United States of Banana

Reviewed by Daniela Daniele

Evergreen Review #129


Apocalypse and grand-guignol merge in Giannina Braschi’s irreverent account of September 11th. Turning disaster into a Surreal nightmare, she catalogues what is left of the attack to the Towers in the form of scattered body parts: here, the torso of a businessmen flying in his bright white shirt, there, two hands holding each other before the last jump, and, only few blocks away, a rolling head crowned by glazed donuts.

Perfect for an audiobook in its jazzy, colloquial style, and ideal to be read aloud in the corrosive style of Lenny Bruce, United States of Banana develops from the sophisticated intricacy of a Postmodern narrative, overlapping the voices of Segismundo and Hamlet, Calderon and Shakespeare, Seneca and Artaud. Through her intertextual vision shaped by the masterpieces of both the Spanish and the English tradition, the Puerto Rican writer accounts for the falling towers as the ultimate American spectacle, turning terror and catastrophe into a tragic comedy seen through the bewildered, satiric eyes of a Hispanic passer-by. Her black humor is as blasphemous as Max Papeschi’s digital collage of McDonald’s clowns in a military mission in Afghanistan. Challenging the fear and repression of dissent in the age of terror, Giannina Braschi wickedly brings a black humorous touch to the entropic scenes of disaster, writing from the estranged perspective of a Puerto Rican in New York. The best part of her writing lies in the code switching and the verbal ironies produced by her creative use of Spanglish, which contributes to make of September 11th a transnational event broader than the monochrome version staged on tv.

From its very title, United States of Banana, is the quintessential danse macabre of the millennium, coming from a word-player who knows how to grin at despair, like a Shakespearean fool who is too busy to dig out from the ashes the signs of a new era to partake of the mourning hoopla of the national order resuscitated after the mutilating attack to the most iconic towers in media history.



Ground Zero: Death of the Businessman

 It’s the end of the world. I was excited by the whole situation. Well, if everybody is going to die, die hard, shit, but what do I know. Is this an atomic bomb—the end of the world—the end of the millennium? No more fear of being fired—for typos or tardiness—digressions or recessions—and what a way of being fired—bursting into flames—without two weeks notice—and without six months of unemployment—and without sick leave, vacation, or comp time—without a word of what was to come—on a glorious morning—when nature ran indifferent to the course of man—there came a point when that sunny sky turned into a hellhole of a night—with papers, computers, windows, bricks, bodies falling, and people running and screaming.

I saw a torso falling—no legs—no head—just a torso. I am redundant because I can’t believe what I saw. I saw a torso falling—no legs—no head—just a torso—tumbling in the air—dressed in a bright white shirt—the shirt of the businessman—tucked in—neatly—under the belt—snuggly fastened—holding up his pants that had no legs. He had hit a steel girder—and he was dead—dead for a ducat, dead—on the floor of Krispy Kreme—with powdered donuts for a head—fresh out of the oven—crispy and round—hot and tasty—and this businessman on the ground was clutching a briefcase in his hand—and on his finger, the wedding band. I suppose he thought his briefcase was his life—or his wife—or that both were one because the briefcase was as tight in hand as the wedding band.

I saw the wife of the businessman enter the shop of Stanley, the cobbler, with a pink ticket in hand. The wife had come to claim the shoes of the businessman. After all, they had found the feet, and she wanted to bury the feet with the shoes. There, I was talking to Stanley, the cobbler, because I too had left my shoes, a pair of pink boots, in Stanley’s cobbler shop. He told me—you won’t believe what I saw. I saw Charlie, the owner of Saint Charlie’s Bar ’n Grill, watching the burial of the 20th century. Charlie goes out to hang the sign, closed for business, he looks up, and jet fuel burns and melts him down. And do you know how, how the torso hit the ground, how it landed. What I saw hitting the ground was a little bubble of blood, a splash that hardly felt itself, soundless, and dissolving into the cement, and melting without a sound. I saw a passenger hanging on the edge of a bridge—with his feet in the air—his legs kicking—and both hands holding onto a steel girder hanging loose from the bridge—about to collapse—with the passenger—kicking his legs—as if he could peddle his way to the other side—where there is sand—sand and water—deep water—as if he could swim to shore and survive. The sand and the era of the camel are back. The era of the difficult. Now you have to climb sand dunes of brick and mortar. The streets are not flat, but full of barricades, tunnels and caves, and you have to walk through the maze, and sometimes you’ll get lost inside, finding no end—and no exit—and you’ll fall into despair—but you’ll see a dim beacon of light—appearing and disappearing—and when it fades away—your hope will fade—and you’ll be amazed—because your pace will change. I used to be Dandy Rabbit and now I am Tortuga China—not that I have lost my way—only my pace—because of the dead body I carry on my back—on the hump of the camel—in the desert storm—with no oasis in sight—but the smiling light of the promised land.

