performers, like the Mother who leaves her idiot baby out in the tropical sun, Senator Vincente Reinosa, whose son Benny conducts a teenager's hot romance with his Ferrari, which crashes the book, expectedly, into a liebestodt of post-Faulknerian-a-la-Hitchcock "brains splattered on the door of the Ferrari and … some eyes plopped in the gutter like the yokes of half-fried eggs."
As in Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway, what ties Sánchez's characters together is the novelist's crisscrossing of daily lives in ways unrecognized by the characters themselves. Joyce used the vice-regal cavalcade, Woolf the dove-grey limousine as well as a sky-writing plane, and Sánchez his guaracha lyric "Life is a Phenomenal Thing," which has taken the fictional island by storm and invaded every character's life with the devastation of García Márquez's Leafstorm. More closely, Macho Camacho's Beat resembles Cabrera Infante's Three Trapped Tigers, which on a...
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The best of the Latins are pretty solidly in the modernist tradition,… but for the most part without the sterility that "modernist" has come to connote in Europe and North America. We have learned to expect certain other, better things from Latin American fiction: wit, energy, a lively cynicism, freedom from literary dogma, an original vision, innovation in form, vivid characters and a true love of language (as opposed to mere literary crossword-puzzle making). In all of those things, Macho Camacho's Beat is Latin American. And delightfully so.
To explain the plot of Sánchez's novel is to explain the least about it. In one sense, as in Tristram Shandy or Mrs. Dalloway, nothing really happens. Poor Tristam Shandy never gets off his stair landing, Woolf's airplane merely passes over and Sánchez's characters never get unstuck from "traffic jams" of one sort or another. (p. 642)
What "happens," chiefly, is characters, humor, pathos, satire and language—language's rhythms, its jokes, its silliness, its pretensions, its nonsense that parades as sense. The book is Macho Camacho's beat. The language of its telling is as energetic and simultaneously as vulgar as either the guaracha or the culture that spawned it. Sánchez plops us into the linguistic world of Bottom and his players, and refuses to let us out. That world's style moves from the jive talk of the streets to the banality of...
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Luis Rafael Sanchez's Puerto Ricans are … programmatically limited to suit a vision of "all of colonized Latin America." Macho Camacho's Beat is a two-hundred page demonstration that the Puerto Rican mind is flooded with junk language, junk American and European brand names, junk values, presumably foisted upon it by the colonizers and their running dogs among the politically and socially dominant classes of the island. There is no room for fineness, or real wit, or intelligence, unless we are to suppose it among some artists and independentistas who never appear in this stifling anatomy of stupidity. A gross Senator stuck in a traffic jam, trying to get to an appointment with his mulatto mistress; his ditsy society wife, waiting to see her psychiatrist; his worthless son, also stuck in traffic (in his beloved Ferrari: the old man has a Mercedes-Benz); the mistress and her idiot child; and her chum, Doña Chon, who may represent some sort of earthy wisdom. The son, says the dust jacket, is a right-wing terrorist; of course, there's no room in this book for left-wing terrorists…. Nothing whatever happens in this novel; in that, it bears some resemblance to The Man Who Knew Coolidge, another long collection of degraded language and thought, but Lewis had none of Sanchez' gross virulence. The prose is studded with references to the author's own international culture—Sartre, Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, Neruda, Buñuel, Tennessee Williams—designed, I suppose, to place him within that culture and beyond his unfortunate image of his own island. There are many references to old Puerto Rican songs and performers …, and, in the Spanish text, a prodigious use of Puerto Rican slang. The prose is annoyingly overly-inventive, elaborated from puns, neologisms, rhythmic riffs and allusions, but if Sanchez' hyped-up prose has its roots in Puerto Rican speech, [translator] Gregory Rabassa's virtuoso attempt to find English equivalents for each twist and turn of the baroque text produces an unreadable non-language. (pp. 306-07)
George Kearns, "Fiction Chronicle: 'Macho Camacho's Beat'," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1981 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 306-07.
[If] one of the major trajectories of the modernist response to an increasingly commodified social reality has been the subjective projection of privatized language across and throughout the landscape or situation which serves as the occasion for the piece, the complementary path of that response has been the portrayal of the human subject as an instance or utterance of the debased cultural code that babbles and rushes through our minds. Thus, the four major characters of Macho Camacho's Beat are all more or less immobilized conduits of verbal wastes…. [Throughout the novel,] the fabulous guaracha of Macho Camacho, "Life is a Phenomenal Thing" plays again and again and again, twitching their "thoughts" to its...
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[Macho Camacho's Beat] offers less a narrative than a situation, an image of a stagnant world. It is five o'clock in the afternoon throughout the book, the time of a famous poem by Lorca, only here we witness not the death of an adored bullfighter but the thoughts of people caught in or kept waiting because of a colossal traffic jam…. The jam, [Sánchez] says, is "an active sample of the Latin American capacity for obstruction." That is how they talk in the mirror, Sánchez has caught the tone exactly. They don't really believe there are no traffic jams in Rome, for example, or that there are more obstructions in Latin America than anywhere else. They do like to evoke a special, disheveled destiny, a sense...
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