In his impressive, hugely enjoyable final novel, the late Benítez-Rojo revivifies this little-known figure and recognizes her as an early champion of gender equality. Presented mostly chronologically, Henriette’s first-person account offers the complexity of an old-fashioned adventure narrative, packed with history and incident, yet is told with a candid, modern voice.
Shaping her chronicle as she wishes, she stitches together numerous episodes, moving from her romance with a dashing Hussar to her picaresque journey with a traveling show, and spends significant time on Napoleon’s military victories and disasters, including the horrific retreat from Moscow. Details from Caribbean history are interwoven throughout, and through Henriette’s eyes, the author also addresses the economic factors that kept slavery alive in his native land.
Skillfully translated from the Spanish by Jessica Powell, Woman in Battle Dress was published yesterday by San Francisco's City Lights Books ($19.95, trade pb, 480pp). Antonio Benítez-Rojo, a well-known Cuban literary figure, died in 2005. This review first appeared in Booklist's August issue.