A N A L Y S I S
DANCING FOR THE CONQUERED
AND THE SLAIN:
Vedette, a flamenco heroine for our times
b y t a m a r a k a y e s e l l m a n ~ m a r g i n
VEDETTE, by Stephen Siciliano and released by iUniverse, enters the realm of the epic novel from the vantage point of a young girl in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia in the days preceding World War II and the rise of the Franco regime. Her picaresque, Gitano-inspired adventures (and misadventures) are written against the politically transformative landscapes of both the Andalusian countryside and the city of Seville. Readers witness the growth of a young, independent flamenca who, born with an intrinsic sense of duende, defines revolution through her honesty, haunting charm, charismatic leadership and capacity for pure love.
From the publisher comes this summary of Vedette:
"Born to a Gothic social order, branded a haunter of men's dreams, Vedette is traumatized when her small town in the magical wetlands of southern Spain's Guadalquivir River is overrun by hashish-smoking anarchists promising free love and a life without sadness to those who would follow them. … Entranced by their flamenco music, their philosophy of revenge and the concrete ability to deliver political results, the young woman joins a movement destined to annihilation and becomes its sole survivor, burdened with the task of keeping its memory and project for a better world alive through conversations with their flamenco shadows. … Transcending political viewpoints, Mr. Siciliano opens a new chapter in the understanding of the Spanish Civil War, opting for a literary interpretation that looks beyond right and wrong to more universal lessons only the passage of decades and the healing effects of time can reveal."
WHAT IS A VEDETTE?
The term vedette (pronounced Beh-DET) isn't precisely defined in the story, but a basic dictionary definition gives us a couple of clues.
In military lingo, it's a kind of boat or person used as a sentinel. The word has its roots in the Latin "vigil," to watch, to keep vigil, to see, suggesting the work of a nighwatchman. Vedette in Old French means "watch tower." These are consistent with the character Vedette, for her role is one of vigilant witness to the injustices leveled against the poor underclass, and her life is spent in the lunar consciousness of the flamenco lifestyle; that is, she's up all night and perhaps at her most lucid then, even when drunk on manzanilla.
In more popular usage, a vedette might be thought of as a "Triple Threat"— a woman who can sing, dance and act; a showgirl. In Portuguese, vedete translates into the slang terms "star" and "big shot." This doesn't imply anything but a vocation risen to the level of celebrity.
However, it's in Siciliano's novel, right from the first page, that the term vedette is given its immoral connotations, which (unfairly?) define our heroine (whose real name is Gloriella) from the earliest years of her existence, in that a vedette is a title for a woman of loose morals. This usage first comes in the form of a lascivious chant from her incestuous and groping father, only to be legitimized by her other "father," Padre Olivares.
" 'It's an outrage of a name,' the priest would say. 'Not a name, but a title. A title given, in fact, only to the most immoral of women!' he pointed out to anyone in town who would listen. And there was plenty of them. Of course, he was a priest and the town of Marisalena was so Catholic that it made more gossip than olive oil and cotton."By this proclamation, Olivares creates his own monster. Vedette's existence is a kind of torture because she possesses his dreams. She ends up being, being, ironically, both his greatest enemy and his raison d'etre. That is to say, he can't live in serenity while she's alive, but his life has no real purpose without her in it to define him.
My take on Vedette is a not a character with loose morals, however. There is a certain picaresque nature to her early womanhood that reminds me of Moll Flanders right off the bat. And to be sure, her early experiences as a tool for the sexual satisfaction of her father (and other men, eventually) casts her as fallen from grace (not unlike Dafoe's antiheroine). But, like Gabriel García Márquez's "innocent" Erendira, Vedette has her reasons for being that kind of girl.
Erendira soullessly services the men in her world in order to pay off a debt to her Grandmother. It is as if she is asleep or a ghost during her sessions. Her purpose is noble even if her actions aren't. However, Vedette understands early on that she is no puta; her sexuality exists as separate from her spirit. She is far more pragmatic about her role as a haunter of men's dreams; she uses her promiscuity as an art form, a tool for acquiring the most basic elements of survival: food, shelter, friendship. At the end of their stations in life, both women achieve a sense of spiritual purity by escaping the social and religious confinements that have ostracized them.
The difference between these two young women is one of power, however. While Erendira remains subservient to her Grandmother's crass greed throughout the story (and only in the end does she escape it), Vedette is owned by no one and, therefore, does not need to escape herself. Even the man she truly loves, the torero Paula, she refuses to marry, for she knows inherently that the only person she belongs to is herself.
