If a kitchen can be a source of spiritual sustenance, Elena Castedo will manage it. The novelist has tacked a quote by Goethe up on a cabinet: "Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it." She has taped an entire deck of cards along another wall showing the faces of great composers and, for spiritual emphasis, written the 52 names above their faces in heavy black felt-tip marker: Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart.
Around the corner in her study, she keeps a list of authors who suffered from migraines as she does. Through the window, it is more of the same. The quiet McLean street is now safe -- she and her husband spent nights patrolling in their car with their son asleep in the back. The land behind her back yard has not been town-housed -- she fought a large developer to ensure that.
This is the home, the neighborhood, the emotional landscape where Castedo wrote her first novel, "Paradise," and managed to propel it out of the dusty, anonymous corner in which most first novels languish.
She is not a woman to whom life simply happens. History happens to her, bad luck happens to her, but her own internal life, her vision of herself -- those are her possessions, and she moves them along with a powerful and optimistic certainty. An immigrant to this country whose first husband killed himself and left her with two small children and a black suit she had bought in a church rummage sale, Castedo sold cleansers door to door and got herself through an MA from UCLA and a PhD from Harvard in Spanish literature.
So when the publisher that had accepted her book (Grove Weidenfeld, then Weidenfeld & Nicolson) floundered into corporate chaos, she publicized the novel herself, persuading bookstore owners to carry it, copying reviews for the benefit of interviewers, pressing it into the consciousness of readers and reviewers. There are, of course, scores of obsessed authors who make nuisances of themselves every year, scrambling and insisting and succeeding only in irritating book sellers and reviewers, but Castedo's struggle has been rewarded. "Paradise" was nominated last month for a National Book Award.
"She is," novelist and admirer Robert Stone says from his home in Connecticut with a certain degree of understatement, "a person of great energy."
"I am passionate about things," Castedo explains, probably gratuitously. "When I do something, I do it with my whole self."
And so when it came time to find someone to translate "Paradise" from adopted English to native Spanish, Castedo was passionately determined. No translator need be hired, she said, she would do it, thus admitting herself into a very select club of self-translators that apparently includes few members beyond Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov. She is proud to be in such company and eager to remind others of it -- one more group of artists among whom she is taking her place.
The Spanish version of "Paradise" is about to be released in Spain and Chile, the country where she was born and the country that her parents -- ardent foes of Franco -- fled to in 1939 with 2-year-old Elena. Parties and book fairs and more interviews were arranged for Barcelona and Santiago, and tomorrow, the National Book Award ceremony in New York. She would like to be working on her next novel, but these days "Paradise" is claiming her time and emotional energy. She is currently frazzled with nervousness because the five nominees are expected to read from their works. It is hard to imagine her nervous about anything. Passion is rarely nervous.
She is sitting now in her spiritually uplifting kitchen, a graceful, leggy woman in lavender dress and espadrilles. Every few seconds there is a quick chirp. An exotic bird, perhaps? No, she says, "I call it the immortal Yma Sumac." She calls it that, referring to the trilling Peruvian singer popular in the '50s, but the source of the cheep is less romantic -- a broken valve on her freezer with the gift of song.
As Yma sings, Castedo fans herself with a stray piece of paper. She is hot. "This is what happens to you at my age," she says. "Hot flashes." Having decided at a recent reading she gave at a college that it was better to confess than to burn, she explained to the assembled undergraduates about her hot flashes and waved the fan she always carries with her. They were, she says, shocked. Hormones, menopause -- these were not the lofty insights the young literati sought.
In "Paradise," Castedo has created a narrator as passionate and direct as herself. Solita, the 9-year-old daughter of Spanish exiles living in an unidentified South American country, watches the adult world with both the naivete and perceptiveness of her age.
Weary of struggling in the ghetto of immigrants, her mother leaves her husband behind and moves Solita and her brother to the country estate of a rich friend, which she promises will be "a paradise" and proves to be a place of marvelous luxury and surprising intolerance. Solita suffers at the hands of their hostess's three daughters and yearns for her family to be reunited. Like any paradise, the estate harbors within itself the requisite corruption and weakness, and through Solita's eyes the reader learns much that Solita herself is unable to understand about the eccentric and self-indulged friends and hangers-on who have attached themselves to their rich hostess.
