Mambo and Missteps

By Michael Griffith,
whose works of fiction are "Spikes" and "Bibliophilia"
Wednesday, July 27, 2005

MAMBO PELIGROSO

By Patricia Chao

HarperCollins. 300 pp. $24.95

It's notoriously difficult to capture in prose the passion and quicksilver footwork of dance; attempts to replicate the intricacies of, say, the mambo can sound less like praise songs than like cattle auctions or VCR instructions.

Patricia Chao's "Mambo Peligroso" stumbles a bit at the start but gathers momentum before long. Chao induces the reader to feel the intensity of her characters' pleasure in dancing -- mostly by cleaving, early on, to Catalina Ortiz Midori, half-Cuban, half-Japanese and a woman in the throes of a full-out mambo obsession. Chao entangles Lina's joy in dancing with assorted other passions, especially the desire to reconnect with her Latina identity, which she has let slip away in the years since 1973, when she and her mother fled Cuba. Nor does the novelist scant on erotic ardor. We see Lina grow intoxicated by her ever more precise and artful control of her feet, hips, hands, and we see how bodily exuberance translates easily, even inevitably, into sexual energy.

"The purpose of dance," insists Lina's teacher and lover El Tuerto (Oswaldo), "is foreplay," and that axiom is enacted again and again, in combinations involving not only Lina and Oswaldo but also her mentor and confidante, Wendy (the dazzling mambera who is Oswaldo's usual partner) and Lina's beloved cousin Guillermo.

A deeply interesting feminist element lurks under the surface. The despicable but irresistible Oswaldo -- one-eyed satyr and demigod of New York mambo -- is able to exploit women's desire to have full, glorious sovereignty over their bodies, a kind of sovereignty to be gained only by surrendering to him and allowing themselves to be led, whether subtly or forcefully. Lina and Wendy find dance explosive and empowering, but it requires both abandon and submission -- to the clave (or rhythm) and to the person who leads. Mambo liberates by way of a kind of enslavement, and Chao expertly elaborates the tensions between the empowerment and the submission.

Rita Dove, speaking several years ago in an interview about analogies to be drawn between poetry and dance, remarked on the acute awareness in both arts of limits that may not be breached: Poetry is "the expression of desire . . . restrained by the limits of the page, the breath, the very architecture of the language -- just as dance is limited by the capabilities of our physical bodies as well as by gravity." To dance, then, is to celebrate the amazing capabilities of the human -- but it is also and unavoidably to come to intimate terms with one's limits, weaknesses, frailties. The frenzy of dance is derived, it's often said, from the knowledge that one can't do it forever; every dance is a danse macabre .

Chao succeeds in dramatizing this, not only by conveying the forlornness and desperation that are the flip side of Lina's erotic ecstasy, but also more explicitly when Wendy is diagnosed, at 45, with an aggressive lung cancer. All this is rich and promising material and makes for a mambo more than sufficiently peligroso, or dangerous.

Alas, Chao doesn't follow it through to the end. Instead, the apolitical Lina gets embroiled with her cousin in a plot by Cuban expatriates to assassinate Fidel Castro. A promising literary novel (in which character is the crucial element) gets grafted onto a second-rate thriller (in which plot dominates).

Part of the problem is that Chao gives short shrift to characters' motivations. Lina's two most fateful decisions -- her entry into the world of mambo and her acceptance of Guillermo's invitation to join him on a yacht cruise -- are glazed with false mystery. Why would she decide so casually to accompany Guillermo? Why would he, knowing the trip's perils, drag her into his intrigue? And why permit Wendy to tag along? None of these questions is answered convincingly.

The book's architecture, expounded upon at the outset in an "Explanation of Structure," seems self-conscious and off-putting. It's designed to replicate the form of the mambo and carries at its end plenty of clanking quasi-academic apparatus: glossary, bibliography, even a discography. The chapter subtitles, portentous dance cliches such as "You do not find the rhythm. The rhythm finds you," don't help.

That said, "Mambo Peligroso" -- especially its first half -- has considerable merits, at least until it makes its disappointing turn away from the compelling dangers of the human heart to the dull contrivances of thrillerdom.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company