I saw the hand of man holding the hand of woman. They were running to escape the inferno—and just when the man thought he had saved the woman—a chunk of ceiling fell—and what he had in his hand—was just her hand—dismembered from her body. Now we no longer have the Renaissance concept of the Creation of Man—those two hands reaching out to each other on the Sistine Chapel—the hand of God and the hand of man—their fingers almost touching—in unity of body and soul. What we have here is a war—the war of matter and spirit. In the classical era, spirit was in harmony with matter. Matter used to condense spirit. What was unseen—the ghost of Hamlet’s father—was seen—in the conscience of the king. The spirit was trapped in the matter of theater. The theater made the unseen, seen. In the Romantic era, spirit overwhelms matter. The glass of champagne can’t contain the bubbles. But never in the history of humanity has spirit been at war with matter. And that is what we have today. The war of banks and religion. It’s what I wrote in Prayers of the Dawn, that in New York City, banks tower over cathedrals. Banks are the temples of America. This is a holy war. Our economy is our religion. When I came back to midtown a week after the attack—I mourned—but not in a personal way—it was a cosmic mourning—something that I could not specify because I didn’t know any of the dead. I felt grief without knowing its origin. Maybe it was the grief of being an immigrant and of not having roots. Not being able to participate in the whole affair as a family member but as a foreigner, as a stranger—estranged in myself and confused—I saw the windows of Bergdorf and Saks—what a theater of the unexpected—my mother would have cried—there were only black curtains, black drapes—showing the mourning of the stores—no mannequins, just veils—black veils. When the mannequins appeared again weeks later—none of them had blond hair. I don’t know if it was because of the mourning rituals or whether the mannequins were afraid to be blond—targets of terrorists. Even they didn’t want to look American. They were out of fashion after the Twin Towers fell. To the point, that even though I had just dyed my hair blond because I was writing Hamlet and Hamlet is blond, I went back to my coiffeur immediately and told him—dye my hair black. It was a matter of life and death, why look like an American. When naturally I look like an Arab and walk like an Egyptian.

