Sacrificio by Ernesto Mestre-Reed book review

Review: ‘Sacrificio’ by Ernesto Mestre-Reed

Sacrificio is, among many things, a tale of startling political subterfuge, the revolt of the body, and the mutability of longing for both the physical and the untouchable. Set in 1998, the story follows a teenage Afro-Cuban boy named Rafa as he’s pulled into the orbit of “the tragic Zúñigas”, brothers Nicolás and Renato, whose counterrevolutionary natures flirt with his more placid disposition. And, more importantly, the kind of danger he can’t even conceive.

Against the backdrop of Cuba’s communist oppression, Pope John Paul II’s approaching visit is slyly fused with one final act of repudiation by a group that calls itself Los Injected Ones; a name that brings notoriety to the HIV-positive status branding them subhuman in the eyes of the law. Led by a man he can’t bear to lose, Rafa’s drawn into the epicenter of a merciless blast.

Mestre-Reed’s exhilarating use of the Spanish tongue - particularly the many ways it teases and tweaks the text - is somewhat necessitated by the fact that English is “a language suited for a convocation of insects”. But its main role seems to be a more profound affirmation of the voices we encounter.

Their unruffled expressions of frustration and intimacy, which also help distinguish the native from the foreign, allow Rafa to brush against the muted rage and frenzy of the bodies he experiences, and which freely partake in this communal form of being.

And yet, the passion and need forever entangled with their limbs point to a melancholy that borders on apathy. Similarly, a veil of disaffection is pulled over Rafa’s venture into a world of schemes and yearnings. But it speaks of the tension pricking his skin, not a lack of feeling.

The contortions of the self are readily made out, the face remains vulnerable to expressions of doubt. In fact, with mounting force, the novel’s air resembles the sultry, soporific breath of an imminent storm. Emotions crackle on the page, colliding with wit and manifold seductions, as narrative as they prove thematic.

Following the uneasy observation that Cubans are “becoming a nation of ghosts,” Rafa turns into one in his own uncertain fashion, allowing the story’s focus to veer away from the individual to present not the freckle, but the body as a whole.

This leaves us glimpsing both the historical and the cultural, all the while relishing the earnestness with which Rafa regales both Nicolás and Renato — often to the detriment of his own senses. The timeline, likewise, stays true to the author’s distinctive mode of storytelling, unfolding as coyly as two tangerine segments reluctantly parting flesh.

With much of the tale told both retrospectively and proactively, we’re constantly in the throes of the unknown, its disarray, and the fervor brought on by the will to endure. And since the novel’s dialogue is unshackled and free of quotation marks, the words that fall from dry lips blend into violent thoughts, bringing the psyche out into the open to create a rich topography of want and distrust. 

Riddled with intricacy, Sacrificio presents a striking take on relationships, choosing not to affect them with civilized intimacy, but to leave them bare; a state that quickly points to the addictive nature of fallibility. Relations are never limited to the romantic, but more often than not lunge at the heart of the familial, feasting on a disharmony that fuels an entity much greater than the self. 

As a result, the rawness we graze in its many forms emits a fierce hunger for intimacy: familial, sexual, romantic, civilian. But though carnality suffuses the narrative, it’s largely denied the glorified ideals and sensual culminations of longing that often come to define it — with maybe one memorable exception.

Obsessions flare hotter the more sensationalistic and harrowing the young men’s transgressions become, animating the slogans of la Revolución, the Directorate, the Visit, as well as the hushed, inexpressible sound bite of a looming cataclysm. Their echoes reveal the pulsation of a make-believe world, the result of the country’s fictionalization of being. 

Sacrificio’s magnificent grasp of its multilayered intrigue further throttles our sense of anticipation, kneading the central socio-political experiment and its utopian myth in a bid to expel its delusion of shared individualism.

Always at the heart of the narrative is the vision of mutiny; the shattering process of defining, and pursuing, freedom. More curiously still, we experience the impulse to love, pleasure, live among, and evolve into ghosts. 

Somewhat redolent of Robin Hood’s band of outlaws, the novel’s revolutionaries are nonetheless more frenzied and less encumbered by constraints, both physical and cerebral. They recognize love as its own act of defiance, but its bodily expressions grapple with the space reserved for delirium.

Similarly, the war camp erected hundreds of feet in the air appears like a phantasmagoria, a fever dream bolstered by the notion of liberty. Ultimately, by the end of the novel’s thrilling and calamitous journey, personal autonomy proves to be both life’s aim and its most felt liability.


Publication date: September 6, 2022 (Soho Press)

Rating: 5

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