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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Existential Endeavors BY LEE MIDDLETON Face By Cecile Pineda Wings Press 198 pages, $16. WI hen is the last time you came across a piece of literature that rendered emotions or sensations in such a way as to elicit a physical response in you? How do you imagine the writer effected this alchemy? Recently I found myself discussing the potential emotional properties of fiction with a group of writers. Not surprisingly, we strayed off topic, and the theories bandied about suffered both generalization and hyperbole. In this context, someone proposed the idea that certain authors attempt to reproduce in their readers the feelings or sentiments they foist upon their characters, suggesting a sort of emotionally manipulative intent on the part of such writers. I do not believe that this is often, if ever, the case. Nonetheless, the comment resonated for me later that night when I noticed myself actually cringing while reading a particularly harrowing section of Cecile Pineda’s recently reprinted first novel, Face. Originally published in 1985, Face received critical acclaim and several awards, including one from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Not long thereafter, this intelligent and decidedly un-mainstream book went out of print. Thanks to San Antonio’s Wings Press \(under whose copyright all Face is back on bookstore shelves. The deceptively simple story of a man who survives a terrible accident in which he literally loses and then attempts to reconstruct his face, Pineda’s novel provoked responses ranging from grimly visceral to probingly existential. Rather than making me feel that I had just run a scripted emotional gamut \(or been crafted prose delivered me to an open space that catalyzed my imagination to fill in the blanks. The blanks in this novel being the shocking loss of identity and surfeit of physical pain suffered by Pineda’s protagonist, ironically named Helio Cara \(“cara” meaning “face,” but also used as slang for “guy” in is arguably, in physical terms, a person’s first and last claim to being human. I wonder to what extent we can thank Pineda’s background in experimental theater for the imagistic quality of her prose and her powerfully spare dramatic sensibilities. Pineda was director of a theater company when, in the back pages of a newspaper, she encountered the story around which she wrote her first novel. Long fascinated by defining concepts of identity in a postmodern world, she writes in her introduction that the ramifications and potential consequences of this story came “to fester like an unhealed wound.” An apt simile for the genesis of a novel concerned with wounds whose healing leads only to injury of another type. Set in Rio de Janeiro’s Whale Back slum, Face opens with the climactic event of Cara’s accident. Thus we only know Cara as a man without a face. Cara is haunted by dreamlike refrains from a past in which, he now understands, his rather unexceptional arrangement of eyes-nose-mouth made the difference between humanity’s recognition of him as one of its own, and its persecution of him as a monster whose very existence it treats as an act of aggression. Cara’s predicament subtly forces us to ask what it is precisely that makes a person human, to question if our own belief in our humanity means anything in the absence of society’s corroboration. Missing limbs may inspire curiosity, pity, or even discomfort, but how do you interact with a person who is, literally, faceless? In the world Pineda createsone that is otherwise neither particularly cruel nor kindyou simply don’t. From his fiance, Lula, to strangers in bus depots, every person Cara encounters wants only for him to remove the burden of his deformity from their space, to erase the unwelcome knowledge that such a thing could happen: The white zone has its particular density: whispers, furtive glances, the panicked cries of children, all exile him. Each movement, gesture, sound is known to him. Now that man will hunch a little deeper into himself now another will blow his nose. Now a woman will take reassurance from it: he has a nose at least, let alone a face… Like the pipers pecking for mollusks in the surf sensing the imminent threat of the encroaching wave, hurrying to stay just clear of it, so the waiting room adjusts to the huge intrusion of his handkerchief his hat. At this point you may be asking how a person can “lack” a face. Surely something fills the space between Helio Cara’s neck and crown. It obviously isn’t attractive, maybe not even recognizable, but what is it? Pineda employs elision more than description to depict what is under the handkerchief and hat that Cara wears to hide his deformity. The voice Pineda grants Cara-the-narrator immediately impresses with its clarity and strength, a honed minimalism accented by a beautifully restrained imagistic quality. It is a voice uniquely suited to telling this story. Instead of detailing the novel’s potentially abundant physical 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 4/09/04