Captain of the Sleepers

by Mayra Montero

translated by Edith Grossman

Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux

181 pages, 2005

Buy it online



Sleeping Sickness

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen


Although Cuban born Montero has written seven books, most of which have been translated into English, she is not well known in that language. In Captain of the Sleepers she's lucky in her translator. Grossman -- known for her superb translations of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's works -- may help the author become as celebrated in English speaking countries as she is in Spain and Latin America.

This brooding, sensual story has many of the classic Latin American elements: evocative imagery, the collision of past and present action, a larger framework that encompasses and colors the action it surrounds and a dreamy, nostalgic sense of place.

Like me, you may spend days after completing Captain of the Sleepers trying to shake off the entrapping mood.

The story begins with a cliffhanger. What could the protagonist have possibly witnessed as a young boy that could have been as horrific as all that? You will read on for that answer alone. Set in Puerto Rico against the impending national uprising of 1950, the past unfolds for a young couple with a son, Andrés, who is 12 when he stares into a dark room within the family owned inn and sees something unmentionable that causes him to vomit incessantly, hurls him into a hospital for months and returns him as a boy changed. The incident seems to cast a shadow on his world for the rest of his life.

In the present, Andrés is now 62 and is "in the last place on earth he ever wanted to be," back in the place he grew up and then fled from.

He is meeting -- with fury, reluctance and foreboding -- the very man who was in that room of his childhood. Called The Captain of the Sleepers, this gringo, J.T. Bunker, was a pilot who earned his name because he used to fly back to the island with the bodies of people who had died on the mainland but wanted to be buried back on their home soil. In order to allay his fears, when he was a young boy, Andrés was told these people were sleeping. What keeps drawing the captain back to this island and what also pulls him into the ill-fated revolution that really doesn't affect him, is his friendship with the boy's father, Frank, and his obsession with a woman he has had an affair with, Andrés' mother. She has flung him away for another lover, the doomed Roberto, whom she had known as a child and who is now a leader in the Puerto Rican nationalist insurrection.

Andrés also seems obsessed with his mother. He appears to have been born with the knowledge that he would only have her temporarily and this fear looms throughout the book's past.

In the present, the older Andrés is meeting Bunker for the first time since witnessing that mysterious scene over 50 years before. Bunker is dying of cancer and has asked him to come. Slowly the story of what led up to that fateful encounter unravels, as we jump back and forth between the present and the past.

It is the measure of this author's skill that although we are driven to discover what that dreadful scene could possibly have been, we are still just as happy to remain in the novel's other dimensions, equally enthralled by what we find there. There unfolds the story of an adolescent's sexual awakening, the horrors of a potential war that brings soldiers who don't hesitate to deploy fearful weapons that destroy the fish in the ocean and send toxic fumes into the area, merely in rehearsal for the real thing. Soldiers, also, who don't hesitate to maim and murder before they can package their brutality with the wrappings of war. There is a lot of death in Andrés' world; although ironically the ones you expect to die, don't.

Captain of the Sleepers is an evocative, haunting story, as fatalistic, moody and inevitable as a Greek tragedy. "Sleep tight", says the Captain at the end of the novel. As if Andrés -- or the reader -- will be able to. | September 2005


Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.