United States of Banana by Giannina Braschi, AmazonCrossing, 2011

香蕉合众国 商人之死 这是世界末日

 香蕉合众国 商人之死 这是世界末日。整个情景令我激亢。是啊,如果人人都要死,就死顶,臭屎,可我知道啥。这是颗原子弹吗——世界末日——千年末日?还怕什么着火——排字错误还是耽搁——离题了还是大衰退——竟是这样着火——一下化作熊熊火焰——没有提前两周通知——也没有失业六个月期限——没有请病假,放假,补假——要出什么事一字未提——在一个清朗之晨——人的事天也不察——一下突发将阳光白昼转为黑夜地狱——到处是纸屑、电脑、窗户、砖块、坠落的尸体、和奔跑惊呼的人。 我看到一具人体躯干在跌落——没腿——没头——就一躯干。我有点罗嗦,因为我现在还无法相信当时看到的情景。我看到一具人体躯干在跌落——没腿——没头——就一躯干——在半空翻滚——披一件亮白衬衣——商人的衬衣——束在——整齐地束在腰带里——束得很紧身——还连着已没有腿的外裤。他撞到钢梁上——他死了——死定了,死了——在甜甜圈商店那一层楼——撒了糖粉的甜甜圈——刚出炉——又松脆又圆——又热又可口——这个商人躺在地上手里还提着皮包——指头上还带着婚戒。我设想,他以为这皮包是他的生命——或者他的妻子——亦或两者合一,因为这皮包他是抓得那么紧,就跟那只婚戒一样。 我看见那商人的太太走进斯坦利鞋店,手拿一张粉红单据。她来取那商人的皮鞋。他们总算找到他的脚,她希望让脚穿上皮鞋后再下葬。我站在那儿,与斯坦利鞋匠说话,因为我也在他鞋店里修鞋,一双粉红皮靴。他告诉我——你不会相信我当时看到什么。我看到查理,圣查理烧烤店老板,目睹了一场二十世纪的葬礼。查理正走出去挂牌子,停止营业,他抬头看,飞机燃油一下烧着了他,将他熔化。而你知道那躯干是如何,如何撞击地面,如何落到地上的。只见一滩血泡落下来,撒溅下来几乎觉察不出,没有声响,融进水泥地,无声熔化。 我看见一个路人挂在桥边——脚悬空——腿乱踢——双手紧拽着桥上一根松脱的钢梁——钢梁就要垮塌——带下那位路人——他踢着腿——好似可以荡到另一边——有沙的那一边——沙和水——深水——好似他可以游上岸逃命。沙与骆驼时代再现。困难时代。现在你必须攀爬砖块泥浆的沙丘。街道不再平整,到处都是路障,坑道,洞穴,你必须穿过迷宫,有时还在里面迷路,找不到尽头——也没有出口——你会绝望——但你会看到一束微弱的亮光——忽明忽灭——光一消失——你的希望也消失——你会惊讶——因为你的步伐变化。我曾经是小兔子而现在是老乌龟——并非我迷路——而是我的步伐——因为死尸就在我肩上扛着——在驼峰上——在沙漠风暴里——看不到绿洲——只有想象中的乐土闪烁着欣慰的亮光。 我看见男人手上抓着一只女人的手。他们要冲出火海——就在男人以为他已经救出了女人——一大块天花砸下来——而他手上抓住的——就只剩她的手——从她身上解肢的手。对于上帝造人,现在我们不再持有文艺复兴时代的观念——在西斯廷教堂上两只互相伸出的手——上帝之手和男人的手——他们几乎指尖相触——身体和灵魂结合。我们这儿有一场战争——物质与精神的战争。在古典主义时代,精神与物质和谐相处。物质曾经凝聚着精神。看不见的——哈姆雷特父亲的亡灵——看得见的——国王的良知。精神受限于剧院的物质。而剧院又使看不见的,可以看见。在浪漫主义时期,精神压倒了物质。香槟酒杯里容不了泡末。但综观人类历史精神从未与物质交战。而今天我们遭遇的正是这种战争。银行与宗教的战争。这也是我在《黎明的祈祷》中提及的,在纽约市,银行君临教堂。银行是美国的庙堂。