In his experimentally structured debut novel, Velorio, Xavier Navarro Aquino makes important points about Puerto Rico, its history as a commonwealth of the United States and the catastrophic aftereffects of Hurricane Maria, which decimated the island in September 2017.
The Spanish word velorio signifies a wake or funeral, a moment of mourning but also recognition of what has been lost. There’s a pun in this translation to English, with wake also meaning the aftermath of a storm, or the turbulent waters behind a fast-moving ship. The wake of Hurricane Maria—a storm so powerful and its effects so catastrophic that Maria has been retired from the circulation of names used by the National Weather Service—provides the energy for this remarkable, mythic novel, populated by a memorable cast.
Maria was one of the most intense storms ever recorded on American territory and the deadliest since 1998. In some areas, floodwaters rose up to 6 feet in 30 minutes, eventually exceeding 15 feet in total, destroying 80% of the crops on the island and an estimated 18 million coffee trees. Months later, half of the population still did not have electricity or potable water. Billions of dollars in aid remained undistributed off-island. In this traumatic aftermath, the Puerto Rican people were rendered largely immobile.
Velorio is far from immobile, taking readers on a painful journey across the devastated island. Aquino addresses the situation using a wide range of voices and narrative styles. Drama is high as survivors fight to rebuild what they can salvage from the fury of nature and the incompetence of the powers that be.
The novel, dedicated to “the thousands lost and the unaccounted,” introduces the survivors individually, including Camila, who digs her sister Marisol’s drowned body out from the mud and clings to it as it decays, a symbol for the island itself. Carrying Marisol’s body, Camila gravitates toward a haven called Memoria, where gangs of young people are trying to reconstitute a society based on authoritarian symbols and gestures. Their leader, Urayoan, dresses homeless boys in red castoffs pulled from the dead, builds a hellish tower to concentrate his power and oversees the looting of what little is left.
Animals are skinned and butchered, all manner of outrages are performed, and “ghosts of people, ghosts of men, ghosts of women” are everywhere. The foundations of Memoria inevitably collapse like a fever dream, set afire by those who desperately escape it. Maria, “the monstrua,” has gutted the island, and demagogue Urayoan’s dream of a new Utopia will be shaken in turn.
Amid scenes of carnage and dialogue that incorporates Spanish idioms and Puerto Rican slang, the novel includes large swaths of poetry written by a visionary secondary character named Cheo. Some of the poems are only drafts, unfinished and abandoned. “It’s my poetry and that’s what keeps us alive,” he tells the younger gang members. In this way, Velorio pays homage to Nobel Prize-winning Caribbean author Derek Walcott, whose Homeric epic, Omeros, brought recognition to poets of the region. Extensive passages of Cheo’s work give the sense of a life raft bobbing along, battered by the monstrous storm: “Are we culprits to our fate / And live by our names? / And that is empire. / And that is violence.”