Edgardo Rodriguez Julia’s “San Juan: Memoir of a City”

Reviewed by Robert Buckeye

Image of Edgardo Rodriguez Julia’s “San Juan: Memoir of a City”

Cities impose their will upon us, and what we say about them has as much to do with "the regimen cities keep over imagination"* as it does with us. The city that swallows the writer is in turn, however he can manage it, swallowed by the writer: the Dublin of Ulysses, the Paris of Remembrance of Things Past, Berlin Alexanderplatz, the Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler. Never again will we look at Dublin without thinking of Joyce or Los Angeles without checking Chandler. Add Edgardo Rodriguez Julia's San Juan to that list.

Although Rodriguez Julia loosely follows the form of the travel narrative, this is no sightseeing tour. He begins at age eleven when his family moved to Calle de Diego, with its "working class rhythm," near the Avenida 65 de Infanteria highway (named for the all-volunteer regiment of Puerto Ricans that fought in three American wars), and takes us around the city in a geographic circle only to return, finally, via the recently built Moscoso Bridge, to Calle de Diego. It is less autobiography than drift of the flaneur, with Rodriguez Julia stopping at places he knows, remembering those who have disappeared, recalling events and people, noting the significance of everything, citing where characters in his books stopped (and why). Echoes awakened by the city, less a sequence or continuity than moments, interruptions, memories. The geography of the imagination directed by the geography of San Juan.

We visit the bars Rodriguez Julia frequented for the cosmopolitan life outside his neighborhood. Where writers drank, talked, argued, wrote. Where prostitutes trolled for johns and, when they were off the clock, talked and drank. The writer Luis Rafael Sanchez next to the jukebox in El Jibarito, wearing a Truman T-shirt with palm trees.** La Botella, Sam's Patio and El Batey, where gringo writers William Kennedy and Hunter S. Thompson, who started The San Juan Star, drank—the bums, Rodriguez Julia's father used to say. The Cave of the Chicken Inn, where "Time passes, but, for the patrons inside, it is always night."

We come to the University of Puerto Rico, where Rodriguez Julia was a student in 1964. The student movement had revived, and the University experienced its first riots since 1948. It was, Rodriguez Julia comments, "an alternative space for a culture that was feeling the assault of Americanization." On the edge of campus lay faculty residences, "a place reserved for the gringos who came during the true colonial era."

We see Mario Vargas Llosa writing Conversacion en la Catedral on Calle de Diego, Derek Walcott at the Hosteria del Mar in the Condado, which gave "everything a North African flavor," Pablo Casals walking the beach in Isla Verde, and lesser known figures like Gallagher, an Argentine bookseller, "a legendary figure in the formation of a generation of writers," and Hungarian-born Kalman Barsy, a novelist and professor at the University, whom Rodriguez Julia swam with in Isla Verde and, afterward, discussed writing with while following Casals down the beach.

We stop at El Monte in Hato Rey, the modernist condominiums that stand apart from Hispanic architecture, where Rodriguez Julia wrote his first books. A sort of temporary residence on the way to divorce court, "one step away from the chemical dysfunction of the eighties and nineties." The Kasalta Bakery in Ocean Park, "where that particular type of despair exists that comes from always meeting the same people. Here the social gathering is more out of resignation than out of habit. It tries to be a European style cafe, but does not quite make it. We are seen, but we never feel the pleasure of watching the passersby because the sidewalks of Ocean Park are deserted and Calle McCleary hides a suburban calling." Isla Verde, "the most suitable neighborhood for the private detective to plan his strategy for the search that will ultimately reveal the character of the city.... No one fucks with Isla Verde."

"My City Was Gone," Chrissie Hynde sings of her hometown, Akron, transformed—undone—by global capitalism. In San Juan, the capital of a people less First World and, at times, not much more than Third World, the effects are more dramatic—and difficult. "The bitter fruits of marginalizaton," Rodriguez Julia writes, "of not being worthy of the present, yet unable to return to the past." What cannot be forgotten must be embraced in order to assert oneself. San Juan "does not need the philanthropy of do-gooders or the misanthropy of rancorous writers," he adds. "Only there does San Juan preserve its cutting edge, only there can the city be itself."

Although one cannot judge a translation from a language one does not read oneself, one has to conclude, reading Peter Grandbois's translation, that it is time to learn Spanish. If Rodriguez Julia is as good in Spanish (as I assume he is) as Grandbois makes him in English, we need to begin our lessons.

*The phrase is Walter Benjamin's, himself marked by Berlin and Paris.

** In 1947, Truman authorized direct Puerto Rican election of its governors. Before then, Puerto Rican governors were appointed by the American president.

Robert Buckeye has had two works of fiction published, Pressure Drop and The Munch Case, and has written on film and art as well as literature.