Demetrio, the protagonist of Javier Fuentes’s debut novel, “Countries of Origin,” was 13 and on a trip to Niagara Falls in New York when his uncle revealed why they could not cross into Canada. “Then I understood that we were undocumented,” he recalls, “and that being undocumented made us different, limited.”
It was a terrifying realization, but since then Demetrio has tried not to let his citizenship status hold him back. When we meet him, he has made a name for himself as a pastry chef in New York and grown into himself as an out gay man in the George W. Bush years. Still, the shame of being “limited” stalks him every day of his life. When he hears of an exciting opening to be head of pastries at the Four Seasons, he applies — only to learn “that something’s up with my application.”
It’s not his first upset. He previously met with an immigration lawyer about how to settle legally in the United States and learned that his best bet was to leave the country for 10 years and then apply for a work visa. “I was filled with anger and despair for having deluded myself these past couple of weeks into thinking that at some point the door would open, when in truth the door had shut the moment I entered the country,” he thinks after the meeting.
This sense of administrative finality is familiar to anyone whose life hinges on the indifferent signature of a bureaucrat, and Demetrio has had enough. To avoid the risk of deportation, he says goodbye to his uncle, who is his only family, and returns to his country of origin, Spain. On the flight, he befriends an attractive young man, Jacobo, who is very rich and also gay, though not out to his family.
With Jacobo’s extraordinary generosity and social connections, the door of opportunity that Demetrio has been waiting for finally opens — but he doesn’t trust it. Demetrio had just ended a long-term relationship with a man in New York who wouldn’t stop cheating on him, and in Spain he finds the way Jacobo looks at other men unsettling. He also has deeper fears: In America, he had to rely on an understanding, look-the-other-way boss, and in Spain, he fears he’ll become complacent, depending on a rich boyfriend who pays for everything and who might one day grow bored with him. Meanwhile, Jacobo is hiding in the present, utterly unprepared for the tragedy Fuentes places in front of him.
The gift and burden of a social novel is to be both about and not about, striving to cover a topical issue while making sure the world and characters of the book feel real, not merely like symbols in service of an idea. Thankfully, in Fuentes’s hands, the “about” of “Countries of Origin” — the cruelty of borders — is woven in seamlessly with the “not about” details that deepen and broaden Fuentes’s story: Demetrio’s love for his uncle, his fidelity amid promiscuity, his sensual joy in working as a pastry chef. “Countries of Origin” is filled with these pleasures, the little “not-abouts” talented novelists enjoy among their more pragmatic aims. In one of the novel’s tenderest details, “stray dogs lounged in the shade, and as we walked by, Jacobo spoke to them in baby talk.” As a butcher shaves the flesh from a ham, “the leg began to sweat, and the bone underneath emerged with the sheen of a massive pearl.”
As the novel documents a life pushed into free fall, these moments of peace and wonderment remind us that we aren’t here solely for an agenda, for politics, for the news. Existence isn’t all anxiety, no matter one’s circumstances. Even the most desperate are offered opportunities to step outside their rigid boundaries. In this way, “Countries of Origin” does what all memorable novels do: It leaves the reader’s world a little larger, airier and more forgiving than before.
COUNTRIES OF ORIGIN | By Javier Fuentes | 294 pp. | Pantheon | $27
The post The Horrors of Immigration and the Pleasures of Food in a Debut Novel appeared first on New York Times.