There is a new notable voice in Latino literature. His name is Rafael Reyes-Ruiz, a Colombian-American anthropologist focusing on transnational flows between the Americas and Japan, who published a trilogy of novels titled The Roppongi Crossing, in Spanish and English. Beyond being a series of books connected by a theme—the migration of Latin Americans to Japan—the trilogy gathers a compendium of reflections on identity, globalization and historical memory. The second novel, The Shape of Things and the third, The Samurai came out August of 2019 with LCG Media, a few months after the second edition of the first novel, The Ruins, by another Latino publisher, La Pereza/Lazy (the first edition came out in 2014 with the now defunct Latin American Literary Review Press).
From the first paragraph of The Shape of Things, we begin to grapple head on with issues of transience and continual search that permeate the novel. In it, we meet our protagonist Javier Pinto, a twenty something backpacker recently arrived in Thailand with plans to be there for six months to become a writer and leave behind his life as a translator in Japan. Javier is about to go out for a walk—one of many he will take—a convenient metaphor for the existential journey he undertakes throughout the novel. In these walks, we meet the cast characters who weave the fabric of the plot: a mysterious Japanese businessman, a young German-Iranian backpacker whom we will eventually marry, and sundry characters from different parts of the world that cross paths in Bangkok.
The novel also carefully maps three cities: Bangkok in the first part, set in 1989; and Tokyo and Yokohama in the second, set in 1999. Javier wanders around the streets of these cities, usually on foot, which Reyes-Ruiz describes in great detail. The streets, corners and bars frame the encounters between the characters, and bear witness to the stories they tell. As in the first novel, The Ruins, and perhaps as an homage to Antonio Tabucchi, whose acclaimed novel, Indian Nocturne is alluded to in the trilogy, the author is personally acquainted with these places that leave a mark in the life of the characters. Parallel to the mapping of the cities, the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery is deployed, as well as a recounting of cultural encounters through time.
The plot is assembled bit by bit through clues, some of them misleading. Javier goes from being a naïve, albeit intuitive, young man, to becoming a mature observer, who discovers in the end what he had not been able or wanted to see before. Through the sharpening of his senses in the latter part of the novel, the protagonist discovers the tangle of networks used by international mafias for the trafficking of women, the clues of which were scattered in the earlier chapters. The novel is full of fragments, pieces of a puzzle, images that deceive and change, and eventually reveal a different reality: the complete picture. An illustration of this is found in a short story that our protagonist writes titled, The Shape of Things, where he recounts an episode of his own life, when a secondary character tells him, in reference to the meaning of a tryptic of Japanese calligraphy, that, “if the meaning was not yet clear, then to be patient, that it would be known in due course” (107).
There is a constant splitting of binaries in the novel: between the old and the new, fiction and reality, truth and lies, a first and a second language, that throughout the story becomes increasingly more complex. The novel is a kaleidoscope of different pieces that make up one or more realities depending on how the pieces move. Moreover, the protagonist’s life is mixed with the book of short stories he’s writing, based on the journals he kept where he recorded his experiences traveling through Asia.
In this novel, language itself is at the center. From the beginning, we encounter characters who can not communicate well, who translate themselves, though not always accurately, and who love and argue in a language not their own. In a sense, the novel is a reflection on the process of communication, and the related issue of language as the axis of identity formation. Javier Pinto stops writing in English in the second part of the novel and begins writing in Spanish as a result of his existential search for meaning. This also raises a question about translation. Is it just a rendering of a text into another language or is it a creative act?
Reyes-Ruiz’s training as an anthropologist and writer, but above all as an acute and compassionate observer of transnational migrants is reflected in the trilogy. His novels explore the contact zones where characters of different nationalities and linguistic backgrounds harmonize or clash in their search for meaning, in an increasingly complex world. This is not a new phenomenon, as the author points out with historical references to encounters between different nations and cultures over the centuries, but it takes on a new perspective in today’s world, hyperconnected through communication technologies and social networks. His characters are exposed to a new reality, perplexed by the possibilities of a whole world at their disposal, looking for support in history and literature. Javier Pinto clings to writing to give shape to that existential uneasiness, to ease somewhat the new and ever present horror vacui, the fear of emptiness.
Claudia Mejía holds a B.A. in Linguistics and Literature from the Pontificia Bolivariana University of Colombia. In 1997, she completed a Master of Arts in Latin American Literature and Culture from Boston College. Since then she has taught Spanish in several universities in the U.S and the Middle East: Harvard, Tufts, NYUAD and The American University of Kuwait. She has published several short stories and articles in different magazines. Mejía co-edited the book La soledad del Golfo (CantArabia, 2018) a collection of short stories written by Spanish speakers authors living in the Middle East.