Lotería: A Novel – Mario Alberto Zambrano
Mario Alberto Zambrano’s Lotería: A Novel is a gorgeous book.
What’s unfortunate is that, when I say this, I’m referring exclusively to the physical object.
In publishing Lotería, HarperCollins has produced the kind of elegant, expensive-looking (and expensive, at $22 for 272 pages, many of them blank) book that is an endangered species in American libraries: Pleasingly hefty in a 7”x5” format, Lotería features solid cover boards that bespeak serious reading; heavy, deckle-edge paper; and ravishing full-color drawings, at each chapter head, of cards from a Mexican lotería deck. (The illustrations are by Jarrod Taylor.)
As Zambrano quickly explains, lotería is not what the calque would suggest: not the lottery, but a game of chance similar to bingo. The lotería dealer draws the cards and, rather than announce them by name, sings the dicho—the proverb or saying—that traditionally accompanies each card. If the card appears on their tablas, players mark the corresponding space with coins or even dried beans. Sometimes the dealer tries to be tricky, modifying the wording of the dicho or turning it into a pun or riddle.
In Zambrano’s Lotería, the 54 images of the lotería deck (La Corona-The Crown; El Alacrán-The Scorpion; El Nopal-The Prickly Pear Cactus, for example) serve as a sort of madeleine for the novel’s narrator, eleven-year-old Luz Castillo. Each card “sparks a random memory” (the book description tells us) and “pieced together, these snapshots bring into focus the joy and pain of the young girl’s life, and the events that led to her present situation.”
The principal defect of Lotería, however, is that they actually do not. Lotería’s “snapshots” fail to coalesce into any coherent story, and the operative word in that description is “random.” Indeed, rather than become a novel, Lotería remains a series of vignettes that are less intricate than they are confusing. Many of its rambling “snapshots” contribute little or nothing to the reader’s understanding of Luz or her situation, and the forward momentum of the narrative stutters repeatedly and frequently stalls altogether.
This is, nonetheless, the kind of book that will enthrall blue-haired reading groups and WASP-y book clubs, whose members can congratulate themselves for making a tourist stop in a culture not their own. (Diane Rehm’s fawning NPR interview with Zambrano on August 5, 2013, illustrates the basic principle. Among other things, Rehm repeatedly mentioned the challenge that Zambrano’s use of Spanish would represent for an “American audience” and “American readers,” apparently forgetting that Zambrano is American—as is every single character in the novel—and that 45 million people in the United States speak Spanish as a first or second language. Rehm’s conflation of “American” with “non-Spanish speaking” struck me as significant, as did Zambrano’s failure to correct the error.)
Perhaps in one perspective, Zambrano should be faulted for none of this—a writer, especially one writing from a post-colonial position, can’t be held responsible for the way in which intellectually colonized readers consume his work.
In another perspective, which happens to be mine, there is the inescapable sense that Zambrano wrote Lotería for the specific purpose of cultural tourism: a beautiful, non-threatening (because presented in the voice of a child) excursion into the messed-up lives of working-class Mexican-Americans, rich in a National Geographic swirl of “foreign” foods, music, language, pastimes, and ethnic tragedy.
In fact, Zambrano seems so intent on transmitting a sort of folkloric reality, on foregrounding exoticism, on doing a cumbia-flavored, Spanglish-scented version of what actor and playwright Djola Bernard Branner once called the “difference-and-diversity dance” that he neglects many other aspects of his job as a novelist.
The character of Luz is one such misstep. Child narrators bring with them a host of drawbacks, of course, but Zambrano fails to overcome a single one of them. Luz, confined to a state home in the days following a convulsion of violence in her family, refuses to speak to social workers but is willing to write her story down in a journal.
So not only is there an eleven-year-old narrator; there is an eleven-year-old diarist. Suspend disbelief if you like, but Luz’s deeply wounded voice quickly begins to grate: for its self-consciousness, for its canny ability to conceal then reveal the brutal detail with studied timing, for its acute awareness of the note of injured innocence that it must sustain. In that way, Lotería shares some of the same difficulties that plagued the insufferable Beasts of the Southern Wild.
What may have been conceived as an invitation to compassion, then, grows up to become a reinforcement of otherness: “These poor Mexican (black, Native American, African) children. They see so much tragedy at such a tender age.” More than a few reviewers appear to be convinced that this approach makes Zambrano’s novel complex; my feeling is that it reveals Zambrano’s tin ear for tone and motif.
I realize, with a review like this, that I invite the criticism that I am hostile to the book’s intercultural themes or that I have an irrational prejudice against Latin-American writing, but I would phrase the issue in another way. If we were to remove all the carefully staged mejicanidad from Lotería, what remains to make this story worth telling? Decidedly little, I would argue.
What becomes clear instead is that this is not a novel about family violence or childhood trauma, but rather that misfortune serves as a prop for deploying cultural and ethnic differences as a sort of literary tourist attraction. The pathos of brown children sells, just like Talavera pottery in Puebla and squash blossom jewelry at the Plaza Mercado in Santa Fe. (See also my essay “Didgeridon’t: On the Politics of Poetry.”)
Indeed, Zambrano may be writing in a new vein of a venerable (!) American literary tradition—not the tragic mulatto, but the tragic Chicano—and he seems to be standing eternally at the reader’s shoulder, whispering. “Isn’t this dreadful? And yet, isn’t it poetic? Isn’t it colorful and so very authentically Mexican? Isn’t it beautifully sad?”
Zambrano began Lotería as a memoir, but transformed the book into fiction when his memories began (as he put it) to “invade the privacy” of his family members. Many (perhaps most?) first-time writers face the same dilemma, and many (perhaps most?) resolve it in the same way. Still, even as we respect Zambrano’s decision not to reveal his family’s truths, it’s difficult to feel he is revealing any truth at all.