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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.
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"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.
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[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 characters]—husband, mistress, wife, son—are written of over and again. Each time that they are returned to, Sanchez adds new data or enriches old, and by this steady accretion of detail, the four are used to reveal the essence of their perverted society, created and fostered by external business interests. These chapters are divided into sections by short paragraphs that speak of the omni-present guaracha in the depraved language of publicity hacks.
Nothing "really" happens in this novel, and although there is a loose narrative connecting the main characters, there is no plot to interfere with Sanchez's purpose, which is to investigate, with all the resources of language that are at his command, a society that is but a dream of merchandising, a lobotomized market for overpriced goods and ideas of the Good Life, hypnotized by wealth and a sterile American culture grafted onto an even more sterile, loony idea of European "glamour."
Sanchez's linguistic resources are multiplex, and he uses them with profligate genius: the book is short, but densely written, and its language occurs in clusters of verbal energy. The texture of the prose is composed of direct and indirect dialogue, authorial (and "Authorial") intrusion, sudden shifts from the third- to the first-person (and vice versa), and an odd, insistent imperative voice that might be the author's, that of an unnamed observer, or that of "Puerto Rican-ness" itself. Sanchez's vocabulary is of a piece with his design—he uses, in isolation and in incandescent combinations, the language of degenerate politics, crippled rhetoric, advertising, pop culture, academe, smarmy and imbecilic "youth," cheap patriotism, business, vapid psychology, the best seller, the vulgar poor, the stupid middle class, and the idiotic rich. Out of it all he has made a novel that totally exploits its materials, and that operates as do all true works of literary art: it exists only in terms of its medium, its ocean of words. Devoid of cant and sentimentality, it is a literary event.
One of the techniques by which writers illuminate the filth of decaying societies is to use fragments of the decay as the raw stuff of their work. Flaubert did it, as did Joyce and Lewis. In our time, it has been done by, among others, Burroughs, Pinget, Gaddis, and Goytisolo. With this novel, Luis Rafael Sanchez joins this company of salutary assassins.
Gilbert Sorrentino, "The Frenetic Pulse of Puerto Rico," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), February 8, 1981, p. 3.
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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 vaster scale of space, time, and thought instantized life in Cuba at the brink of Fidel's revolution. By contrast, that instantaneity, that groovy moment right now, separates Sánchez's people from the characters in Puig's Heartbreak Tango, people for whom drooping lyrics of milongas and tangos mark life's literal pulse.
Obviously, then, Sánchez introduces his novel into very good literary company, and does so with an appropriate modesty of range in character and theme for a first novel. He radically miscalculates, on the other hand: Whereas the writers I've just cited all multiply and manner literary devices to clump characters in verbal communities, Sánchez relies on just one. The result is deadly—as if Joyce had written all of Ulysses in a single narrative technique, that of the "Wandering Rocks" section, say. Beginning successive units of prose with identical words or phrases, Sánchez self-consciously organizes his novel—he's nothing if he's not a writer who knows what he's doing—with the rhetorical device of anaphora…. The novel flashes images like a movie projector with a broken ratchet. Of course Sánchez does vary the trick by complicating his style with puns, allusions, and rhymes, but many of these are annoyingly repetitive too, like the interminable repetitions of and variations on "Vince is a prince, no accidents, clean rinse." The Beat strikes rhythmic sparks at first, then sputters. Finally, it tics.
Which, again, is too bad. These stylistic shenanigans display the author's flashy control of the slippery matter of popular culture, political consequence, and vulgar drama. All the devices, including the petty (Joycean?) references to things only a certain set of Puerto Ricans and their friends in San Juan might care about … float in the prose rhythm. They are all suspended—undigested and undigestible alike—in the hip-jiggling medium of the guaracha, imitated by anaphoric bumps that keep all the clutter of high and low culture trivia swinging in a stew the way a Cusinart on pulse makes soup. That swirling, spicy soup is Sánchez's vision of contemporary Puerto Rico.
Macho Camacho's Beat will be hawked as a sing-song Grito de San Juan in literature and anatomized by chill-fingered academics…. Too bad, because any few sections of the book read fast and cool: breezy prose refrains of imitable identity. All together, their effect is like listening non-stop to six albums of "The Bessie Smith Story": after a while, your anticipation of the repetition makes you, not the work, wild. (pp. 281-82)
Ronald Christ, "Submerged in a Swarming Choreography," in Commonweal (copyright © 1981 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CVIII, No. 9, May 8, 1981, pp. 280-82.
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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 advertising jingles, to the banality of political rhetoric, to the banality of academese, to the Mohammed Aliish doggerel of pop salsa songs, all in the best mock-epic tradition. And in this, also, the novel is Latin American. While it mocks, it is a love song, too. Sánchez the intellectual and literature professor is bound to be appalled at the bastardized, Americanized, corrupt society that surrounds him. Yet, as an artist, he is fascinated by it, in love with the rich material.
