Dark Tales of Two Cities: San Juan de aquí, San Juan de allá

June 2018

Mayra Santos-Febres, ed., San Juan Noir (Spanish edition), trans. Alfredo Álvarez Nieves (New York: Akashic, 2016); 240 pages; ISBN 978-1617755071 (paperback)

Mayra Santos-Febres, ed., San Juan Noir (English edition), trans. Will Vanderhyden (New York: Akashic, 2016); 240 pages; ISBN 978-1617752964 (paperback)

The Akashic Books Noir Series was launched in 2004 by the Brooklyn-based independent publisher and now features more than sixty titles. San Juan Noir is the first anthology of short stories in the collection to be simultaneously published in both English and Spanish, ensuring a bilingual diffusion in Puerto Rico and the mainland United States (stories were submitted in both languages). Before this volume, which is dedicated to the metro area of San Juan, Akashic had already published titles set in various locations of the Caribbean: two take place in Haiti and two others in Trinidad, while Havana and Kingston each have a single edition.1

Each anthology contains a map that helps locate the various places where the stories unfold within the urban setting at hand, as well as a preface signed by the editor. In her introduction to San Juan Noir, “Crisis y crimen en el Caribe Urbano” / “Crimes of the Urban Caribbean,” Mayra Santos-Febres establishes a direct link between the current economic crisis on the island and an unprecedented boom in literary creation, particularly in noir fiction: “Los puertorriqueños hemos respondido a esta crisis contando nuestras historias. Sin embargo, muchas de estas historias presentan la cara noir de nuestro diario vivir” (11) / “We have responded to our crisis with so many stories to tell. And, especially in these times, many of those stories are noir” (13).2 In the Spanish introduction, San Juan is presented as a two-faced city, where tourists have the illusion of a first-world nation in El Condado and parts of Old San Juan—“Estos enclaves muestran un rostro ‘primermundista’ al extranjero” (12)—but where pockets of poverty as well as scenes of crime and violence are everyday features in other parts of the metro area. Interestingly, the English introduction differs slightly; it erases the tourist (that is, the “foreign”) component from its primary description of the city: “But between these first-world neighborhoods lies an impoverished and dangerous city” (13).

Other elements of the English introduction further orient the anglophone reader toward a specific reception of the texts, emphasizing, for example, the potentially alluring dangerous side of the island: “These are the stories of San Juan Noir. I hope they spark your imagination . . . . Maybe [they] will also pique your curiosity, and you will come visit ‘our pearl of the Caribbean’” (17). The Spanish version, on the contrary, opts for a presentation of Puerto Rico that relocates the island within a wider web of global crisis: “Un caleidoscopio de pasiones y violencia, iguales a las de tantos otros lugares de este planeta en crisis” (16). The two editions therefore go beyond linguistic difference: they interrogate us on our own practices of consumption depending on where we position ourselves as readers.

The stories are grouped into three sections—“Ángeles caídos” / “Fallen Angels”; “El amor loco” / “Crazy Love”; and “Nunca confiés en el deseo” / “Never Trust Desire”—in which the theme of conspicuous (in)visibility serves as a binding thread to explore the noir side of San Juan. In the opening story, “Muerte en el andiamo” / “Death on the Scaffold,” Janette Becerra introduces us to the seemingly secluded world of a character who lives in an ivory tower from which the popular neighborhood of Río Piedras is held at a safe distance. Yet the arrival of a team of façade painters soon disrupts the narrator’s sense of safety, only to later reveal that no matter how high the walls of a gated community might be, those on either side remain “of the same species” (30). “Invisibility!” (44) is the opening word of “La fama de Chin Fernández” / “The Infamy of Chin Fernández,” in which Tere Dávila presents a city in which committing a crime, whether petty or serious, can remain unpunished as long as the perpetrator remains unseen. In some stories, the act of seeing pretty much amounts to accepting one’s life for what it is, and looking sometimes becomes unbearable, as in Luis Negrón’s “Mataperros” / “Dog Killer.” Being invisible is also depicted as the sign of our disconnected world, in which deceiving appearances and digital environments favor loneliness and social exclusion. This is the case in Ana María Fuster Lavín’s “Dos muertes para Ángela” / “Two Deaths for Ángela,” in which the main character’s alienation is expressed in the omnipotent presence of her alter-ego, or in Charlie Vásquez’s “El ángel de la muerte santurcino” / “Death Angel of Santurce,” in which the generic contours of noir and fantastic fiction become increasingly blurred as the story unfolds. Death itself, it should be added, can be very graphic, as body parts become the synecdoche of the general violence at play in various parts of San Juan, as in “Comida de peces” / “Fish Food,” by Manolo Núñez Negrón.

Desire is what triggers different forms of death in several of the stories: in “Apareamientos” / “Matchmaking,” by Mayra Santos-Febres, mercenary soldier Koala Gutiérrez is depicted as a ruthless, implacable predator, until he sets eyes on his next target. The science teacher in José Rabelo’s “Y” similarly fantasizes over a disappeared student and her birthmark, whose shape and texture is soon transposed onto the geography of San Juan as the maestro takes the underground from Sagrado Corazón in hopes of solving what might be the most troubling equation of (his) life. The strong desire to go back to one’s roots and origins is also what leads expatriates to go back to Puerto Rico in the search of long-lost dreams or relatives. However, their return is either prompted by death or ends up with a sense of disillusionment and unbelonging. As a character sums up in Ernesto Quiñonez’s “Turistas”: “The island is poor. You are all tourists. Even if you are Puerto Rican, you don’t live on the island; you are a tourist, and because of that, you have more money than us” (143). Manuel A. Mélendez, himself a writer from the diaspora, revisits what he calls “the so-called innocence of the 1960s” (107) in “Un asesino entre nosotros” / “A Killer Among Us,” in which justice and death seem inextricably linked.

Those are the sides and undersides of San Juan we are invited to explore. Depending on where we wish to stand as readers, we might at times tilt the balance slightly more in favor of redeemed justice, at others slightly more in favor of cold-blooded revenge. Yet, as the narrator of Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro’s “Las cosas que se cuentan al caer” / “Things Told while Falling,” comments: “All that’s missing [in those tales of darkness] is the translator, who reveals the linguistic code and explains it. You feel that you are the translator” (130).


Laëtitia Saint-Loubert completed a PhD in Caribbean studies at the University of Warwick. She recently joined the Université de la Réunion, where she teaches translation and literature for the English department, in addition to being a practising literary translator. Her research investigates Caribbean literatures in translation and how Caribbean literature circulates within, as well as outside, the region. Her dissertation invited a reading of translation both as a literary, linguistic practice and as a transnational expression of cross-cultural Caribbean negotiations.


See Haiti Noir, ed. Edwidge Danticat (2010); Haiti Noir 2: The Classics, ed. Edwidge Danticat (2014); Trinidad Noir, ed. Lisa Allen-Agostini and Jeanne Mason (2008); Trinidad Noir: The Classics, ed. Earl Lovelace and Robert Antoni (2017); Havana Noir, ed. Achy Obejas (2007); and Kingston Noir, ed. Colin Channer (2012).

This review was submitted prior to Hurricanes Irma and Maria making landfall in Puerto Rico. It goes without saying that since then writers and artists on the island and in the diaspora have responded to this particular type of “crisis” with remarkable resilience, creativity, and solidarity, as this year’s Festival de la Palabra, “#Seguimos en pie,” to name but one literary event, has shown.


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