Paradise Travel, the entrancing new novel by Jorge Franco, offers a heartbreaking and illuminating glimpse of the multi-faceted and confusing world of illegal immigrants in the U.S. For Franco, the Medellín-born prize-winning author of Maldito Amor, Mala Noche, and Rosario Tijeras, the underside of society is familiar ground. An integral member of the gritty realist literary movement known as “McOndo,” he is one of a number of Colombian authors in their late 30's and early 40's whose work focuses on the country's problems with drugs, corruption and violence.
In Paradise Travel, Franco turns his lens from his own country outward to examine the life of an illegal Colombian immigrant in New York City. The narrative unfolds in two alternating time frames, shifting back and forth between lower-middle class Colombia and immigrant New York, a storytelling technique which is handled quite aptly by Franco.
As the story begins, Marlon Cruz, a teenager living with his parents in Medellín and trying to gain entry into the local university, is seduced by his obsessive girlfriend Reina into emigrating into the U.S. with her. When their request for the elusive visas is denied, Reina steals $10,000 from a relative and pays a conniving travel agent from the “Paradise Travel Agency” to arrange illegal passage through Mexico. Extorted and abused at each leg of their hellish journey up Central America and through Mexico, the pair finally arrive in New York without documentation or money. Then, their first night in Queens they accidentally become separated. Unable to find Reina, Marlon is left alone to cope with an unfamiliar, confusing and unforgiving land.
After suffering through a period of homelessness, Marlon eventually learns how to survive and fit into the growing Colombian community in Queens. Franco's exploration of the inequalities between the U.S. and South America, specifically Colombia, is quite vivid, as is his accurate and charming portrayal of expatriate Colombian life, especially in the scenes involving Roger Pena, a wanna-be dandy and professional shoplifter who only chooses to steal from Macy's and Bloomingdale's — articles of clothing, mostly, that are later given to Marlon as gifts; Patricia, a strong-willed and compassionate restaurant owner who helps Marlon believe that he can survive in New York; and Caleña, a stripper/hooker Marlon first meets in Medellín through the Paradise Travel Agency and again later in New York who promises to help Marlon locate Reina and keeps her word.
The second time frame encompasses Marlon's narration during a bus trip from New York to Miami to see Reina whom he has located after a 15 month feverish search. During this bus trip, he remembers his now seemingly distant past life in Medellín, his initial infatuation and eventual love affair with Reina, and his subsequent struggles in Queens.
Marlon's journey through the underbelly of Queens and his transformation is revealing and his climatic reacquaintance with Reina is saddening. Franco's typical harsh realism is balanced by humor and a sharp but sensitive eye for the constantly shifting panorama of life in the U.S. and in Colombia. Cinematic and unforced, Franco's voice is wonderfully preserved in Katherine Silver's accomplished translation.
Paradise Travel is a fine urban novel which successfully informs the reader about what it is like to enter the U.S. illegally, not for the promise of elusive riches, but for the love of a woman. For Mr. Franco, it is an intriguing creative departure which explores the experience of love and loss as the core of what it is to be human.