Reviewed by Nathaniel Drenner
A revolutionary Puerto Rican future that draws on a near-forgotten past
If heritage combines a shared past with a shared place, then a threat to either could be devastating. Colonization destroys both, erasing Indigenous history and deforming the land. For a tiny nation at the mercy of international superpowers, the danger is only compounded as climate changes: the land and its people in even greater peril.
E.G. Condé’s Sordidez is set in Puerto Rico at the nexus of these types of powers.
In a dystopian near-future, amid growing political and environmental disasters, the United States has ceded control of Puerto Rico to China. As the story starts, a young protagonist, Vero Diaz, leads a ragtag group of compatriots in a guerilla rebellion against this latest of a long line of oppressive, occupying forces. Along the way he struggles with others who lack faith in him, as well as with questions of identity and heritage.
“I tell him I’m fine, but I’m not. None of us are. I pretend as I have every day since that wall of mud buried our house with Mami, Papi, and Abuela Serafina inside, the day we because orphans and my dreams for the future were washed away. The day our community’s survivors turned to us, the children of their deceased pastor, for leadership.”
With its youthful hero and nightmarish setting, this initial plot may sound like any given coming-of-age blockbuster, but as the novel develops, its freshness and originality become clear. Vero’s identity as a transgender man is layered into his experiences. Facing the enormity of his task, he leaves his group for an unexpected new opportunity. Not until the back half of the novel does he fully re-emerge, playing a new and thought-provoking role.
Meanwhile, the focus shifts to well-conceived secondary characters, nearly protagonists themselves. An older man known as Abuelo suffers from a disease which robs him of memory—perhaps a blessing, perhaps a curse. A woman named Margarita devotes herself to serving others affected by the oppression around them. Her foil, Aleja, has a much different reaction to the same situation.
Some of these characters are not who they first appear to be. Moreover, their shifting loyalties and identities illustrate varied responses to a long and troubled past, a history which, like Abuelo’s memories, was nearly eradicated. The nation’s troubles certainly come from without—but many also come from within.
“Parliament. First it was a league, then a union, now a parliament. An experiment in world governance intensifying with each successive global conflict. Rather than destroy each other, our enemies have fused, their empires merging in the name of peace and stability. Great.”
In the midst of all of this, political oversight of the island changes yet again, to a new United Nations. This latest occupying force, though outwardly beneficent, is represented by mysterious, not-quite-human agents with questionable motivations.
As we come full circle to Vero’s involvement with the new regime, we are not sure who is a villain and who is a hero, or if certain characters can be easily categorized one way or the other (others are more obvious). By the end, the novel takes a definitive position but does not shy away from the disturbing complexities of the situation.
Originality also comes through in the synthesis of various subject matter. Beyond the aforementioned political dynamics, Condé takes us on a deep dive into Indigenous mythology, combining it with themes of environmentalism, identity, and cultural memory. On top of that, he adds inventive science fiction concepts. The result is fascinating, a story like no other. The prose is expressive, lyrical—an original voice, a pleasure to read. Condé evokes Puerto Rico in its dystopian and paradisical states with equal force. Even in the worst of situations, joy is found here: in the beauty of the language, and in the ad hoc families that develop deep and abiding love for one another.
“The forest flickers. Like neon spiderwebs woven across the canopy, our solar nets activate. It’s as if a thousand fireflies are frozen in amber above our yucayeke, their light softening everything as dusk falls. The cheers are hesitant at first, skeptical even. But after a minute or so of uninterrupted power, I jump up to hug Anacaona, shouting in that excited way that I used to when we were kids.”
Much ground is covered in a short 141 pages. Though the compression is impressive, at times it gets in the way. Some significant action takes place off-stage. Some pages are heavy with exposition. Some character development feels rushed: an enemy turns into a lover within a few pages; another recovers startlingly quickly from a shocking revelation. In these instances the reader is left wanting more understanding, more breathing space. With such rich material, it feels like there are further depths to be mined.
Nevertheless, Condé emerges as a fresh voice with something genuine and unique to say about a place too often overlooked. Sordidez shows us the cost of conquest—and the difficult, though perhaps necessary, price of rebellion.
Thank you for reading Nathaniel Drenner’s book review of Sordidez by E.G. Condé! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.