THE LANDSCAPE OF VEDETTE
The whole of Spain is popularly known for its Inquisition(s), but what isn't focused upon with equal fervor are its multicultural roots. In Spain's earliest and perhaps most golden times, the communities which comprised its southern region, Andalusia, consisted of several culturally different groups living for a time in harmony: the Moors (Arabs), the Jews, the Gitanos ("gypsies") and the Christian Spaniards.
Geographically speaking, it makes sense. Andalusia connects Spain with Africa via Morocco. The trade routes meant commerce between people from all manner of sensibilities: Christian, Jew, Islamic. The nomadic Gitanos of Spain (who are presumed to have descended from Indian immigrants) shared in shaping the culture of the times as well simply by the fact of their transience between villages and cities as they sold their wares and performed their arts.
When the Catholics began cleansing the region of nonbelievers, it is believed that the different ethnic groups who were oppressed by this forced conversion unified culturally to protect each other. From this melding of cultures, a new expression, flamenco, a fusion of Gypsy song with Andalusian folk music, flared to life in the Andalusian town of Jerez de la Frontera (so named for its frontierland between Moorish and Christian realms).
Flamenco figures prominently in the growth of Vedette as a charismatic force. She learns the dance and the cante (singing) from a band of revolutionary Gitanos she befriends after fleeing her monstrous father and the threat of convent life where her other "father," Padre Olivares, can't wait to "convert" her.
Flamenco is not simply a form of music, but a way of thinking. Similar examples in American pop culture might include the emergence of the blues or jazz, as well as the iconography and sensibilities of purist Grateful Dead fans, or "deadheads." It's as much a lifestyle and a mindset as it is a form of art.
The time that author Siciliano chooses to introduce Vedette to flamenco is an interesting one; flamenco was, by the 1930s, an extremely old tradition, so when Vedette takes on the task of dancing to palmas at the cafés cantates in Sevilla for payment in food and wine, she is actually entering the flamenco "scene" after its heyday. And she dances to the rich strumming of flamenco guitar, which only became part of the equation at the turn of the 20th century. Previously, instruments such as violins and tambourines accompanied the dancers, but they were optional and not the defining aspect of flamenco.
The spirit of flamenco has endured primarily as a combination of interactive clapping (palmas), vocalization of the woes of the underclass and a combined meditation in dance, where the upper body moves in graceful, sensual form while the feet pound out distinct, percussive patterns that aren't taught as much as felt.
Vedette was a barefoot flamenco dancer, which sets her apart from the modern interpreters of the dance, who use specially enhanced shoes to accentuate their rhythms. Vedette could only be the truly free person she was by dancing without shoes. Her barefoot lifestyle allowed her to be quick on her feet and closer to the earth she loved. Vedette lived as an authentic and sincere naturalist and pacifist who treasured animals, plants and the life force that fueled all that was good in the world. When she is forced into shoes later in the story as part of her internal exile, it comes as no surprise that she loses touch with her flamenco rhythms, or alegría.
Alegría might be defined as the positive expression of flamenco's duende—a spiritual experience characterized as dark beauty erupting from the core of the soul. Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca committed his life to the study of duende and gave the concept its timeless significance. Duende isn't something that can taught or measured in terms of skill; rather, duende is a life force that can only be experienced through the magica of a truly authentic practitioner in the arts.
Vedette is one such artist; in fact, she becomes famous throughout the region for being truly authentic, to the point of being an enchantress, a haunted dancer. Her unflappably positive personality, her natural beauty and her legendary ability to always tell the truth lend Vedette a larger-than-life reputation which she fulfills everywhere she goes while she is a free woman. It is only when she becomes neutered by fascism that the darker aspects of her duende return, such as at the very end, when she writes a final poem honoring her beloved guitarist and friend, the gitano Tomatito.
One of the places she returns to, time and again, is the marshlands (las marismas) that surround the estuarine Guadalquivir River, or el rios. It's no mistake that someone as enchanted as Vedette baptizes herself in the waters of the nurturing Guadalquivir early in the story. The river is the most abundant source of life in the region, next to las marismas, where water moves in and out from the coast with the pull of the moon. The result is an expansive wetland region of brackish water that transforms into salt-crusted ponds in the summer. Animals and wild vegetation characterize both the river and this fertile delta, metaphorizing the wild fertility and longevity of Vedette's ideas. She frequently returns to the mysterious and everchanging landscape of the tidal flats to hide or to collect her thoughts. It's las marismas that ultimately hold for her the secrets of her duende, embodied by the "shadows of flamenco" she consults there during desperate times.