这是一场圣战。我们的经济就是我们的宗教。袭击一周后我返回中城,我哀伤——并非以个人的方式——这是一种人类的哀伤——为我无法具体化的某些东西而哀伤,因为死者我一个也不认识。我悲痛因为我不了解他们的来历。也许这是一种移民的悲痛,无根的悲痛。在整个事件中不能以家庭成员的身份而只能以外来者身份参与,一个陌生人——自我疏远并困惑的陌生人。我看到伯格多夫和萨克斯商店的橱窗——那是怎样一种出乎意料的场景——我母亲见了一定会哭泣——只有黑色窗帘,黑色布幔——传达着商品的哀悼——没摆模特,只披面纱——黑色面纱。数周后才摆上模特——所有模特全不是金发。我不清楚这是出于哀悼的礼貌亦或模特都害怕用金发——恐怖分子袭击的对象。它们甚至不愿长得像美国人。双塔坍塌,这些都不再时尚。直说吧,尽管我已将头发染成金色,是因为我在写哈姆雷特,而哈姆雷特是金发,但我还是立即回去告诉我的理发师——将我的头发染黑。这是关乎生死的问题,我的自然长相像阿拉伯人走路像埃及人,为什么要搞得像美国人。 我住在中城第50街——又搬到下城——离世界贸易中心南面两个街区——那是在袭击之前六个月——所以我可以从炮台公园岸边就近研究自由神像。我乘搭轮渡去,带上有关雕塑家弗雷德里克•奥古斯特•巴托尔迪的书籍。他有次于1871年来自由岛时,当时还叫贝德罗岛,看到一座石头地堡,形状像一颗十一角的星——便意识到——他的雕塑作品就应树立在这个十一角星的位置。当我在一本儿童书里看到巴托尔迪的卡通画,他在画雕塑的草图,我便考虑,巴托尔迪树立自由神像的这个地堡就应该是关押西吉斯蒙多的同一个地堡。 我当时考虑:对,他正要打破那个地牢挣脱全部锁链。但我还考虑——他应该没有能力打破。就让他关在里面,以证明自由的存在。雕像只是雕像。但在里面关进一个人就不同了——呼吁他想获得自由——而从未得到自由。我们应该要求见他,但不释放他。如果他不能自己解放自己——那谁也解放不了他,大众、警察、消防员、军队都不能。他必须自己做。如果他老了,要推倒支柱——而无力去推——推、推、推——而媒体的注意力,因赤字混乱,转向其他人,大众也完全遗忘了他——这对他太糟糕。这个城市的麻烦太多,无法只关注一个人。如果他死去,腐烂的尸臭侵入到城里,带来疾病和瘟疫——这会不会是打开自由陵墓的充足理由呢?如果有一位贤哲开口说除非我们打开雕像——否则尸体会持续带给城市瘟疫——城市将无宁日——谁也无法安寝。 并非我们救不了西吉斯蒙多,要是愿意我们就能,但那样会损失一笔财产。西吉斯蒙多认为他必须依靠自由神像,但事实是——自由神像需要他更胜过他需要自由神像。他越光光铛挡摇晃枷锁和锁链,卖出的门票就越多。军方害怕有恐怖组织预谋解救他。人民也想解放他,特别是他自己的人民——来自全世界的移民和囚徒。所以,为避免闹事,创造出一个投票机制,让人民以为西吉斯蒙多的命运就在他们手中。他们有三种选择: 希望 希望不希望 不希望 如果他们投希望票——西吉斯蒙多从地牢获得解放。如果他们投希望不希望票,保持现状。如果他们投不希望票,他将判以死刑,也就不会有人有幸听到从自由地牢铁窗里传来他的歌声了。每隔四年自由岛的公民都要举行希望不希望投票。他们可以在土豆泥、炸薯条、和烤土豆中选择。不过无论怎么选,反正都一样是土豆。 我看过2001年8月11日的《邮报》,关于在耶路撒冷枷发大街的一起自杀式炸弹袭击,发生在萨布罗比萨店——印象深刻的是报道了一个3岁小女孩,站立在滚动的头颅中间,像拉撒路一样,从死人堆里出来,又回去对大家说——起来——她看到了她妈妈——躺在地上的睡美人——对她叫喊: ——妈咪,起来。 那个母亲已经死了。