By ALEXANDER COLEMAN
Published: August 21, 1988 New York Times.
LEAD: PALM LATITUDES By Kate Braverman. 384 pp. New York: The Linden Press/ Simon & Schuster. $18.95.
For some American fiction writers, Los Angeles has for a long time now been thought of as providing a definitive opportunity to describe uprooted characters struggling to survive humanely amid a geography of asphalt, aluminum and glass, made all the more deadening by the notorious blanket of smog. In her second work of fiction, the poet and novelist Kate Braverman plunges us into this world with savage intensity, giving us portraits of three Chicana women who live on Flores Street in a barrio of East Los Angeles.
Their lives are depicted as symptomatic of the final destiny of all women condemned to live in what the author calls the ''palm latitudes,'' stretching ''from Mexico City and El Salvador, through Havana and Miami, across the islands of the Caribbean, from Caracas to Los Angeles. It is that particular air of slow rotting, that special scented steaming poison masquerading as emeralds, spice, clouds.'' These latitudes are a specifically Hispanic province of the planet. In this still heavily macho world, Ms. Braverman's Francisca Ramos, Gloria Hernandez and Marta Ortega share illusions related to the varying fidelity and reliability of their respective lovers or husbands, Ramon, Miguel and Salvador, among others. But since these men fall away from their cultural heritage (and for many other reasons fail as people), they lurk throughout ''Palm Latitudes'' as shadowy and sometimes treacherous good-for-nothings.
It is the women who speak to us, telling the story of their stunted lives on Flores Street. At times they take note of one another's existence, as when Francisca and Marta, with tragic consequences, see Gloria's husband dallying with a gringa social worker. Over too many pages, they express their passionate state of anguish and rage at their outcast state. As different as the three are from one another, they all speak in a heightened, overwrought language intended to contrast dramatically with their physical subjugation to their men, wayward children and alien Anglo surroundings.
The catalogue of their woes can be decidedly repetitious. For instance, early in the book Francisca contemplates an old woman who ''has been married, has been installed like an appliance, has been ordered when to speak and when to remain mute.'' Later, Gloria will complain of the treatment accorded her by her husband and sons, feeling that ''I was an appliance they were switching on. They were hungry. They wanted food wrapped in plastic to take to the park . . . where they practiced sports.'' On another occasion, she notes that ''my nerves were the frayed cord of a worn-out appliance, subject to eruptions and sparks. I was obviously short-circuiting.''
For these women, imaginative salvation is found in the close but still safely distant Hispanic language and culture - a verbal realm unleashed from the objective demands of the world around them. They think that Spanish is the language of myth, of wholeness, of a possible existence freed from grubby actuality. It is the way out, but to what? Using it, they argue for a vision more human than the brutalities of unbridled male-dominated ambition in an Anglo world. As Gloria says, ''I could not bear the sheer weight of the city, its American vastness, and its assertion that the ground was insignificant, obsolete, and that all breathing entities, from the tendrils of infant plants to things winged or limbed, could be eradicated.''
In Ms. Braverman's exalted imagination, this world and its agent, the English language, generate the desiccation and sterility the women see all around them. In spite of the misdeeds of the Hispanic male characters, the remembered (or often only imagined) Hispanic milieu and the Spanish language itself are fondly evoked as remnants of a pastoral Eden. As Gloria tells us, ''English hurt my lips, the soft fibers of my tongue. When I repeated English phrases, my mouth embraced unnatural American objects, appliances, concrete, steel girders and electric lights in abnormal abundance and force. I felt violated by traffic, pollution and the abuse of sirens and neon. English was absolute as a world where the forests have been felled, rivers dammed, and each inch of earth parceled, labeled and sold. It was an offense to my aesthetics.''
On the other hand, she contends, ''Spanish flows like the ocean, aware of cycles, waves, completion and return. It sculpts the air with tenderness, with the fronds of palms, with moss and beds of vines. It is delicate and discreet, speaking in whispers, incantations and chants. Spanish dances across the tongue, intimate and accomplished, composed of moonlight, cliffs unnamed and lush, moist earth, dusk skies and the arcs inscribed by serpentine migrating stars.''
As a concerned reader and teacher of Spanish, however, I must attest that the Hispanic imagination and the Spanish language of the New World are not automatically poetic, despite the argument of ''Palm Latitudes.'' No surprise, then, if Ms. Braverman's novel gives the indelible impression of factitious cultural romanticism.
Copyright 2005-2006, Kate Braverman.