Rita Indiana Hernández is a Dominican writer, singer/songwriter, and model. Her short novel Tentacle (La mucama de omicunlé, translated by Achy Obejas) contains dystopian, magical, and queer elements as well as political themes ranging from artistic and environmental to post-colonial issues, cleverly woven together into a very complex story for a book of 132 pages. As contemporary SFF in the category of climate fiction, it is easily readable as a commentary on present-day life and politics in the Dominican Republic and on the forces that threaten to destroy both it and, ultimately, all human life on Earth. It is also the sneakiest post-Lovecraftian book I’ve come across.
The beginning of Tentacle is set in 2037 in Santo Domingo, and presents us with a post-apocalyptic Dominican Republic where the vast majority of the people can’t afford cars, flatscreen televisions, electric household appliances, or toys and shoes for their children, while a tiny rich minority controls everything through influence and bribery. This doesn’t sound much like a narrative set in the future? Oh wait, there is an additional apocalypse: after a biological weapons spill caused by an earthquake off the island’s coastline, the reefs are dead, the ocean around them reduced to a polluted broth that can’t sustain animal life.
Enter the tentacular star of the novel: an ancient sacred anemone (or what’s left of it after the disaster), kept in a tank inside the apartment of its current guardian, the Yoruba practitioner and holy woman Esther Escudero, better known as Omicunlé. She is also advisor to the Dominican President in all spiritual matters, and she is currently on the search for the major water deity Olokun’s prophesied legitimate son, Omo Olokun, the Lord of the Deep, “the one who [knows] what lies at the bottom of the sea” (p. 50). He is the only one who can supposedly save the ocean by reaching through time and preventing the president from buying the weapons that will destroy the reefs and ultimately infect all of the planet’s oceans.
So far, so generic, even in a setting that seems exotic to the Western reader. We think we’ve come across all possible iterations of time travel, as well as every interpretation of the trope of the chosen one, the prophesied savior—including the unwilling ones, the converted or corrupted ones, and the ones that turn out to be the hero of the prophecy even if they are of a different gender. We haven’t met Acilde Figueroa, though.
Acilde is introduced to us as Esther Escudero’s new maid, and a very untrained one as such. Then we learn that Acilde—who is referred to as “she” and as “a tomboy” (p. 14)—was working as a boy prostitute, dressed as a boy and selling blowjobs to mainly old rich married men (p. 11), when one of Esther’s close associates discovered her, desired her, raped her, and ended up offering her money, food, and ultimately a better-paying job, all of which she accepted. This sequence is an emotionally grueling read, but it isn’t gratuitous: it merely sets the parameters for what Acilde will put up with to achieve her dream. She is saving up for Rainbow Brite, a drug which promises “a complete sex change without surgery” (p. 15). My take on Rainbow Brite is that it probably operates via nanobots, since it transforms the person who takes it to such an extent that after the procedure their body will be producing different hormones by itself—and kudos to the writer for subtly hinting at this without doing a big infodump. When Acilde gets her hands on the drug after a lot of severe complications with huge (legal) consequences, she is finally able to transform into the chosen one and to be ritually dedicated to Olokun for the journey that lies ahead—or, more strictly speaking, in the past.
Amidst all this, I have a significant problem with the book: why, if Acilde is transgender and has always identified as a man, is the character of Acilde introduced as “she” and only switches to being a “he” when the physical transformation is complete? This isn’t necessary for the novel’s plot to work, either. In my view this is a highly problematic act of misgendering a literary character and could be handled so much better, resulting in a better reading experience for everyone (not just, but including trans* readers.)
Our other major plotline starts in the late 1990s, where we meet Argenis, nicknamed Goya at art school for having mastered styles that the other students (and indeed many teachers) consider outmoded and obsolete. After college he couldn’t find work as an artist, and now he is in the process of losing his depressing cubicle job. He drinks too much, he doesn’t object to the occasional nose of cocaine, he has zero self-esteem left, and after being divorced by his wife he has moved back in with his mother. He may not know what lies at the bottom of the sea (yet), but he knows rock bottom when he sees it.In a seeming stroke of luck, local art patron Giorgio Menicucci invites Argenis to participate in a group workshop project, to be conducted in seclusion at Menicucci’s pivate beach resort Playa Bo. Menicucci promises the participating artists much fame and publicity. The money gained from this is supposed to be invested in turning Playa Bo into a nature sanctuary, building a marine reseach laboratory, and ultimately, saving the ocean.
