Única Looking at the Sea
by Fernando Contreras Castro
translated by Elaine S. Brooks
ISBN: 978-1-944884-29-1 (pbk.)
Inside the great landfill at Río Azul, Única and her friends, her family, society’s cast-offs, struggle to survive on what those in the city throw away. This story of the “divers” (buzos), the community of Western untouchables who live in landfills and dumps, immediately made Fernando Contreras Castro famous in his native Costa Rica and around Latin America. Now available in English for the first time in Elaine S. Brooks’ translation, Única Looking at the Sea tells the story of an underclass invisible to the urban bourgeoisie who produce the trash they eke out a living from, a story no less pertinent in the US and the rest of the English-speaking world than it is in Latin America.
This is a novel that questions and provokes in order to compel us to see, beyond the limits of disgust and shame, who we truly are in our garbage, in our disdain. You have to read it and reread it because it is a novel about the human condition, always oscillating between the abject and the sublime. It is a novel that moves us, that challenges us and perhaps brings us, like Única, face to face with the sea, the last reflection of a possible hope.
Única Looking at the Sea, the first novel by the Costa Rican writer Fernando Contreras Castro, has immediately assumed a position of great importance in the history of Costa Rican literature. Beginning with a space—the problematic and deeply referential space of the sanitary landfill at Río Azul—this work goes beyond the anecdotal to acquire the symbolic character and the critical capacity of great literary work. We can say that through this writer’s ingenuity garbage is turned into literature, with the garbage dump serving as the basis for an incisive critique of modern consumer culture. From within this grotesque, almost nonsensical, realism, moments of immense tenderness emerge, of solidarity and of human suffering. The subtle irony and sometimes cruel sarcasm recreate one of the cruelest realities in our society.
This is a story so truthful, so sad, so real that it slips into one’s soul, and we suffer with the characters, suffer their troubles, their pain and the grief of those lives that have been discarded and found themselves in this garbage dump called Río Azul (what a pretty name for a residential neighborhood!). This book should touch the conscience of many Costa Ricans unaware of these social realities that are very close to all of us but disregarded in our indifference and our egotism.
Única Looking at the Sea is a great achievement for its creative brilliance and for its relevance to our world, and because it succeeds in awakening in the reader the vision of what garbage signifies for those two opposing social groups: those who produce it and throw it out, and those who collect it and survive thanks to it. Foul-smelling reality.
Única Looking at the Sea, the first novel by Fernando Contreras Castro, tells the story of a discarded family, a family of “divers” in 1992. It contrasts the rich and the powerful—the actual President, the presidential offices of Zapote, the families of the richest neighborhoods—with the most despised and the poorest—Río Azul and its divers—, and in that discarded family there develops one of the most tender and terrible love stories I have ever read: The story of love that a woman already advanced in years, Única Oconitrillo, professes for her adoptive son, Bacán, a little boy found in the dump, and between Única and Momboñombo Moña Gallo, a man that, tired of an unlivable life, decides one day “to throw himself into the garbage.”