When you hear the words “monkey” and “hunting,” what comes to mind? Searching through forests, rifle in hand, as you keep an eye out for primates swinging from tree to tree so that you can kill them with one decisive pull on the trigger of your 12-gauge pump shotgun, blowing said Curious George to smithereens?
No, no, no. Obviously you are not a monkey hunter. That is your bad.
In her 2003 novel Monkey Hunting, author Cristina Garcia tells the story of four generations of a Chinese family, the patriarch being Chen Pan, a 19th-century immigrant to Cuba. In case you didn’t know, Cuba had a sizeable ethnic Chinese population until Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 and said, “Thanks for your years of service (i.e. slavery), but your mother country is beckoning (i.e. get the hell out of our country, you dirty slaves).” Today, there are still remnants of a Chinatown in Havana, I’m told, minus the ethnic Chinese people themselves.
Although the novel starts on a page-turning note – we follow the struggle of Chinese immigrants to Cuba on their horrific journey across the world in much the same conditions as slaves brought to the Americas from Africa – the author soon loses the plot, literally and figuratively, and we start bouncing around the world at different periods in history, which in and of itself is always cool, but ends up being disjointed, fragmented and at times hard to follow in this particular case.
More specifically, the reader is not given the opportunity to form any real bond with the characters, as they fail to evoke even the slightest amount of empathy. The general rule to a decent novel is that it’s either highly plot-driven and the characters are one-dimensional (think Dan Brown or Lee Child, for example) or very much character-driven and the plot is almost secondary (think of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Eleanor & Park or The Goldfinch). Rarely do the two combine to form a work of art (think of anything from Anna Karenina to Freedom).
Unfortunately, when you’re not invested in the characters and don’t really care what’s happening all around them, it’s a recipe for disaster. And this, sadly, is the case with Monkey Hunting. It’s an interesting premise with some well-researched information, but for that kind of story I generally turn to non-fiction. Or perhaps Time magazine, where – ironically enough – Ms. Garcia used to work.