Shortly after joining the project, while swimming in the reef and semi-seriously chasing his patron’s wife, Argenis has an accident involving an anemone. He swims through a hole in the reef—which we may remember from Omicunlé’s prophecy directed at Acilde: “Don’t pass over holes or go into holes, holes in the street or holes in the countryside, because the earth will swallow you up” (p. 19)—and is touched by the anemone’s tendrils before being brought back to shore sick, feverish and hallucinating. As he recovers, he begins to make sense of his hallucinations, which to him are just as real as the reality surrounding him, and which he experiences like a coherent second life in double exposure. He isn’t dreaming; he has acquired a time-shifted other self, which he can control like a puppet in lucid (day)dreams. He now simultaneously exists as Argenis in a 1990s art commune and as his copy-self, pulled from the sea by a group of buccaneers deep in the island’s colonial past and nicknamed Côte de Fer (shortened from “celui qui a survécu à la Côte de Fer” p. 57). He is forced to work if he wants to eat. This sort of applies to both realities.
Tenses blur as Argenis keeps experiencing the two time periods simultaneously, often in the same sentence. His relationship with Roque, one of the buccaneers, becomes more complicated than he can handle, as he is torn between the contrasting experiences of forced male companionship based on survival strategies, violence, and forced labour, and a blossoming understanding of his own new homosocial, and potentially homosexual, desires. A traumatic memory comes to the surface: it is the memory of being condemned for craving physical affection, of being called a “faggot” for trying to kiss his father on the mouth when he was a little boy (p. 67).
After a surprising erotic encounter, “he feels disoriented and happy, protected by time, because for him, that past he still didn’t recognize as totally his had no repercussions in the present, where he was still a true macho and where no one knew anything. […] He wants to protect Roque, he wants to impress him” (p. 93). These moments of being torn between love and fear, acceptance and (self-)hatred, read like moments of hope for the character of Argenis. But can his 1990s self profit from his time-travel experience and develop into a more mature and more self-accepting version of himself?
Later, in both his bodies, that of Argenis and of Côte de Fer, he went to the beach muttering, ‘Faggot, loco, crazy faggot’, and those words cut him inside with a sharpness like the edges of the reef in whose nooks and crannies he recognized the broad nose and thick lips of his father’s profile as if in a paranoid painting by Dalí. (p. 96)
This novel’s characters are, then, alive and multi-faceted. Even in moments when they are making amoral choices (or no choices at all), it is easy to engage with them. The language and images Indiana uses alternate between harsh and poetic like ocean waves at different times of day, and the many references add a feeling of authenticity to the various timelines. Even though some of its central minority characters in this book turn out to be either eternal victims or turn into actual villains, it is a delight to read—as much as it’s possible to say this about a post-apocalyptic narrative.
Indeed, the narrative foregrounds raw, bleak themes such as survival, forced labour, physical violence, rough landscapes and the constant threat of death. While Argenis is being reduced to little more than his own remote audience in the timeline at 1990s Playa Bo, in the past Côte de Fer channels all his overflowing energy and desire into a spontaneous creative project, making woodcuts of his surroundings and the people in them, then printing them on a traded press using cow’s blood put aside from their day-job of killing cows and curing hides.All this is intercut, however, by brief glimpses of beauty and fleeting serenity. This is mirrored in the language and the descriptions of the artwork based on Côte de Fer’s impressions. Faces as well as elements of nature are described using references to the visual arts. A language of desire develops, which transcends gender and sexuality. Everything is affected by the ever-changing, living ocean.