"It was like writing two parallel novels -- what was going on and what the girl could understand. It's really very classical. Shakespeare and Lope de Vega and Cervantes and Calderon, who wrote an amazing play, 'Life Is a Dream,' did it all the time. They played with different levels of reality -- a novel inside a novel, a play within a play."
When Solita arrives at the estate, Castedo writes:
Blue-aproned women and men in blue jackets helped us down and got our suitcases. Three girls, dressed alike in pale green pinafores with rows of tiny buttons, ribbons in their curls and tiny earrings, watched me with curious amusement. Dressing children alike in a family was very bourgeois, a refugee had told me once. The exact meaning of "bourgeois" escaped me, but it had something to do with being dull, not knowing important things. It didn't seem to apply to these girls. I held on tightly to my underwear through my dress. You could never trust panty elastics; they had a way of giving out when you least expected it.
The book, of course, comes out of Castedo's own life. The Spanish refugees, the exile experience, all that is autobiographical, as is "the fear a child experiences at the dissolution of a marriage."
"It was very painful but I think it was very typical," she says of her childhood. "A neighbor of 70 said after reading it that it felt just like his childhood. I think so many people experience that, the loss of a parent through death or a parent's divorce. It was certainly the experience of my generation in Europe."
To create Solita's voice, Castedo looked to her own son. "I started taking notes when my youngest was 10 because you forget things. I was constantly amazed at how incredibly intelligent a 10-year-old is. Any mother of older children will tell you they regress after that. They fall prey to peer pressure, they get very emotional. But at 10 they're pure brain. I thought if I wrote this in a book, people would not believe it -- that they are so smart. People forget what it was like. All the turmoil of the later years wipes it out."
When she took the notes she had not yet begun her book, but on the advice of her husband, economist Danny Ellerman, she was beginning to emerge from a career as a consultant. What you want to do is write, he told her, so do it, and she began. That 10-year-old is now 16 and is the intended reader of the Goethe quote, a little nudge for someone caught in the more emotional years.
Her two oldest children, the ones she carted door to door in New Haven while she sold cleansers, have grown up into lawyers and given her grandchildren. She remembers those early years in a voice hazy with disbelief, as if attempting to recount a strange dream. She was very young, she begins, and then ... "My life turned very strange."
She arrived in America on a summer scholarship and immediately knew that she loved this country and did not want to return to Chile. "I couldn't find a job. I almost got a job at a place for nails in New York. I don't know what it was -- there were all these bottles and equipment for nails. It was sort of an ode to nails, a temple to nails."
But there was no job at the temple and the strange time continued. "I got married. I don't know how it happened. I didn't do it to stay here. Somehow, I got married in Reno." She pauses, listening to a story she has never understood. "I was even underage."
The marriage was bad, her husband alcoholic, she says. "It was just surviving." Then he died and she and her son and daughter moved to New Haven to be near a relative. "People kept saying, 'Why don't you go on welfare?' I said, 'What would I get from that? I'll just be stuck.' At times, it was very tempting. I knew a lot of widows who did that." But she was proud -- "Spaniards are foolishly proud" -- and she kept working.
Eventually the strange years ended, she remarried, lived in Europe and other American cities and then, 15 years ago, ended up in McLean. In any country, she remains an exile, an immigrant, but conversely she feels oddly comfortable everywhere, as if decades of wandering have given her a portable sense of home.
"I think of myself as a trio," she says. "In my bone marrow I'm Spanish. In my heart in many ways I'm Chilean. In my brain I'm American." Even in her choice of language she is torn -- a "bigamist" is how she puts it, who loves both English and Spanish.
"As you grow older, you get more nostalgic for childish things," Castedo says. "I get teary-eyed if I see a certain weed I used to see as a child." She is laughing at herself now, at her passion for a simple plant. But many novels are essentially nostalgic, she knows. "There's something about it like a chant," she says of writing such a book, "like all the old church chants for saints."
Intone the chant, the weed returns, and the passionate past is back.