就在这时,我手中光溜溜的油炸圈饼掉了一小块在女孩脸上,另有一小块掉在她妈妈的腿上。我将它们都拿起来吃了——跟我对待街上的乞丐一样——他们装得越难看就讨得越多而我就越不理睬他们,避免与穷人和有需求的人对视——翻过这一页——我看到一个商人的上身躯干,他的睾丸都炸没了。他冲着旁边经过的一名警察哭喊: ——请救救我!我不想死!请救救我!我不想死! 警察看了那人一眼,在那人的腿根残部呕吐起来——我感到恐怖——但照旧在吃油炸圈饼,心想: ——真幸运我不在现场,我在这儿沾着饮料吃油炸圈饼,而别人被炸得粉身碎骨。好运气。但愿能活下去。 一个月后,当我又要吃那种同样光溜溜的油炸圈饼时,第一架飞机袭击了世界贸易中心。 ——苔丝!苔丝!你在哪儿?走吧! ——我要拿相机,还有那张粉红色的票据。 ——干什么用? ——去取鞋啊。 ——在哪儿? ——斯坦利鞋店。 ——你疯了!快跑吧! ——不——苔丝说——我必须在最高观察点上思考人生。这是爱默生的话,去祈祷。 于是我们上到顶层平台——在那儿,我们看到第二架飞机袭击了第二栋楼。 ——楼要倒了!——我惊呼起来。 ——要倒,也只会往下倒——苔丝说。 牛瞰。预言得真准。当年年初,我在找公寓时曾告诉苔丝: ——我只在乎离那两栋楼的距离。它们会砸到咱们这栋楼的。要是阿拉伯人曾经来过想把它们炸塌——他们一定还会再来完成这件事。我了解他们。他们在西班牙呆了八个世纪。他们计算时间的方法不同。他们是乌龟,我们是兔子。 ——但这楼是日本人设计的——苔丝说。如果要倒,就切腹自杀,也会往下倒。 ——我不希望它们倒——我说。 ——它们不会倒——苔丝说——要倒,也只会往下倒。 于是2001年2月5日,在我生日那天,我签下租赁合同。 叫人吃惊的是,你知道,当年我还是个孩子,我和朋友们却常常说: ——新千年来的时候,我们有多大? ——我45了,一个老太太——我常说——到时候我会死的。 可看看我现在,我正在逃命,而且想一直逃下去。 我曾经劝苔丝离开,但她执意要上屋顶。等我们下到大厅——我发觉我没穿鞋。所以我们又返回房间,拿鞋拿手稿,再下楼,来到大厅。这时,整栋建筑在隆隆作响——烟雾弥漫——突奔的狗——叫嚷的门卫——推着婴儿车的母亲。邻居把狗递给我。有手快的人打开应急医疗箱,取出面罩。外面已经一片碎屑滚滚。我们无法看清眼前的路,便朝一辆巡逻车的频闪灯光奔去——并敲着车窗: ——怎么能到街对面去? ——祈祷吧。 ——走哪条路? ——随命吧。 我们向南朝克林顿城堡走,经过伊利莎白西顿教堂,这里是美国第一圣人之家,也是我的一个导师的出生地。导师的胸像仍雕刻在墙上,并附题词:赫尔曼•梅尔维尔,《白鲸》作者。在炮台公园岸边,我看到一艘船,船长在宣布目的地: ——自由岛! 我把船长看作冥府摆渡神,带我们渡过黄泉——苔丝就是我的维吉尔——而周遭的水就是穿过地狱的水。此刻,我将邻居的那条狗紧贴在胸前,这使我想起我那条早就失踪了的苏格兰犬杜西尼——一边回望曼哈顿那边的黑云——杜西尼毛发的气息,油乎乎很爽心——我深吸一口气,思想着: ——怎么你头上仍然笼罩着阴云? 我不知道怎么会这样,但我可以告诉你阴云一直在怀孕——用他们乳房的奶水——而奶水在流——那些乳房——给全世界供奶——我吸吮着那些充盈奶水的乳房——那是我灵感的源泉——来自那些白色的乳房——两只乳房在流汁——两栋楼宇在坍塌——黑云在继续笼罩——笼罩——通常在晚上,它们越压越低——你会感到笼罩的压力,将你吊在绳索上——五花大绑——驱使你做苦役——这是一种不测的笼罩——不知道何时或如何发生——因为我们不知道它如何来临,带着火,带着怒,带着水,带着死亡。

