THE fact that this year’s 27th Havana International Book Fair was dedicated to the People’s Republic of China, makes the novel El equipaje amarillo(Yellow Luggage) by journalist and author, Marta Rojas, all the more relevant. The work was presented once again by the Letras Cubanas publishing house in the Alejo Carpentier hall at Havana’s San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress, nine years after it was first released.
On presenting the book, Daniel García Santos described how the author takes readers on a journey following Nicolás Tanco or the young Mr. Tanco, “the main character, the mastermind behind the lucrative business of trafficking Chinese immigrants during the second half of the 19th century, a period which saw the gradual incorporation of this ethnic group into the creation of the Cuban nation; and one which is rarely explored in Cuban literature,” noted the Cuban intellectual.
García Santos highlighted the “diabolic efficiency” of the young Mr. Tanco – a term used to identify the character throughout the novel – which sees him become the Machiavellian director of a business importing Chinese immigrants to the Chincha Islands, Peru, and Cuba.
“The opportunism and skill of this character - set against the backdrop of his schemes - gradually reveal to us the web of manipulation, bribery, hypocrisy, deception, and cruelty which underpin the lucrative business of human trafficking.
“Then there’s the enigmatic Fan Ni, schooled and educated in the teachings of Confucius in the secret canon of the court of the Forbidden City of Pekin, who aids and accompanies the young Mr. Tanco on one of his trips to Macao.
“The multicultural landscape is completed by a character that embodies the ethnic component already present in Cuba and who interacts with the Chinese immigrants, as represented by Brunilda, a defiant Black women, with copper shackles on her ankles, and an alluring personality, who embodies the spirit of rebellion and the desire for freedom.”
According to García Santos, rather than being a mechanical reference, the story in this novel is simply another literary tool. The trafficking of Chinese immigrants in the novel carries with it a dark side: following the “Yellow luggage” there appears an additional commodity: opium, purchased by gold miners, among others, in California. This group of determined adventurers functions almost like a single character in the novel, traveling to Cuba to insert themselves in the drug trade, specifically its most elegant variant, laudanum, which is sought by plantation owners themselves.
“Opium enables the author to enrich the plot with moments in which the lines between fantasy and reality blur to such an extent that the narrative ascends to the utmost imaginative heights.”
García Santos also highlighted the importance of the diversity of common characters which pass in and out of the story juxtaposed with the extravagant aristocracy; the exoticism of Chinese culture amidst a sensually tropical environment; and its subtle incorporation in the roots of a nation in full expansion; as well as the inseparable mix of love, pleasure, and lasciviousness, as explored firstly in the young man’s unbridled attraction for a white baroness and then for a runaway slave girl.
El equipaje Amarillo is an extremely evocative work, reflecting Marta Rojas’s perpetual interest throughout her celebrated literary career, in colonial Cuba as a period marked by the development of national identity.
From El columpio de Rey Spencer (Rey Spencer's Swing),Santa Lujuria, Papeles de blanco (White Papers) (1998), El harén de Oviedo (Oviedo’s Harem) (2003), to Inglesa por un año (English for a year) (2006) which won the Alejo Carpentier Novel Prize, all together these works offer us a mosaic of the ethnic, cultural, and historical components which conform the roots of Cuban identity.
To these works must be added Las campanas de Juana la Loca, the first novel to feature the Lector de Tabaquería (the individual who reads to cigar-factory workers) and declared cultural heritage of the nation - as a literary figure; published in Argentina and Cuba, and winner of the Reader’s Prize during the previous edition of the International Book Fair, which will be re-printed this year.
El equipaje Amarillo has also been translated to Mandarin, the official language of the People’s Republic of China, two editions of which have been published.
Meanwhile, 463 representatives from 43 countries attended the 2018 Havana International Book Fair which is continuing across another 15 locations nationwide, before it concludes on March 13 in Santiago de Cuba.