Author cooks up spicy fable

Posted: Thursday, October 23, 2003

When Lewis Carroll sent Alice down the rabbit hole, he started one of the world's classic stories of bizarre adventure. Now Serge Lecomte has drawn on "Alice in Wonderland" and the disorientation of immigrants facing new cultures as inspirations for "Alicia Maravilla," a satirical fable for adults.

The story follows Alicia from her hopeless desert village in Mexico across the Rio Grande into Texas. Her mother has raised her for a specific mission: Go north, find a blue-eyed millionaire husband and bring his money back to salvage the village. This is a dream-like book about dreams, and the first is Alicia's mother's dream of the United States:

"America to her mother was the land of pure snow, of polite men who opened doors for the women and who lit their cigarettes, who kissed your hand, then your lips with the gentleness of a morning breeze. These men made in the U.S.A. were all like wonderful dolls in tuxedos."

Although the villagers pin their hopes on Alicia's success, they also revile her for her aloofness from their preoccupations with food, sex and violence. Her fearsome mother zealously guarded Alicia's virginity and somehow got her a 200-lesson taped course on conversational English to prepare for the mission.

When Alicia reaches the U.S., it of course bears little resemblance to her mother's imaginings. Instead of snow and millionaires, she finds the sleazy borderlands of farms, prostitutes and gringos as lecherous as the Mexicans.

Alicia is young and nave, but her stubbornness and skepticism shield her while her integrity and intelligence win her opportunities. She is a wonderful character, both charming and hard. Like her namesake, Alice, she is bewildered but nobody's fool. She finds herself drawn into the world of illegal migrant farm labor, making bologna sandwiches for orange pickers.

In this strange, new land she meets an array of characters that test her mettle: vindictive servants, exploitive landowners, seducers and women who were once like herself but fell into the underworld of prostitution. She sees the last as "lizard women" and resists coercion to join their ranks:

"Alicia was lost among the lizard women who snapped at her for being on their street. This was their territory, and they had sprayed their female perfume like dogs piss along the walls. They yelled at her, and some were ready to bite her with their rotting teeth. She yelled back and told them how ugly they were because of their evil ways."

Bitterness and stereotypes are common in satires, and "Alicia Maravilla" is no exception. And it makes no claim to depict realistic characters. With the exception of Alicia, it is populated with fools.

Many two-dimensional characters could have been developed further. The story skewers southern rednecks and smarmy hypocrits too easy targets and caricatures the Mexicans field workers as childish savages. But besides the delightful heroine, several characters stand out: Sam, the apostle of spinach, and Running Antelope, the ineffectual, leftwing idealist.

Like a dream, the book is both engrossing and confusing. In a nod to Latin American magical realism, people sprout wings or scales, and supernatural beings appear to advise Alicia.

Food is a recurring motif, with Alicia's odyssey taking her from frijoles to oranges, strawberries, spinach and even the promised lands of roast beef and godly (but stolen) lamb. The characters suffer hunger, but ultimately the hunger of their aspirations and wishes are greater those of their flesh.

Lecomte is no wetback, but he knows what it is to be a stranger in a strange land. Born in Europe and widely traveled, he is a retired professor of languages from the University of Alaska now living near Anchor Point. He has written many poems and translations, but this is his first published novel.

His writing is a sometimes exasperating mix. He begins "Alicia Maravilla" at a leisurely pace, laced with extravagant details, but ends it in a spare, almost abrupt, manner. Some early characters wander out of the plot, never to reappear, and he sometimes forgets to translate his Spanish terms for the monolingual reader until they already have appeared several times.

On the other hand, Lecomte writes with a glowing energy and love of words. The story's pace never flags and, even in its darkest passages, it retains a rambunctious sense of mischief.

Like Mexican peppers, "Alicia Maravilla" will not appeal to all tastes, but adventurous readers will find it an unusual treat, "muy picante" than many banal mainstream novels.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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