And, ultimately, the book does that most difficult of things for a novel to do. It creates, movingly and vividly, a particular time, a particular place and the people who inhabit that time and place. Other things may be asked of a book before it can be called truly great, but if it does not do those basic things well, it has not even a shot at greatness.
Macho Camacho's Beat is not without flaws. At times the rhetoric becomes merely decorative or cute, and thus tedious; at times the jokes become too "in"; at times the author lets the intellectual get the better of the artist. When that happens, the persona, voice and tone all go out the window to make room for the obligatory Latin diatribe against the soulless tyranny of the bourgeoisie (I oppose not the sentiment of the diatribe but its sentimentality). But overall, those flaws are anomalies, stones in a tumbling verbal stream. (pp. 642-43)
[All in all], Macho Camacho's Beat is wonderfully full of life. And not just a kind of life that is intelligible only to a Latin or Puerto Rican audience…. The voices that sing are eminently human, are clearly recognizable, are ours, too. And if the sound of the Latin American fiction "boom" seems to some to be fading, let them listen again. The dynamite is still going off. (p. 644)
Robert Houston, "'Life Is a Phenomenal Thing …'," in The Nation (copyright 1981 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 232, No. 20, May 23, 1981, pp. 642-44.
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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.
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[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 beat; and a disc jockey's insipid hyperboles separate one character's passages from the next's, in the turgid, demotic la ronde of language that constitutes the book…. (p. 135)
In his extraordinary ability to fuse diverse jargons—political slogans, advertising jingles, intellectual cliches, "touchstone" literary quotations and much more—into gorgeous, stinking shapes, Sánchez stands with Cabrera Infante, whose Tres Tristes Tigres first explored the relationship between immobility, logorrhea, and cultural imperialism in the context of Batista's Havana—a place quite near, one comes to feel, to present-day San Juan. And the characteristic ambiguity of this kind of treatment, an ambiguity which played its part in the history of disenchantment between Cabrera Infante and the Cuban socialist state, is here as well: Sánchez's fascination and facility with these debased tongues is as evident as his disgust with them. Moreover, in a fictional universe constituted solely of wandering, commodified signifiers, it is impossible to glimpse what conditions lie beyond or behind them as prerequisites for their continued production—and thus, inevitably, equally impossible to catch a hint of any possible alternative ideological space. So, in spite of what one feels his intentions to have been, by the end of Macho Camacho's Beat it has come to seem that Sánchez despises Puerto Rico's sinners, but loves their linguistic sins; nor is it insignificant that the only character who seems to live outside the novel's all-inclusive verbal garbage dump is an abandoned, mute, brain-damaged child who is run over by Benny's Ferrari in the sole and concluding action of the book. Thus, typically, for all its progressive motivations and possibilities, the modernist practice of delineating character as the function-effect of a stream of verbiage all too easily brings its employer once again to his/her knees before the altar of language and beauty, within a closed chapel pretending to be the hopeless world. We may all agree that the "person" and the "individual" are crippling ideological mystifications, yet still find that there are other voices, other codes, other worlds and other beauties which modernist conventions and practices alone cannot admit. (pp. 135-36)
Fred Pfeil, "Reviews: 'Macho Camacho's Beat'," in The Minnesota Review (© 1981 The Minnesota Review), n.s. No. 17, Fall, 1981, pp. 135-36.
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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 that their failures are more attractive, more peculiarly theirs, than anyone else's successes. These are the tristes tropiques, as Sanchez playfully puts it, but the sadness is so charming that it hardly looks like sadness at all. That is part of the problem….
["Life is a Phenomenal Thing," an imaginary popular song] played on every radio in the book, is a figure of persistent movement to answer the congealed traffic jam. It bounces and bumps its way through the world of the novel like the spirit of misrule, provokes dancing and singing and humming, stirs up visions of glamour and sexual appetite. Macho Camacho is not a character in the book, despite the title. He is the man behind the music, a metaphor for the book's energy and ambivalence. Life is not a phenomenal thing in this cramped colony, the lyric is lying to us, offering false, finger-snapping, toe-tapping comfort. Yet our response cannot be a simple refusal of the comfort, or anything like contempt for those who need it. Imitation happiness is better than real misery; and in some cases is the only available antidote. (p. 54)
There is a certain fussiness in the book, a weight of whimsy and cultural reference which at times looks like clutter. But it persuasively pictures a life of necessary and appealing evasions. In a recent interview Sánchez speaks rather sententiously of the "spiritual decomposition of Puerto Rico," of "an environment contaminated by colonialism," but that is not how his novel sounds. It makes those points, but it also catches the gaiety of much of the contamination, the humanity which lingers in those decomposing forms. It is a political work, as he says elsewhere in the same interview, but only because it points us toward realities which are ultimately political. We must change the world, "transform colonial reality in all spheres," but we must also respect the dreams and songs cherished by the suffering while we do the changing, and that is what this lively, seductive, unsettling book does. (p. 55)
Michael Wood, "In the Latino Americano Mirror," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 16, October 22, 1981, pp. 54-8.∗