Book Review: San Juan

San Juan: Memoir of a City

By Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá

Published June 2007

University of Wisconsin Press

144 pp.

ISBN: 0-299-20370-0

Date reviewed: July 12, 2007

Originally reviewed at: BookReview.com

“It was necessary, in the [James] Joycean manner – because Joyce was the other literary idol of my youth – to open to the sound of the city, to listen to its voices, to eavesdrop on its speech at the bus stop, at the vendor’s stands in Calle de Diego, in the little bars in Capetillo or the ones along the roadside of the 65 de Infantería.”

It was this attitude that, in his own words, accompanied Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá as he entered the University of Puerto Rico on his path to becoming one of the island’s most well-regarded writers. His latest work “San Juan: Memoir of a City” is a sign that he never relinquished that attitude, as he moves through this Caribbean capital with as much care as Joyce covered Dublin.

Rodríguez Juliá lays out the city like a cartographer, moving across the coastline and diving into each distinct region. His eye catches all the details: the mix of Art Deco and Frank Lloyd Wright in shaping the city’s architecture, the decay of neighborhoods intersected by the freeways and the resigned laconism of those drinking outside cafés in the afternoon.

Clearly determined to present the full picture of San Juan, Rodríguez Juliá gives readers a dual lesson of history and literature. He tells stories of the island’s famous visitors and how they affected the city’s politics, as well as lesser known residents that influenced characters in his own novels. He also offers his opinion on the city’s other chroniclers, studying the evocative poetry of Derek Walcott and the vitriolic memories of Hunter S. Thompson.

There is an obvious affection in his writing for the city, which expresses itself in the way he makes himself a character. As a young boy Rodríguez Juliá is overwhelmed by the “uncontrollable, savage Progress” of freeways and strip malls, as a college student he is intrigued by the bohemian flavor of used bookstores and socialist meetings and as a successful writer he moves to introspection of the sea. At every turn the city has given him what he needs to move forward, and he obviously feels each of his younger selves owe it something.

I would have liked to see some of his poetry-inspiring sights for myself – the book only has city maps, no photos – but his writing is vivid enough it compensates for the loss. Rodríguez Juliá has constructed a stirring, often mystical depiction of a city that is always reinventing itself. No visitor to San Juan should go without reading this book first.

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