Pick a Card
(Harper Collins, 2013)
If anthropologists are right that culture is transmitted principally through the family, then childhood games are as much a part of culture as the novel, the modern manifestation of which was first elaborated by Cervantes between the end of the 16th century and beginning of the 17th. When game and novel come together, the results can be dazzling, as in Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, or belabored, as in Arturo Pérez Reverte’s mystery, The Flanders Panel. Lotería, the promising first novelby Mario Alberto Zambrano, falls somewhere between these two extremes, though it spends a lot more time dazzling us than boring us.
Lotería is a game played in slightly different variations in most countries of Hispanic America. I remember playing it in Cuba during my childhood. Resembling bingo, lotería relies on simple images, such as a rooster or a set of arrows, depicted on playing cards. As the caller turns a card and reveals each image, players cover the corresponding number on a playing board until a line, vertical, horizontal, or diagonal, is complete. Then, the winner must call out before the next image is revealed in order to claim the prize. Oftentimes, the more inventive callers try to confound the players by using riddles instead of calling out the image. Zambrano introduces each of the chapters in his novel with a lotería card and uses the lotería game as a structural device to unify his story. The image can act as organizing principle for the chapter, as metaphor for its main narrative thrust, or as symbol for its primary thematic concerns. It soon becomes evident to the reader that the novel Lotería is, like the game, a series of riddles that gradually comes together to become a story.
Zambrano’s novel is told as a diary and each entry is inspired by a lotería card that Luz, the narrator and protagonist, uncovers before beginning to write. The diary is addressed to a capitalized You with whom Luz has an ongoing dialogue about the nature of her life. One presumes the You is God, or a higher power who listens, or a higher power who doesn’t listen, or just an indefinite figure who may or may not help her to unravel and to understand the complicated knot of family, culture, and fate that rules Luz’s life. The question that occurs—Aren’t family, culture, and fate one and the same?—is one that Zambrano’s book poses and, smartly, leaves to the readers to answer.
Luz’s father is a stereotypical Latino father—a distant, inscrutable brute, and a heavy drinker prone to violence. Luz’s mother is, too, stereotypically Latina. She takes the insults and blows of her husband with an age-old stoicism that everyone around her seems to accept and even celebrate. After the beatings and the insults, she continues preparing the family meals and cleaning the family house, but she is stereotypical only to a point. One day she runs away, leaving Luz, her sister Estrella, and their father marooned on an island of dysfunction. Doubts surface about where the mother is as doubts surface about the father’s parental abilities and his role in his wife’s disappearance.
It is one of the novel’s strengths that, in keeping with the lotería motif, what happens and how it happens is not revealed until all the cards are uncovered, that is, until the game ends. Mind you, there is no winner here. Awful things happen to Luz and to the people she loves. Sometimes her own actions, accidental or not, have a direct impact on those around her. Sometimes the people around her, including her own flawed father, act in heroic fashion. Luz understands that she is irrevocably changed by behavior, her own and others’, over which she has no control, but she remains steadfast in her attempt to use her diary as a book of revelation. The next to last card drawn is La Luna, the Moon, which allows Luz to reconnect with the all-understanding, but disengaged, You. The last card is La Rana, the Frog, a simple creature that does no harm. It takes Luz back to a time of innocence in her grandparents’ house in Mexico, when she and her sister slept together with their cousins and a kiss was something stolen from a movie and not a prelude to more dangerous and destructive acts.
All novels have faults, and Lotería is no exception. One of these is the disconnect that occurs when Zambrano writes in the voice of a pre-adolescent girl. At times the language is too simplistic and static, with none of the energy and spice that a precocious 11-year-old is capable of, and the reader can feel the author struggling to control Luz’s voice. To Zambrano’s credit, he manages to overcome this initial weakness and allow the girl to tell her story. Once he disappears, the novel takes off. It is only then that Lotería reaches a rare plane where it transcends its form and comes alive as a commentary on character, family, and culture.