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  • Gregorio Martinez's Canto
  • Mario A. Chandler

Gregorio Martínez was born in Nasca-Ica, Peru, in 1942. Nasca-Ica is located in the Ica region situated on the southern Peruvian coast. The region of the author's birth is rich in the culture and history of pre-Columbian communities as well as those of the country's Afro-Peruvian population. Footprints of Ica's indigenous and African heritages, as well as its regional landscape, all have a prominent role in Martínez's Canto de sirena published in 1977. Martínez moved to Peru's capital, Lima, in 1961, where he studied education and literature. In the early 1970s, he became an important contributor to the literary group Narración, whose main objective was to elevate the status of contemporary Peruvian letters by giving voice to the marginal groups of the country's diverse cultural landscape. Martínez's dedication to this objective contributes to his evolution into one of the leading writers of contemporary Afro-Peruvian literature, a fact which is apparent in other works written by the author, including Tierra de caléndula (1975), La gloria del piturrín y otros embrujos de amor (1985), and Crónica de músicos y diablos (1991). Martínez currently resides in the United States.

It is possible that Canto de sirena is Martínez's most well-known and celebrated work. The novel earns its place alongside other great works of experimental literature that were inspired by the boom of Latin American narrative of the 1960s. The experimental quality of Canto de sirena cannot be overestimated. The novel's structure—composed of six chapters and various "sub-discourses" touching on topics related to history, science, religion, local travel, lore, and the philosophical musings of the narrator-protagonist, Candico Navarro—is intentionally enigmatic and elusive, yet richly entertaining and engaging. Canto de sirena provides the reader with access to quotidian life and existence for the Afro-Peruvian residing, not in the urban center of the nation's capital Lima, but rather in the rural villages in and around the southern coastal province of Nasca-Ica during the end of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century.

It was not Martínez's intention to create a classically "linear" narrative, rather something more innovative, so the reader is confronted throughout the novel with non-sequential fragments from the life, wanderings, and reconstructed memories of Candico Navarro, who returns to the village of Coyungo after more than three decades of absence. Throughout the novel, the reader grows quite fond of Candico, now a mature and contemplative man whose descriptions of his extensive travels, exotic dining, sexual conquests, and lifelong, unapologetic, and at times, bellicose defense of his dignity as a black man, maintain for the Afro-Peruvian a constant narrative presence of extreme youth despite his eighty-two years and the quest for solitude that he seeks at the twilight of his life. [End Page 261]

Martínez's reference to his novel as a canto is appropriate since this description focuses attention on the oral quality of the narrative. Despite Candico's apparent verbal acumen in discussing politics, archeology, religion, and social history, he does so by making use of a colloquial lexicon that makes his character not only credible but also colorful and entertaining. In other words, despite Candico's ability to provide sound and penetrative opinions about socially and culturally relevant themes, the manner in which he speaks and the vocabulary that he employs to articulate his ideas create a remarkably believable integration of form and function.

While reading Canto de sirena, it is nearly impossible not to hear echoes of Esteban Montejo, the loquacious and critically sharp Afro-Cuban source of Miguel Barnet's Biografía de un cimarrón (1966). Comparisons between the two texts are unavoidable despite the fact that Canto de sirena is presented essentially as a work based on the life of the "fictional" Candico Navarro, while Biografía de un cimarrón sells itself as the "authentic" biography of the 104 year-old Montejo. The link between Navarro and Montejo, between Canto and Biografía is, in reality, the ambiguous...


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