United States of Banana: Burial of the Sardine

Still Life Vanitas

There at the Fulton Market—where three roads intersect—was the point where HAMLET, GIANNINA, and ZARATHUSTRA first met. The three had been walking the streets like mad—without stopping to rest—until they came to the South Street Seaport—where flies were harrowing around the halo of the fish market that smelled like the rot of Chinatown. They recognized one another and walked toward each other with dead bodies on their backs.

GIANNINA: I’m burying the sardine—the dead body I carry on my back.

ZARATHUSTRA: A little fish—in a little coffin. And for this—for this little stinky thing—we came from so far?

GIANNINA: Look, it’s moving. It’s still alive.

ZARATHUSTRA: It’s so salty and ugly it itches and bites.

GIANNINA: It worked its whole life in the sludge of oil and vinegar. I’ll sprinkle incense, myrrh, and a pound of gold to be buried with it under the Sand.

HAMLET: Hurry up. The ferry will leave without us.

GIANNINA: You have no idea how much I’ve suffered under the influence of this rigorous but retarded sardine. Not a warrior, but a soldier. Making me vow to its regiment of passive-aggressive work. No traveling was allowed. No smoking allowed. No pets allowed. No one could get near me because the sardine would stink—and its stink would bite. Sometimes it would fly around the rim, but it would always dive back into the can of sardines—looking for its paycheck. Every two weeks—it brought me a salary—the stinky sardine—and I brought home all I could buy with that salary—confinement, imprisonment. Depending on a salary made me salivate—but it blew my mind to dust—the dust that blows around and makes you cough—but you hardly can see it because it’s made of dust. But I’m not made of dust—I’m made of flesh—and making love to the little sardine drove me crazy. It was such a little fish it barely filled my mouth. I could hardly eat it. I grew hungry—hungry for a big fish. God help me—no more fish! Please no clams, no oysters! Please—nothing shelled or scaled! Nothing salted—nothing finned or fanged! Because it had fangs—the sardine had fangs—and it bit me like a rabid squirrel. It must have known I wanted to bury it. Its fangs were long—and its screams were shrill— and it held grudges—and it had bones to pick. It blamed me for keeping it down—but all I wanted was its liberation from the can. I wanted it to breathe clean air—and to sing. Your mouth is already open—now take a deep breath, little fishy, and sing—sing a song of love. You know my cords are made of vibrant colors. You know I too come from the sea—but I don’t come with grudges in my fangs. I come with wings to fly from your stink. I hate sardines.

ZARATHUSTRA: Then why do you eat them?

GIANNINA: Because I detest their helplessness. I wouldn’t eat a lion. It would eat me first. I eat what is weaker than me. I like lamb. I watch a grazing lamb, and my mouth waters. I could eat it alive. But not sardines. They’re already dead. They never lived. They’re dead even when they’re alive. Always with their mouths open. Begging for water. And I don’t mind beggars. But sardines are not beggars—they’re squirmers. They beg for water—but what they really want is to eat you alive—with their deadliness—which is a plague—a virus—bacteria—something contagious that kills you without killing you. They open their mouths to beg for water—but do nothing but gulp the draught and wait for water—with their mouths open—as if snoring, which is worse than imploring—they’re beggarly beggars that don’t even beg—they’re too dead to beg—and they’re deadly contagious. It’s their deadliness that lingers over me every day of my life—the dead inertia of the sardine that obeys and begs for water, gallons of water, and does what it’s asked to do in spite of no water and denies itself so much—that it doesn’t realize it doesn’t have a being anymore—and it lets itself be canned—always with its open mouth saying:

Drop dead, but give me drops of water. I don’t want to be buried alive. I want to survive. I’m a salaried sardine. Give me more  money.

That’s why they’re so salty and ugly, they itch and bite. Because they’re salivating for salty salaries—salty salaried sardines.

ZARATHUSTRA: It is not a sardine. It is a big fish.

GIANNINA: The coffin is small, but the stench is immense. Zarathustra, would you allow my little pet to be buried in the same hole of the hollow tree where you left the tightrope walker?

HAMLET: And may I please leave the putrefied carrion in the same hollow tree?

GIANNINA: We are burying sameness—the aesthetic principle of sameness—the three together—at the same time—holding hands—burying bodies in the same hollow tree—and running free from freedom. Free…

United States of Banana

available at Amazon.com

The United States of America will become the United States of Banana. And Puerto Rico will be the first half-and-half banana republic state incorporated that will secede from the union. Then will come Liberty Island, then Mississippi Burning, Texas BBQ, Kentucky Fried Chicken—all of them—New York Yankees, Jersey Devils—you name it—will want to break apart—and demand a separation—a divorce. Things will not go well for the banana republic when the shackles and chains of democracy break loose and unleash the dogs of war. Separation—divorce—disintegration of subject matters that don’t matter anymore—only verbs—actions. Americans will walk like chickens with their heads cut off.           

Portrait of Giannina Braschi by Michael Zansky

Giannina Braschi