Pig’s Foot, by Carlos Acosta, translated by Frank Wynne, Bloomsbury, RRP£12.99, 352 pages
When an acclaimed ballet dancer makes a foray into writing fiction, be prepared for it to be hailed as “sure-footed”. The good news is that Cuban star Carlos Acosta does, indeed, barely put a step wrong in his debut novel, Pig’s Foot, an exuberantly enjoyable tale tracing a dysfunctional dynasty from slavery in the 1850s to Cuba’s “special period” in the 1990s.
The book’s lively cast of characters includes pygmy slaves from east Africa, a prophetic village soothsayer, a machete-wielding womaniser, a teenage architectural prodigy and the misfit narrator Oscar Mandinga himself, who instantly engages the reader’s sympathy with his blunt chattiness and the unlikely – but page-turning – saga of his ancestors, their passions and their secrets.
Oscar shares a first name with – and inherits a shrivelled pig’s foot amulet from – a cheerless pygmy slave, Oscar Kortico, who grew up on a Cuban sugar plantation and fearlessly fought Spaniards in the war of independence. But the book’s real – or rather, magically realist – saga gyrates around a far-flung village, Pata de Puerco, founded by Kortico and his best friend. It is not only a place where “days seemed to last thirty-five hours rather than twenty-four. But there was no need to hurry since there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money with which to buy it.” It is also, we learn, “a village where anything is possible”. Oscar, who never knew his parents and was raised on his grandfather’s tales, narrates: “I came to build a world around a tiny village called Pata de Puerco, a place I’ve never been but one I inhabited through the memories of that poor old man.”
Outlandish, comical stories about the past resonate with Oscar, a slave descendant who experiences his own modern-day hardships – hunger, power cuts, isolation and friends perishing at sea fleeing “the terrible years we had to live through”.
But the present is given short shrift (Fidel Castro is never mentioned). Oscar’s grandfather brought him up on the mantra that “no man knows who he is until he knows his past, his history, the history of his country” – and that becomes his quest. However, Oscar’s world comes crashing down when, utterly alone after losing both his grandparents and his girlfriend in swift succession, he is accused of making up his story.
“Imagine if someone told you that you are not who you think you are, that your grandparents, your neighbourhood and everything you’ve ever known does not exist, that you’re a ghost, a head case, a fabulist who goes through life spouting fairy tales and bullshit,” he recounts.
As a dancer with the Royal Ballet and a host of the world’s other great companies, Havana-born Acosta has carved out a well-earned reputation for prowess and verve. Pig’s Foot, which meanders along amiably at first before growing darker and more thought-provoking as its climax unfolds, has both in spades.
Describing the novel as a “fantastical alternate version of Cuba inspired by the landscapes, the different cultures, the rough magic and the turbulent history of my country,” Acosta does a good job of keeping the reader hooked, though the story of the significance of the amulet itself, and Oscar’s long-awaited return to Pata de Puerco, end up feeling rushed and are probably its least successful passages.
Selected as one of 11 “debut literary stars of 2013” by the bookseller Waterstones, Acosta wrote Pig’s Foot in snatches during rehearsals over a period of years. His enjoyment of the retreat into the imagination is palpable. “I want to thank you for having kept me company all this time,” says Oscar. “Thank you for listening to this story ... for walking with me along the dirt roads of Pata de Puerco, this village of mud, fictional or real.”
Jude Webber is the FT’s Mexico and Central America correspondent