Book Review: Monkey Hunting

Garcia, Christina. Monkey Hunting. Ballantine Books, 2004.

There’s a big whopping tear-jerker tucked inside Cristina Garcia’s slender third novel, “Monkey Hunting.” Although the book is a scant 251 pages (with wide margins and plunging chapter heads), it spans four generations and three continents, unfolds during several different wars, and witnesses the rise of two terrible dictators. Yet with all this, Garcia manages to keep the focus on her cast, a family of Chinese-Cubans she ferries from mainland China to New York City with exquisite grace and sympathy.

That Garcia can pull off this sleight of hand should be of little surprise. Her debut novel, “Dreaming in Cuban” (1992), brought to life four indomitable Cuban women with great economy. “Monkey Hunting” manages to accommodate an even bigger cast, also resilient in the face of struggle.

As the tale begins, Chen Pen is snookered into slavery when he sails for Havana in 1857 for work that turns out to be forced labor in the Cuban hinterlands. After a few years chopping sugar cane in fields with African slaves, he escapes to Havana, where he falls in love with a former slave named Lucretia. In this port city they start a new life together, raising children and running a salvage company that sells odds and ends.

In this sense, “Monkey Hunting,” like Garcia’s other two novels, is a work of salvage, too. It re-creates a lost world, one created by the circumstances of mass migration. Her characters’ heroism comes out in how they adapt to this fate, wear it on their skin. At one point Chen thinks about his son, who is of a mixed race: “Lorenzo’s skin, [he] supposed,

was a home of sorts, with its accommodations of three continents.”

Whereas Proust had madeleines and tea to coax his narrator’s memory along, Garcia accesses this lost volume from Cuba’s history through more tropical fare. Rare is the page in this book that doesn’t feature some character or another eating pomegranate or plum blossoms, sucking on a heart of palm, or wiping the sugary sweetness of sugar cane from sticky fingertips.

Garcia never allows these lush images to bog her story down, something she could not quite accomplish in her second novel, “The Aguero Sisters.” With an expert sense of timing and pace, she flashes forward to

Chen and Lucretia’s mixed-blood offspring, from granddaughter Chen Fang, an intellectual who suffers in Mao’s prisons, to grandson Domingo, an upright kid unraveled by his experience fighting a senseless war for America in Vietnam.

Zigzagging through time, Garcia paints the portrait of a family haunted by homesickness, even three generations after leaving their homeland. Scents and smells tell a lot of the story, as opposed to timelines. At one point, for example, Domingo meets a prostitute in Vietnam who will sleep with him only if she can slather herself in fish oil: It’s her way of remembering where she’s from, who she really is.

It’s a beautiful, poignant scene, and one that explains in part why this slim book lodges so deeply under the skin. In describing the sensual world, Garcia depicts her characters’ experiences so luminously that it’s easy to feel the pang of their homesickness, the oomph of their heartbreak. “Were people meant to travel such distances?” Domingo wonders at one point in the jungle outside Saigon: probably not, but they do, and Garcia has done their journeys justice here.

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