In the opening section of Alex Poppe’s novella, “Duende,” the author plants an image of Lola, a primary character we’ve yet to meet, dancing the flamenco. This guides the narrative. This is a coming-of-age story, but our heroine, our setting, and our intermingled plotlines act in concert with a poetic dissertation on this dance. We learn, in that opening sequence, that the story primarily takes place in Triana, the neighborhood in Seville, Spain known as the birthplace of flamenco. This gives the author occasion to dive deeply into the flamenco’s history, the culture surrounding it, and the almost spiritual allure that causes it to inhabit the inner and outer lives of its practitioners.
If this were just a sociological study rubber-banded to a fictional tale, it would work well enough. Each of the seven chapters is named after a flamenco style or dance, beginning with “Tango,” the most basic, and ending with “Taranto,” a relatively sober and collected style. The timeline is almost precisely one year, a year in which Lava is exiled from her home in Detroit to her aunt’s house in Sevilla. It’s a perfect structure within which to tickle guitar strings, clap, shake and set feet in motion; it’s ready made as a springboard into interesting insights and observations that help us develop, along with the narrator, an appreciation of the art. These built-in opportunities allow the narrator to move in and out of a lecture on flamenco without ever alerting the audience that they are taking a class.
But our heroine, Lava, is more than a dancing PowerPoint presentation. She is restless. Depressed. Rudderless. On top of typical adolescent angst welling inside Lava, she also contends with a heartbreaking exile from her mother and de facto father. Her actual father’s drug dependency and subsequent prison stints are at the center of her family’s difficulties and subsequent breakup.
Music and dance vibrate through the novel, not just as forms of art or entertainment but as part and parcel of life, the cords and body movements inextricably linked to expression. The author expertly creates a portrait of this vibrant world in which people relate to each other and their circumstances through flamenco. About Daniel, Lava’s first love, she writes, “His accent lent a musicality to spoken English, a richness of bass underscoring a euphony of melody that made my ears greedy.” Cody speaks “In a voice wisped with sunset,” Lava observes, “the silent language of my fingers, each joint articulating the odyssey of living.”
Lava starts at the beginning and works her way up the flamenco ladder. Though flamenco was part of her Detroit childhood—her grandfather Roberto was a revered musician—Lava is still a novice when she comes under the tutelage of her aunt, the legendary dancer Lola. Lava is learning flamenco, but also learning from flamenco, using the dance itself and the culture surrounding it to internalize and express emotions, to understand herself and carve out an identity, to deal with her childhood trauma and adolescent tribulations, such as the bullying gossip of her also-adolescent peers. Flamenco provides Lava a path forward. The dance instructs Lava through an emotionally-charged year-long journey of self-discovery and maturity. Even her first sexual encounter owes credit to flamenco. “I was on my back, and he was on my front, and I thought about saying stop when the farruca, with its urgent rage and beauty, pulsed through me, sparking something wild, something vivid.”
The narrative insistence that every life event be handcuffed to flamenco is both a strength and a weakness. At times, the relationship feels manufactured, like the missing girl who creates a sensation in the community. But there is a payoff to the persistence. The story maintains an intensity both compelling and addictive. This is accomplished in part through Poppe’s stylized narrative approach. Her careful and expert application of fast, muscular language (she uses verbs such as “origamied,” “Vaselined,” “roller-coastered,” “puddled,” “star-fished,” and “monstered”) is a kind of third-rail approach to tension building. The narrative form is also highly stylized, or perhaps experimental. Each chapter opening plays off the same genesis moment, a jarring repetition that draws attention to the story as an artifice. It reads, at first, as though we’re starting, over and over, a separate short story based upon the same characters and situation. Ultimately, though, there is a cumulative effect to this method of telling, namely to underscore the electricity of this time and characterize a single moment as essential to everything that came after.
While flamenco serves as the connective tissue, the action compels us forward. If flamenco is a mysterious and mesmerizing art form, so too is the life of Lava, at least during this hyper-emotional year. Mysteries in the community and her lineage gain focus as Lava embraces the tutelage of her aunt. The narrative glides between Detroit and Seville, providing us with backstory fascinating in its own right and rich in the way it balloons our understanding of the surface story. In the tradition of the greatest coming-of-age stories, Lava is on a journey of discovery that begins with the self.
“This was flamenco’s magic: a primal, improvised interpretation built upon a common past which transcended spoken language; an immediate yet fleeting shared creation—duende,” Lava narrates as she begins her story. This is an almost impossible promise, the implication that through language—THIS story—we will come to a sophisticated understanding of that which alludes language. And yet, the novella almost neurotically goes on to fulfill this promise, with vigilance in the way the story is crafted and beauty in the way it is told. Poppe’s finest gift, indeed, is her ability to wrangle the most out of language. The writing provides an unending stream of pretty sentences, keen observations and precise word choices. It’s impossible to substitute language for matters of the body, but Poppe comes awful close.
By Alex Poppe
Regal House Publishing, 111 pages
Donald G. Evans is the author of three books, most recently the story collection An Off-White Christmas, and Founding Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.