Cristina Garcia

"Monkey Hunting"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte May 28, 2003)

Chen Pan is a young 20 year-old in China who signs a contract to make his fortune in Cuba. He is promised that the tropical island is full of riches, that "even the river fish jumped, unbidden, into frying pans." Chen Pan figures he would work in Cuba for a few years, and return to China a rich, content, man. So it is that he signs his life into slavery on a sugarcane plantation in Cuba. The ship journey over to the island is an indication of what lies ahead. After long, hard labor, Chen Pan finally escapes the plantation and makes his life in Havana. Pan's escape from slavery in Cuba and his survival in the country's harsh jungle eventually becomes the stuff of legend.

Read excerptChen Pan sets up a second hand store in Havana, Lucky Find, and has three children with an African ex-slave, Lucrecia. Monkey Hunting is a tale of many generations of the Pan family flitting back and forth between continents and centuries. Chen Pan's granddaughter is born in China, a third (undesired) daughter and raised a boy. She later becomes a victim of China's Cultural Revolution. Chen Pan's great-great grandson, Domingo Chen, is born an American but feels like he does not belong because his skin color makes him stand out. He serves in Vietnam and falls in love with a Vietnamese woman, Tham Thanh Lan.

Garcia shot into fame with her debut novel Dreaming in Cuban, which was nominated for the National Book Award. She has noted that the Chinese Cubans have not been given their due despite their significant contributions to the country and Monkey Hunting is an attempt to correct some of that wrong. Like her earlier novels, Monkey Hunting also casts a keen eye on family dynamics and how they affect our individual selves. The novel constantly swings between time frames back and forth making one thankful for the picture of the family tree at the beginning of the novel. Despite the shifts in time, the narrative never loses its focus and Garcia's prose remains as sharp as ever. Garcia has often been called a writer very strongly influenced by poetry. Here too, her prose is wonderfully lyrical: "Death had tempted his father like a sudden religion, come wearing a shirt of fire."

Considering the huge amount of ground Garcia covers--five generations and three countries, her novel is surprisingly short, at just about 250 pages. This is not a point against the wonderful book. The expert writer that she is, Garcia knows which details to include and which ones to leave out. In the hands of a lesser writer, Monkey Hunting could easily have degenerated into a multi-generational soapy saga, but it does not. However, the short length of the novel does occasionally hamper stronger character development. We learn a fair amount about Chen Pan, but Garcia often relies on major historical events against which to prop many of her other characters. As others have, one might argue that Garcia is interested in studying the influence of major historical events on individual lives. Yet here it seems that she uses these events merely to lend her characters more color and weight. Domingo Chen, for example, is in the Vietnam War yet his influences by it remain sketchy at best. We learn that Domingo's father, Papi, commits suicide. Now Papi's life, an ordinary life lived under ordinary circumstances, finally driven to desperation, would have made for great storytelling; yet Garcia almost seems to not want to make the effort.

In the end, Monkey Hunting is a sharp, beautiful exploration of the immigrant experience. Chen Pan's customers call him "un chino aplatanado," a Chinese transplant. Yet as he makes his life in Havana and listens to his friends in Chinatown speak gloriously of China all the time, he wonders if he is Chinese anymore. At other times, when nostalgia comes visiting, Chen Pan wonders "why old sadnesses were coming now to flood and rot in his chest." Garcia splendidly captures the beauty of assimilation with its joys and heartaches. In her hands, it is easy to rejoice in Chen Pan's new life, a person who "left China, penniless and alone, had fallen in love with a slave girl and created a whole new race--brown children with Chinese eyes who spoke Spanish and a smattering of Abakua." Monkey Hunting beautifully illuminates for us why Chen Pan, a Chinese immigrant, would spend most of his old age dreaming in Cuban.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 15 reviews

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"Dreaming in Cuban"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark JUL 19, 1998)

In this first novel, Ms. Garcia weaves the story of three generations of Cuban women torn apart by Fidel Castro's revolution. As the story shifts between Brooklyn, New York and Cuba, we hear each of their individual responses to the revolution, the island, family and inevitably, each other.  The language is poetical, the events when not dramatic are quite magical. This one will stay with you a long time.

  • Amazon readers' rating: from 52 reviews

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About the Author:

Cristina GarciaCristina García was born in Havana and grew up in New York City. She attended Barnard College and the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.   Ms. Garcia has worked as a correspondent for Time magazine in San Francisco, Miami, and Los Angeles. Her first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, was nominated for a National Book Award and has been widely translated. Ms. García has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, and the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award. She lives in Santa Monica with her daughter, Pilar. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014