In this deeply stirring novel, acclaimed author Cristina Garcia follows one extraordinary family through four generations, from China to Cuba to America. Wonderfully evocative of time and place, rendered in the lyrical prose that is Garcia's hallmark, Monkey Hunting is an emotionally resonant tale of immigration, assimilation, and the prevailing integrity of self.
The Chinese-Cuban experience is plumbed in this graceful third novel by Garcia (Dreaming in Cuban; The Aguero Sisters), encompassing five far-flung generations, four countries and two tumultuous centuries. Farm boy Chen Pan leaves his native China in 1857, dreaming of the riches awaiting him in mysterious Cuba. Instead, he is obliged to work on a sugarcane plantation, subjected to the atrocities of forced servitude in a country that is not his own and in which he is viewed with suspicion. He eventually manages to escape and creates a life for himself beyond his wildest dreams, as a successful small-business owner, beloved husband and doting father. Becoming almost more Cuban than Chinese, he falls in love with Lucrecia, a former slave. His mixed-blood descendants, scattered between Cuba and China, struggle to find their place in a world that strives to keep its ethnic and geographical boundaries distinct. Chen Fang, a granddaughter raised as a boy in China, is a remarkable woman who manages to get an education and become a teacher, eventually landing in one of Mao's appalling prisons in 1970 Shanghai. As a teenager, great-grandson Domingo Chen departs Cuba for New York with his father and faces the same hostility and racism there that Chen Pan dealt with in mid-19th-century Havana. Domingo's journey from Cuba to New York then Vietnam is told in unsparing detail, bringing the novel full circle. Though Garcia ranges farther afield here than in previous works, her prose is as tight and polished as ever. The book is rather short for its span, and a bit more development of some characters-particularly Chen Fang-would have been welcome, but that is a mere quibble. Garcia's novel is a richly patterned mini-epic, a moving chorus of distinct voices.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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April 26, 2004
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Excerpt from Monkey Hunting by Penney Peirce
Amoy to Aavana
There were other men like Chen Pan on the ship, not too young, but not too old either. From the farms, mostly, as far as he could tell. No weaklings. Cuba, the man in the Western suit had told him, needed sturdy workers. Chen Pan was taller than most of the recruits, and his arms were taut with muscles. His hair was tied back in a thick queue, but at twenty years old he barely needed to shave.
A few families came to see their men off. The women gave their husbands sticky rice balls and packets of seeds for their journey. There was no weeping. Even the smallest children were dry-eyed. Most of the men, like Chen Pan, went aboard alone and empty-handed.
That evening at sea, the coast of China gradually faded behind them. A haloed moon rose on a swell of wind, but this hopeful omen didn't alter the facts of the ship. It was outfitted like a prison, with irons and grates. The recruits were kept belowdecks, like animals in a pen. The shortest among them couldn't stand upright. Soon Chen Pan's neck ached from stooping.
Neither the British captain nor his crew spoke much Chinese. The captain issued his orders with a flat expression and a wave of his girlish hands. His crew was far more unruly. They threatened the re- cruits with muskets and cutlasses and rattan rods, shackled those whom the rods didn't tame. Chen Pan was struck with a hoisting rope for requesting an extra blanket.
Those men who'd brought food or tobacco on board began to barter and sell. These boiled chicken feet for your hemp sandals or your uncle's flute. A handful of pumpkin seeds for your stash of turnips or hard-boiled eggs. A day's opium for the woolen gloves. Gambling sprouted like snake-grass in every bunk. The incessant clicking of dice finely divided the hours. A man from W---- gathered most of the winnings and crowed, "If you were too dumb the life before, you won't be enlightened today!"
After his misfortunes in Amoy, Chen Pan refused to gamble. He guarded his Mexican coins, tucking them between the meager cheeks of his buttocks for safekeeping.
The men got beef jerky and rice gruel to eat. Chen Pan ate, although the taste of the food sickened him. It was oversalted, and the lack of adequate water made him desperately thirsty. Hour after hour, he thought more of his shoe-leather throat than of the life awaiting him in Cuba. Those who demanded more water were answered with blows. Chen Pan watched men drink their own urine, lick moisture from the walls of the ship. A few swallowed seawater until their stomachs swelled and they choked in their own filth.
A squat melon-grower from T---- announced that he would throw himself into the ocean to end his torment. Chen Pan crept on deck with two others to watch him jump. The melon-grower didn't shout or linger but simply stepped into the breeze. A moment later, the furling waves received him with indifference. The melon-grower had been an orphan and a bachelor. No destiny would be altered but his.
The ship continued to plow south into the hard-gusting wind. Chen Pan covered his ears so they wouldn't blow away altogether. He asked himself four questions: What was the last sound the melon-grower heard? The last color he saw before he died? How long would it take for the fish to devour him? Would this death complete his fate? "Show me the person who doesn't die," shrugged a short-legged man next to Chen Pan.
This was something Chen Pan's father used to say, that death alone remained impartial. All the towering men, all the great beauties with kingfisher plumes in their hair--not a single one expected to grow old. But they, too, would return to dust. If it was true that man had two souls, one of the body and the other ethereal, then they would merge with the earth and the air after death.
Chen Pan knew that he didn't want to fade away slowly, like a dying candle--one day no different from the next; the dirt etched in his hands along with his fortunes. No, he would rather live in a blaze of courage and flame like Li Kuang, the ferocious warrior who'd battled the Huns, or the heroes in the stories his father had recounted to him.
Chen Pan's father had been as restless as these heroes, never reconciling himself to a life on their farm. He'd recited the Songs of Wu as he'd absentmindedly hoed the wheat fields, grew devoted to the poetry of the deserted concubines of the Han court. He'd referred to the sun as the Lantern Dragon, the Crow in Flight, the White Colt. The moon was the Silver Dish or the Golden Ring.
Father had taken the Imperial examinations for twenty years without success. He'd been a good poet but incapable of composing verses on assigned subjects, as was required by the examiners. He'd blamed his absorption of useless knowledge for overburdening his imagination. Before picking up his brush to write, he would rub his inkstick on a whetstone for a meditative hour as Chen Pan watched.