THE MESSENGER

By Mayra Montero

HarperCollins. 224 pp. $23

In Mayra Montero's second novel to be translated into English (after "In the Palm of Darkness"), gods and spirits from a wide assemblage of cultures are joined in an odd mission of rescue. While they are going about that business, two of the humans who answer to them are playing out a passionate and secretive love affair that has them dodging threats and other hazards even while sharing a profound intimacy.

Mythic and richly symbolic, the intertwined stories of "The Messenger" are layered in complexity and told in a style that, while as convoluted as the stories themselves, is never impenetrable. The novel is constructed as--more or less--a narrative within a flashback within another flashback. It opens in contemporary Havana, where an exchange is taking place between an elderly woman and a younger man who apparently represents an anonymous European collector of opera lore. His identity is unimportant; the woman is Enriqueta Cheng, the unacknowledged daughter of Enrico Caruso.

It is a historical fact that one of the masterful Italian tenor's final performances was at Havana's Teatro Nacional in 1920, where a bomb exploded as he sang the role of Radames in Verdi's "Aida." After the explosion he was reported to have been seen wandering the streets of the city in costume before disappearing for several days. While he may have vanished from the factual record, Montero has made Caruso reappear in fiction. According to "The Messenger," the singer is rescued from the kitchen of a neighboring hotel by the beautiful--and suggestively named--Aida Cheng, a woman of mixed Cuban and Chinese heritage, who leads the dazed Caruso to her home and then embarks with him on a strange and foreordained journey that takes them into a magical realm where a variety of spiritual forces join in an effort to modify destiny's judgment.

As recounted in a manuscript Aida dictated on her deathbed to her daughter many years later and amplified by Enriqueta's research and interviews with participants, her godfather, the santero Jose de Calazan, had determined months before the blast that a man would come to Aida and name her "the queen of his thoughts." That man would turn out to be Caruso, already condemned by destiny to an early death; it is Aida's duty--for her own destiny--to keep him from dying in Cuba. She must, Calazan tells her, "let him drop his burden somewhere else."

Fulfilling those instructions is no easy task; it takes the combined powers of Santeria, the Eastern magic of Yuan Pei Fu, the Chinese wise man who plays a mysterious role in Aida's life, and the physical assistance of a secret Congo brotherhood, and even then, nothing is certain. The fact that Aida Cheng falls in love with Caruso and eventually becomes pregnant with his child is no help, of course; getting her lover to flee the island so he can die without her is not exactly something she undertakes with wholehearted enthusiasm. Yet Calazan has divined that there is no other way to save his goddaughter's own life, and fortunately "the saints are the same everywhere, they're the same in China and in Guinea." Perhaps together their power will be sufficient to alter destiny just enough to save Aida.

Complicating all the efforts to get him out of Cuba, Caruso is--at least in Montero's portrait--something of a paranoid fatalist, not always eager to help with his own escape. Both reactions are justified, first by the bomb and then by the vague assassination attempts that seem to swirl around his passage through the island. But what finally motivates the singer to action is the spirituality; near the end, when he and Aida participate in a Santeria ceremony in a lagoon, the atmosphere is filled with a sudden harmony. In that moment and its aftermath, despite all the hardships and physical agonies that still lie ahead, an awful destiny has been averted--and a child conceived. "The man," Calazan says afterward of Caruso, "was a child of Chango," the Santeria master of thunder and lightning who is one of the most powerful santos of the faith.

Getting the singer from the fictional Cuban quagmire to his historical death in Naples allows Montero to explore her real theme: Afro-Caribbean spirituality as a unifying cultural force. No one god, no one spirit, no one saint alone is enough to accomplish the task, but united, they triumph. In Edith Grossman's fluid translation, "The Messenger" shows how all the divinities, from whatever tradition they come, are really just slightly different versions of the same text. Reading them that way gives their disciples a strength that transcends any superficial diversity.

James Polk, who frequently writes about Latin American and Caribbean literature and culture.