THE MAGICAL REALISM IN VEDETTE
It's this commerce, with both the living and the dead, which comprises the magical realist aspects of Vedette.
Antonia, the Card Reader
Early into Vedette's life, she visits the French Gypsy Antonia of Carmona at the demand of her mother, who wants to learn whether assertions from Vedette's father—that she would haunt and curse every man in her life—were accurate. In the staunchly Catholic community of Marisalena, Vedette's mother makes the journey at considerable risk, explaining that, though the local padres may believe in the cards, the Pope does not. The tarot is read, predictions are made. Vedette learns that she is "from and part of the eternal other side." Her mother leaves the reading convinced her daughter is a witch.
This is the first of three encounters Vedette has with Antonia, and in every case, her predictions are accurate to the tiniest details. In the third visit, it is Antonia who proffers predictions based, not on the cards, but on accurate observations about the coming moral and political reforms within Spain, suggesting the intricate liaisons bridging the institutions of faith and politics at the time. One did not need the mystery of the occult to forsee that future. Its evidence could be found throughout the countryside where Vedette lived.
While traveling the las marismas via Sevilla to Carmona, where she plans a second visit to the card reader Antonia, Vedette gets lost looking for the lights of the city. She comes upon a "lonely rider moving slow," who tells her in a deep voice that "you can rush all you want, but in las marismas you can never move faster than the speed of el rio taking the water to sea!"
Vedette's reaction: the man's words don't make sense and yet they explain everything. That should have been her first clue that this mysterious man might be special.
They travel together for a spell and she learns the man is Fernando Villalon, the "poet of las marismas" and a breeder of bulls. He rode a horse named Clavileño, the namesake of Don Quixote's steed (another tip off that Villalon is extra-ordinary).
Vedette is familiar with his story, having been told all about him by her friend, El Fariz the Moor. She discovers that Villalon, in fact, knows her friend. He gives her points for orienting herself in the marshes and bores her young and impetuous mind with other details about horses, Moorish poets and the salty landscape. Though her lack of attention bothers him, he expresses admiration for her honesty and invites her to visit him on his island in el rio. She mentions how she never sees his eyes under the brim of his hate (a third indicator of something otherworldly at play).
It isn't until Vedette arrives very late at the cortijo of the card reader that she learns from Antonia that Fernando Villalon and his horse have both been dead for some time.
This is not the last we hear or see Villalon. In fact, he and his horse appear several times throughout the course of Vedette's journey, delivering letters from real people, cleaning Vedette up after being raped by one of her captors, informing Vedette when she is desperate for wisdom.
He's the shadow of flamenco, just one of many which inhabit the real world of Vedette, Gloriella. As other spirits of the flamenco pass through her life, she comes to converse with them at important moments in the story: the troublemaking Rufian, the sacrificed Pilar from Vedette's early years of rebellion. There is never a question in her mind whether these souls are real; she accepts them as kindred spirits, and they do, in fact, aid in her survival, even if only she can see them.
This is one of the most engaging epic works I've read in a long time, a story which deserves comparison to the great classics, One Hundred Years of Solitude (for the sincerity of its political message and for its marvelous humor) and Don Quixote (for its demands for justice and Vedette's innocent and pure idealism).
I would also compare this novel to another favorite contemporary epic, Texaco, written by French Martinican author Patrick Chamoiseau. The timeless structure of the storyline (we are treated to the undeniable connection between past, present and future) is captured in Siciliano's ability to render, intimately and honestly, the harsh landscape of oppression reduced to its most personal level in a way that is universally meaningful.
Siciliano's personal love for Andalusia shows through prominently in Vedette. His use of the Spanish language to portray an authentic landscape is easily understood even by readers without fluency in the language. Siciliano builds characters who, through their own voices, reveal the kaleidoscopic cultural history of the region. I've learned more about Andalusia, and Spanish history in general, from this book than I've learned in any history class, as a result.
