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Guillermo Rosales’s “Leapfrog & Other Stories”

Reviewed by Elisa Wouk Almino

"Leapfrog & Other Stories" is the last of what’s left of the Cuban writer Guillermo Rosales.

Leapfrog & Other Stories is the last of what’s left of the Cuban writer Guillermo Rosales. If it weren’t for the author’s mother, who collected these stories’ crumpled sheets, Rosales probably would have burned them, as he did with the rest of his work before committing suicide in 1993, in Miami, where he lived his last twenty years, in exile from Castro’s regime. “Destruction at the end of the torturous path to creation seemed a relief to him,” writes the Cuban novelist and journalist Norberto Fuentes in the collection’s introduction. Like the author himself, Rosales’s characters take refuge in violence, in a loss of faith, and the annihilation of dreams.

The adults in these stories, estranged from Cuba and its communism, either constantly revisit the good life that was lost or give that life up altogether. The protagonist of “The Phantom Bunker” describes his aunt’s habit of flipping through photographs of people “now dead or in exile” as futile and weary. Mama Pepita, the mother figure in the novella Leapfrog, in tears, similarly turns to “the Trunk of Photos of her Youth,” while she “[withers] away amid” her memories of things past.

Other characters regret their past altogether, but even so they are no less invested in it, forever conjuring it back up. “When I left Cuba, I stopped believing in all religion and all philosophy,” says one character. “I believed in it at the beginning, but later became disillusioned,” says another, in reference to communism. This message, like most gathered in this collection, is best articulated in Leapfrog: “Humanity is a bitch!” They are the words of Papa Lorenzo, the protagonist’s father, who delivers impassioned Stalinist speeches punctuated by deflating conclusions such as, “In short . . . all shit.” He doesn’t believe in God, and if he does exist, he’d “like to meet the son-of-a-bitch who invented all of this.”

Leapfrog, set in post-revolutionary Cuba, tells the more unexpected story: the adults are not victim to their disenchantment; their children are. They have inherited a life condemned to hopelessness, hate, and useless longing.

Nonetheless, Agar, the son of Papa Lorenzo and Mama Pepita, aspires to be like the characters of children’s books, including Scrooge McDuck who swims “in millions and [eats] hot dogs to save ten cents.” Agar searches for these stories’ traces in day-to-day Havana: Grandma Hazel cooks with a “cauldron”; there are “Hair-Men” on his arms; and Mama Pepita is part “Witch,” part “Pinocchio’s fairy godmother.” Populating his own world with semi-fictional characters is, as Agar puts it, his way of living for himself.

Sometimes, though, imaginary characters threaten him like characters of real life. The sight of Count Dracula’s fangs materializes like the memory of his father forcing a pack of cigarettes down his throat. The monsters in the cracks of his wall will make him break into a sweat, as does the Westside Boys’ haunting, “mocking laughter.” Memories become fantasies that “suddenly emerge” out of his control. Memory is a “Voice” that speaks at him when he’d rather not hear it.

Agar observes through associations, jumping from the scene of a yelling pastor to the sight of his devout “Grandma Hazel’s head [emerging] again from the steaming pots.” His references are confined to a cast of characters that remain in fixed contexts: Grandma Hazel and Mama Pepita in their kitchens; Papa Lorenzo on the couch; a gang known as the Westside Boys in the park; and the occasional neighbor on the sidewalk. Agar navigates these settings, in his mind and in real life, as the storyline moves back and forth, but never forward.

Agar is thus ensnared by memory; it is “as if he were in the Buck Rogers’ Time Warp and landing on the planet of No Return.” To live with memories is to live with the intangible; they are at once painfully vivid and absent. They, like the malicious characters of books, live in the darkness of Agar’s mind, generally surfacing at night.

Perhaps this is why he is drawn to the Westside Boys’ violent games, however horrified and victimized he becomes. There is something physical and purposeful about their acts of violence: “hammering [lizards’] legs in with pins” and ramming a stick of rosemary into a dead mare’s sex. Agar is consumed with lust and daydreams of the animal torture that takes place in his absence in the park. They are attainable fantasies unlike his dreams, where he is repeatedly “falling into the void, kicking at nothing, trying to grasp at invisible branches.”

Yet the West Side Boys’ games evolve into beating each other’s bodies with fists and feet and rocks. Their aggression is bloody and impetuous: it is a means of self-effacement. “It was always like that,” observes the narrator. “They beat each other with a blind fury and then forgot about it.” The boys want to forget; their shared goal is to be “somebody without a past.”

Leapfrog’s narrator may feel omniscient, but at points in the story he’ll oscillate between first, second, and third person. At first the “you’s” and “I’s” appear in italics, as though they were placed within Agar’s thoughts. But when they are no longer italicized, they affirm the sense that this story was being told by Agar all along.

The mixing of perspectives does not always settle with the reader. This is not due to a loss in translation—Anna Kushner’s translation is clear, concise, and assured. Rather, the confusion lies in Rosales’s resistance to first-person narratives, especially in the shorter stories, where the “I” is almost an ornament or means to make sparse personal observations. Leapfrog, however, allows room for these perspectives to develop so that they don’t just stand out for unusual literariness.

We encounter three Agars: the first pushes his story to the past and regards it with a distanced eye; the second still inhabits his own voice (“Holy moly. I have to get away from this house.”); and the third tells the story to himself, as if he needed the reminder (“But you were lying. You were trying to find some advantage to your disgrace.”). The last two voices are more occasional than the first, so that their use can still come as a surprise. It is as if the narrator were trying to settle the story in its past, but couldn’t deny its insistence in the present.

In many ways, Agar’s childish fears and desires to fight and have sex are all typical of adolescence. Even his grimmer thoughts on his own ugliness and suicide may be mistaken for adolescent insecurity and angst. Yet the humorous and mundane quickly devolve into unease and disgust. In the worst of their games, the Westside Boys play leapfrog over Agar’s standing body, digging their nails into his back, forcefully kicking his head, and whacking him with branches. The children are “animals,” “diabolic beings,” and “juvenile delinquents.” We believe Agar when he says, “He hated himself. He hated his body and his face. And he hated himself inside.” We come to understand, in Norberto Fuentes’s words, the “visceral disdain” that Rosales had “for the world around him.”

When Agar recalls the game of Leapfrog—realizing that “all of that had happened”—he feels as though he were “leaving Walt Disney behind.” The Disney stories no longer ring possible or true; “he now preferred ‘Witches Tales’ [and] ‘Macabre Stories.’” Whereas “before, he had lived for him,” now he has no choice but to destroy the characters he created for himself.

Though Leapfrog shuffles between memory and imagination, the two are never confused, as we are generally reminded by the former and made to disbelieve the latter. Perhaps Rosales’s cyclical stories and their shifting narrative perspectives, as well as his trail of burnt manuscripts, are a result of his own sense that fiction can only inadequately describe his memories.

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