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'Flight of the Swan': A Ballerina Stranded in Puerto Rico


July 29, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

FLIGHT OF THE SWAN, By Rosario Ferre

262 pp. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $24.

IN 1932, the dancer Andre Oliveroff published a worshipful memoir entitled ''Flight of the Swan: A Memory of Anna Pavlova,'' in which he told of setting sail in the spring of 1917 with Pavlova's peripatetic dance troupe for a yearlong Latin American tour. For her new novel, ''Flight of the Swan,'' Rosario Ferre has borrowed Oliveroff's title, leading lady and historical period. But Ferre has set her version of the great dancer's story in her own homeland, Puerto Rico, and taken as her worshipful narrator an emigree named Masha, a peasant from Minsk who manages to become a dancer in the corps de ballet and serves as general factotum to the imperious, impetuous woman she addresses simply as Madame.

Ferre, the American-educated daughter of a former governor of Puerto Rico, is a prolific, respected writer in Spanish; in 1995, she made a well-received leap into English with a novel called ''The House on the Lagoon,'' which was a finalist for the National Book Award. ''Flight of the Swan,'' Ferre's third novel in her second language, begins, like ''The House on the Lagoon,'' in the momentous year of 1917, when American citizenship was granted to the people of Puerto Rico and the United States entered World War I.

With the addition of Pavlova, the historical and cultural texture becomes even richer: as the Russian Revolution rages, our ballerina (a woman with Bolshevik sympathies but czarist affiliations) finds herself stranded on this politically volatile Caribbean island. Mixing politics with sex, Ferre's novel chronicles a tempestuous love affair between the charismatic ballerina and a young Puerto Rican named Diamantino Marquez, a poet, journalist and violinist with leftist sympathies, a man almost half Pavlova's age.

Whereas Oliveroff decorously claimed in his ''Flight of the Swan'' that ''Pavlova did not allow herself to have a private life,'' in Ferre's fiction the ballerina, although married to her manager, Victor Dandre, eagerly succumbs to the attentions of her new admirer. As if to provide irrefutable evidence of her mistress's passion, the voyeuristic Masha even hides in the shrubbery near a moonlit beach, watching Pavlova and Diamantino engage in steamy sex. (''I wanted to test my endurance,'' she explains, ''to be a witness to the ritual of love.'')

Pavlova's affair is also a convenient way of taking Ferre's readers into the complex social circles of Puerto Rico's upper crust -- a soap-opera-style society in which illegitimate sons are presented as their wealthy fathers' generously adopted godchildren, rebellious daughters are packed off to American finishing schools and a half brother and sister fall unwittingly and tragically in love.

In a 1998 interview, Ferre confessed that when writing in Spanish she is apt to ''go crazy with words,'' whereas ''in English, I don't have the same linguistic repertory.'' This might account for the novel's overreliance on prefabricated prose: ''Madame seemed to glide serenely over the troubled waters of her age''; ''I was Madame's right hand, the keeper of her flame''; ''She was like a force of nature.'' To complicate matters, Ferre has taken on the challenge of telling her English-language story in a Russian-accented voice.

The premise of Masha as earthy observer describing the misadventures of an ethereal drama queen is a promising one. (''Romeo and Juliet'' as retold by Juliet's nurse?) But Masha's voice is inconsistently sustained. (Would such a woman really compare her mistress's lover to a painting by Caravaggio?) In addition, it's never clear to what extent this narrator is meant to be reliable: after dropping strong early hints of her sexual attraction to Madame, Masha later falls contentedly in love with a Puerto Rican cobbler.

Readers interested in Pavlova will glimpse little of the great ballerina beyond those ''force of nature'' cliches and descriptions of her dancing that echo those in various memoirs and biographies. Strangely, about two-thirds of the way through the novel, its heroine disappears into the Puerto Rican hinterland with Diamantino and a band of rebels. Thereafter, ''Flight of the Swan'' ill-advisedly veers into a meandering tale of the island's hypocritical ruling classes.

Revolution and war; sex, politics and ballet; one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century, up close and personal: ''Flight of the Swan'' would seem to have everything it takes for a ripping yarn. Perhaps too much.

Diana Postlethwaite teaches English literature at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.

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