He incorporates little sketches in his book that add another level of understanding for the reader. The different images cast in tiles (azulejos) throughout the region, for instance, display the multicultural influences on Andalusia. Renderings of revolutionary icons used in flags (of moons and suns) support the underlying oppositions in the story: sun/moon, light/dark, "moral"/"immoral" and the like. And his drawings of lamps in various villages express the underlying differences of each place and how they are made different by the geography and history of the region. Siciliano writes:"[These farolas] are simple trophies yielded by my, ultimately, very costly travels and hopefully reinforce [my] knowledge and affection for that distant land. Each town, no matter how poor, has its own design, yet they are always variations on the same flowery, wrought-iron theme. Some forays I made simply to collect my 'sample,' have a manzanilla and leave."
Perhaps most impressive to me was the way in which Siciliano drew for his readers the portrait of revolution through the lives and experiences of villagers. There is something of a grassroots nature to Siciliano's worldview, as expressed in his own real-life writings, which support liberal ideas, tolerance and peace. His motley crew in Vedette captures all that defines the formation of a political community at the most personal level. There is the cranky but sympathetic Santí, whose constant blasphemies and dour attitude yet inspire positive change. The noble leader Antonio Arleta, whose message of peace evolves over the years, comes too little and too late to their rescue. The valiant and famous torero, Espla de Paula, becomes a convert to Vedette's ways, not only out of love but of reason, after her federation usurps the village. His daughter, Acracia, aka Eva, comes into her own womanhood not as the French-educated princess she is expected to be, but as a pants-wearing militia leader with her eyes on undermining Catholicism's oppression of women. La Condesa is an aristocrat who comes to love Vedette's ideals even as she despises the lowborn ways of the masses. And El Fariz, the Arab complete with camel, the man who bathes himself in the tradition of the desert peoples by scrubbing down with dirt, is the resident keeper of Moorish history and perhaps the best living example from whom Vedette can acquire the Big Picture. These are all characters rendered completely believable because they are beautiful, yet flawed at once.
Finally, Vedette is a book to read as a way to measure our current global condition. The reflections of tolerance, freedom, feminism, idealism and creativity rendered as a political act may be paraded within the confines of this single moment in Spain's history, but their relevance for all of us is undeniably universal.
ACCESS TO VEDETTE
I must lament that this book was published using the print-on-demand services of iUniverse. My readers know me as a cheerleader for independent publishing, while being more tenuous about lending support to those who would self-publish their work or make it available only through electronic forms which require special technology for access.
I imagine the reason Siciliano took this route has much to do with the fact that his book may not be "sexy" in the eyes of New York publishing. He doesn't have the literary following of a García Márquez or an Allende, for one thing. He isn't writing around a trendy theme (writers of the diaspora, for instance); if anything, he may be criticized for being a white guy writing a story about a nonwhite girl, which I find one of the more irritating presumptions within the ranks of our contemporary literary community. It may be that the novel is simply too long, and that its accompanying timelines of real world events, pronunciation guide and bibliography might be conveyed as too offputting or demanding to average readers (a New-York-only misconception that I wish would disappear; people do have brains and they do like to use them).
For whatever reasons Siciliano holds for choosing the iUniverse route, I have to say I wish he would have found a "real" publisher, for these three reasons.
The good news is this: in May 2005, Vedette was selected as one of thirteen "literary fiction" finalists in ForeWord Magazine's 2004 Book of the Year Awards, which focus on sparking the attention of librarians and booksellers by recognizing the literary achievement of independent publishers and their authors. This is one big leap toward validation and legitimacy that the print-on-demand press needs if it is going to bear itself out of the literary ghetto that the New York-centered publishing world has imposed upon it. With excellent novels like Vedette out there, I'm hopeful that alternative options for writers, like iUniverse, will continue to supply them with the recognition they have earned.
ABOUT STEPHEN SICILIANO
He's a certified blogger, penning the entertaining and thoughtful Highway Scribery beat. He's also a poet, a novelist, and a man of political conviction bold enough to put it out there in a politically conservative time when the voices of liberals and free thinkers are belittled or denigrated.
Siciliano wrote Vedette over the course of four years while living in Andalusia. While living there, he enjoyed reading Camilo José Cela's columns and used to see the famous author hanging around Madrid with his young wife. He describes himself, in the back jacket text for Vedette, as "a 19th century man writing his way through a 21st century nightmare. …haunted by this question: Where will the intelligence and kindess come from that can save us?"
Certainly, he grapples with this question through the depiction of La Vedette, Gloriella as she plays, as Siciliano illustrates in the use of this Whitman line from Song of Myself, "not a march for victors only…I play great marches for conquered and slain persons."
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