Review: The History of Light by Alvaro Cardona-Hine Print E-mail

light(Bloomsbury Review July/August 1998 Volume 18, Issue 4)

A Micro-Memoir

In an age of the overblown life story—the thousand-page literary biography, the five-hundred-page family saga, the three-hundred-page celebrity confession—at last we have something manageable: Alvaro Cardona-Hine’s micro-memoir, The History of Light. In fifty-six half-page or less prose vignettes, he gives us the story of his childhood’s first love, precious in its brevity, precocious in its romance.

Costa Rican-born and raised, Cardona-Hine recalls his infatuation for a blond German girl whom he knew briefly before the Second World War. The unnamed she is everything to his blooming heart—sensitivity trainer, blushing accomplice, wild enticer. Most of all she is muse, the source on which he projects his metaphoric awakening. This German girl, an exotic in the Latin/African mix of Caribbean Costa Rica, beguiles him constantly.

". . . I go nearly twenty-four hours without seeing you when your face appears in the fountain of holy water in the Church of El Carmen. The anonymous miracle lights up the corners where the confessionals have been soiling the light with the story of sin; the whole church brightens up because you are smiling there on the surface of the water. . . . I leave the church and hurry to your house, knowing that you will have beaten me there, in a rush to appear normal and as if you knew nothing about miracles."

Cardona-Hine’s method is to render these twelve-year-olds in their nascent desires, both awkward and astute. Although he uses the present tense to heighten the immediacy then, the story is written from a memorializing now. A sort of possessiveness for the past without any self-conscious rectitude permeates these lovely episodic memories, some of which are short enough to quote entirely.

"We’ve grown thinner, taller. That’s because the heart with our initials that I carved on the cork tree is now below eye level and still sinking, moving down, perhaps wanting to reach the soil and grow roots. I like the two you’s: the one I saw the first day and the thinner, taller one I saw just yesterday; but I can’t choose which one I like the more because, when I close my eyes, they merge into one."

Here is longing and desperation and discovery compounding the ache for another to complete the self. Here is also an irrepressible chumminess. "Your gifts make me laugh: a piece of thread that you pluck from the sleeve of your blouse and hand me, just to test and see if I will throw it away; . . . that piece of coconut taffy you pulled out of your mouth and placed in mine without batting an eyelid, laughing, and which I took for a kiss, the first, the only one."

Finishing this volume, it’s fun to spin the pages and land anywhere, rereading Cardona-Hine’s fondly recollected innocence. The pocket poet-like size and design by Sherman Asher Publishing is as intimately accessible as the author’s tropic-ripe similes. For example, seeing her for the first time he writes is "like electricity, like ammonia, like passing out, like shouting in pools of blood, like no air . . . like wanting water with the heart of a burning lion." Once together, the girl complements his being: "You are the earthquake and I am the passion fruit vine with all my flowers shaking like bells." The author christens their bond "a little rubber band holding hard to a bouquet of flowers."

Now over 70, Cardona-Hine, who is also a translator, composer and painter, and lives in Truchas, New Mexico, reminds me of the elder Pablo Neruda whose artless language disentombs the magic of childhood. Though an epilogue spells out when and where the author wrote this book, the admission is unnecessary. Who cares about facts when such prose alchemy to first love dazzles us with affection and delight.