Book review: “Tentacle” by Rita Indiana

Wow. This book. I had no idea what I signed up for when I saw it filed under “climate fiction”, a label that doesn’t do it justice. I feel like I’m neither ready nor worthy to write about this book, but it basically needs to be on everyone’s reading list now.

Of the sixteen shells she threw on the mat, four had fallen with their mouths up. “Iroso,” said Esther, which was the name of the sign on the oracle, then she lifted her face and added the sign’s refrain: “Nobody knows what’s at the bottom of the ocean.”

Tentacle, p. 18-19

What this book is about

  • 2027 Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic): there is no life left in the ocean after a devastating flood which left half of Hispaniola (Haiti) and the coasts inhabitable. Climate refugees from Haiti are hunted down by robots. There is definitely some light cyborg content. Artists are still poor and the ugly reach of colonialism, race, and class is not overcome. Acilde is told to be at the heart of an old Santería prophecy (see comments for explanation). After transitioning to be the man Acilde always was, Acilde will be able to somehow restore the ocean and wildlife in it with the help of the last existing anemone.
  • 2001, Dominican coast: a group of artists meets in an art residency / environmental conservation project at the Dominican coast, where strange things happen to one of them, a macho with plenty internalized homophobia, after he swims into a coral reef and touches an anemone.
  • 17th century, same place: a band of buccaneers lives on the coast, trading cow skins with English and Dutch ships that roam the area, despite the Spanish colonization of the island and a de facto ban to trade with Spain’s new enemies. A life of violence spirals towards its inevitable culmination.

The different timelines are interwoven in a very specific way I cannot reveal, because, spoilers. It is not only an important narrative choice, but also a necessity given the nature of the interconnection between the timelines. I needed some time getting used to it, but in the end it was so cleverly done that I bowed to the author and just loved it!

Written by a Dominican music composer and acclaimed author, the book asks questions about the role of art and the artist in the nexus of climate change, power, money, and traditional religious Santería beliefs. The protagonists are afflicted by dependencies, power imbalances, colonial ancestry, racisms and inequality, and gender or sexual identity struggles that withstand the assumption of a linear progression of time. Santería’s spiritual realm and its legacy in past, presence, and future creep into reality, blurring boundaries of time and place.

The role of climate change

By playing out the concurrence-of-all-time premise, the story asks whether it’s ever really too late to save yourself – and the planet. Another take-away with regard to solving the climate crisis: this is a burden that is just too heavy to be carried by just one person, it requires a communal effort in which each and everyone of us does a small part to support the greater good. To use a long forgotten concept from ecology, the prevention of an environmental disaster requires an “organismic” ideal in which we care for each other and support each other’s thriving and, eventually, survival. What I also took from the book is that it takes dedication that lasts more than just one generation to . In the end, everyone should choose the place and time where one can fight climate change in the most effective way, while still caring for one’s own wellbeing.

Overall, it’s an incredibly beautiful, short book (130+ pages), but not a light read. The only thing I found not to be well executed are the musical references. What readers not familiar with Caribbean cultures and belief systems need to know: Santería, a polytheistic, syncretic Afro-Cuban religion, mixing Catholicism, Yoruba beliefs from West Africa, and Spiritism, plays a key role. It might be worth looking up some things while you read, but don’t dismiss the book because it challenges your reading habits. It’s still a short read with just about 130+ pages. Your effort will be rewarded

Read this if you like the climate trope, Caribbean & art history, gender identity, magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez.

Trigger warnings: transphobic and homophobic slurs, swear words.

Das Buch habe ich selbst bezahlt und erhalte keine Vergütung für diese Rezension. Im Bild ist die erste Auflage (2018), erschienen bei And Other Stories (London) zu sehen. Eine deutsche Übersetzung ist bereits im Wagenbach Verlag erschienen.

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