Back at 1990s Playa Bo, the other artists also use various media to explore, express and hopefully influence their problematic relationships with themselves, most of which are due to their everyday experiences with racism, as in the case of Malagueta, who lives and works in a hut close to Argenis’ and seems to be in constant rivalry with him:
“Black,” he heard himself say as he breathed smoke out of his mouth. A small word swollen over time by other meanings, all of them hateful. Every time somebody said it to mean poor, dirty, inferior, or criminal, the word grew; it must have been about to burst, and when it finally did, it would once again mean what it meant in the beginning: a color. (p. 120)
Ever since he was nine years old, Malagueta has been drawing Goku from Dragon Ball in order to dispel the pain inflicted by white people’s insults: “When he was little, every time somebody called him ‘monkey’, or ‘goddamned monkey,’ or ‘the devil’s monkey,’ he’d draw Goku kicking something or using one of his special powers” (p. 121). Filling whole notebooks, he kept wishing for a teacher, a sensei, dreaming of superpowers to fight—to survive—“the words that would sometimes come out even from his mother’s mouth, or his brothers’” (p. 121).
By now we are all wishing and hoping that in every timeline, concerning the fates and lives of Argenis, Malagueta, and the others, of Omo Olokun and the ocean, of the whole nation, the power of art will be revealed to transform experiences, to transform politics and through them reality. Instead, what the author gives us is a series of cruel plot-twists. Omo Olokun is revealed to have already been in both the 1990s timeline and the colonial timeline, using other bodies made by the anemone time-portal. He must have started out fighting the conditions that endanger humanity’s survival, and which he has experienced in a former life (as Acilde), started out working for a marine sanctuary and for securing a future for the ocean and for mankind, and then he must have got sidetracked by temptation: by the myriad possibilities granted him through money and influence and through anemone magic.
All this time, Omo Olokun has been setting people up, playing with their emotions, their reactions, their potential and skills, according to a complex plan—exploiting them for the benefit of not the ocean, not humanity, not the orishas Olokun and Yemayà, guardians of the sea (orishas being deities in the Yoruba religion, originally brought to the Caribbean from West Africa and further influenced by Roman Catholicism)—but his own favourite anemone-copied self. This narrative choice again emphasises the enormous influence in the world of a small handful of very powerful, highly influential people—and their ability to destroy the existences of many others, who to them are of no value whatsoever.
Even though we end up where we started—in a dystopian narrative where money and power are prioritized over people and nature—this book is a tremendously enjoyable read. And it is chuck-full of references to arts and media, music, popular culture and literature, so there are meaningful references and metaphors galore.
In the near-future timeline, there is mention of a falsified draft of a supposedly unpublished manuscript entitled Olokun, which tries to explain the myth of Olokun using a maze of nestled references to other sources (manuscripts, letters and unrecorded conversations), simultaneously complicating and obscuring any claim to legitimacy in a manner that recalls the structure of H. P. Lovecraft’s famous 1926 short story “The Call of Cthulhu”—deliberately, as it turns out. Referencing an account that claims that “black Cubans called a marine creature Olokun”, the writer adds (to Acilde, of all people), “It could travel back in time, dude, very Lovecraftian” (p. 105).
This deliberate connecting of Lovecraftian Great Old Ones with orisha occurs in other places too, for example when a character witnesses a fertility ritual and experiences: “… the extreme poverty suffered by Haitian workers, the tragic ties with which this ancient ceremony held on to the present, the permanency of a kind of slavery that now dressed itself up as paid labor, and the power of a music that lodged deities in human bodies, deities powerful enough to swallow the world” (112f).
Rita Indiana knows her Weird fiction, and what an impact this established connection will have on the reader. In a final post-Lovecraftian twist, which in the end works rather well as an extended metaphor about humanity and current critical perspectives on climate politics, she suggests that, at the core of her complicated anti-protagonists’s choices, there is a motivation which is nothing less than Lovecraftian: if you have three selves which have served your interests well, and you can only reassume a normal life (and an interference-free timeline) by letting two of them go and living as the third, which one will you choose? This is not just a matter of avoiding the problems inherent in time travel; it is also very much about egoism and convenience. And if you can have it all—wealth, power, sex, a strong, healthy (masculine) body—are you willing to sacrifice Earth in return?
Thus, in the end, the Nietzschean monster turns out to have been late capitalism all along.