Book of the month: Alicia Yáñez Cossío

This was a recommendation from Fran, an Ecuadorian who stopped by this blog a few weeks ago to add some suggestions to the list.

First published in 1985 and brought into English by translator Amalia Gladhart some twenty years later, The Potbellied Virgin follows the political wrangles surrounding a small wooden icon in an unnamed town in the Andes. This strangely shaped representation of the Mother of the Christian God is the repository of local pride and virtue (as well as a secret that comes to light in the course of the novel) and is controlled by a group of local matriarchs from the landowning Benavides clan. Led by the formidable Doña Carmen, president of the Sisterhood of the Bead on the Gown of the Potbellied Virgin, these women watch over the virgins nominated to dress and prepare the icon for each of the many festivals and rituals built around it. But when communism begins to sweep neighbouring regions, stirring up dissent among the less fortunate residents of the town, the women will need more than prayer to maintain their dominance.

This is a book about female power warped and poisoned by a patriarchal, classist and racist system. The narrative refers at one point to the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba and the parallels between the play’s eponymous heroine and Doña Carmen are clear. The same dessication of youth and cramping of development that plagues Bernarda Alba’s captive daughters shows in the frustrated virgins who fall under her sway. Similarly, the deployment of proverbs, which  run through the narrative like a kind of psychic chorus, creates a memorable impression of the internalised, punitive voices that limit and direct women’s actions.

Unlike Bernarda Alba, however, Yáñez Cossío’s matriarch does not focus on shutting the world out but on subverting and controlling it. The author shows this in astonishing detail, swooping in on the key moments in which characters manipulate and better one another to show minds shifting and changing beat by beat. Time and again, we see the downtrodden tempted to act against their best interests in the name of short-term security, exhaustion and disillusionment.

What’s more, we feel it too. Yáñez Cossío and Gladhart’s writing is so precise and vivid that, within a handful of sentences, we are taken into the deepest concerns and emotions of figures who often appear only fleetingly in the narrative. The death of the new magistrate at the hands of his former friends is a particularly striking piece of writing. This account of some of his final thoughts is a powerful sample:

‘… he sees with his own bulging eyes the bad movie of his life, its grotesque presence in full color. And he wants to cry because it is a ridiculously sad movie, it’s an interminable melodrama, and the protagonist is a small-town man who would have liked to have had so many things, and would have liked to live in a different fashion and to have died in his own bed with that unknown something that he never had and which is now set aside and he needs it. And he is filled with shame and nostalgia at never having had it, not because he didn’t want it, but because he was never allowed, because if he had had that which is called dignity, he wouldn’t be stretched out on the strangely fresh grass now, although he thinks at the same time that with dignity he and his children would have starved to death.’

Although it centres on life in a small, nameless town, the narrative has an epic quality. It sweeps across the decades in a single piece, unbroken by chapters, like the train of a richly embroidered gown, snagging now and then just long enough for particular details to catch the eye before jerking forward again. This grand quality has the effect of augmenting the bathos of some of the novel’s more ignominious and ridiculous episodes, but it also lends the work a timeless, majestic air.

For readers from other traditions, some of the rhetoric  (in particular, the habit of rehearsing the same mechanism of undercutting expectations over a series of consecutive paragraphs) may feel overblown. It is also intriguing to note which terms the publisher chose to italicise and explain in the glossary, and which they left undefined (often a keen tell on who the production team envisages the reader to be). I found myself having to freewheel over passages with extensive lists of local foodstuffs, materials and practices, although this may not be such an issue for readers in Texas, who may well have more knowledge of Latin American traditions than I do.

Luckily though, this book is more than equal to accommodating sporadic, superficial slippages in comprehension. The narrative glides along like the current of a mighty river, carrying readers with it, however they flail. Irresistible and powerful.

The Potbellied Virgin (La cofradía del mullo del vestido de la Virgen Pipona) by Alicia Yáñez Cossío, translated from the Spanish by Amalia Gladhart (University of Texas Press, 2006)

Ecuador: righteous anger

Novels with messages are hard to do well. Even the best writers can become worthy bores when they set out to change people’s minds about something, turning their rounded characters into two-dimensional puppets jerking on the strings of their social and political beliefs.

No wonder then that my heart sank when I saw the phrase ‘great novel of social protest’ in the foreword to the rather ancient edition of The Villagers by Jorge Icaza, which winged its way to me from one of the independent sellers on Amazon. Clearly this was going to be a barrel of laughs.

At first glance, a summary of the plot seemed to back up my misgivings. Set in the remote Ecuadorian jungle, the novel describes landowner Don Alfonso Pereira’s project to build a new road through the swamps, documenting the hardships and mistreatment of the indigenous ‘Indian’ tribes forced to sacrifice their labour, lands and lives to the endeavour. Cheated, abused, starved and exploited by the magnates who buy and sell them with the territory, the Indians endure more and more extreme sufferings, until at last one of them, Andres, is pushed over the limit when his partner Cunshi dies, sparking a rebellion with tragic results.

What makes the book great, however, is Icaza’s ingenious approach to his subject matter. Starting the novel with insolvent Don Alfonso undergoing an uncomfortable interview with his creditor uncle, the author turns us through 180 degrees, shifting our sympathies from the harassed landowner to the people he exploits so that by the end of the book we are as impatient for Don Alfonso’s overthrow as the Native Americans are.

Much of this is achieved by the shocking descriptions of callous treatment and cruelty throughout the book. Numerous incidents stand out, from the wet-nurse forced to leave her baby to starve to death while she feeds Don Alfonso’s granddaughter, to the worker pulled to death by ropes thrown round him in an attempt to drag him out of quicksand. In addition, sadistic figures dominate the narrative, such as the one-eyed foreman who has free reign to practice his quack medicine on his charges. His remedy for malaria is particularly nasty: whipping sufferers to run until they collapse and then feeding them a mixture of brandy, herbs, urine from a pregnant woman, lemon juice and ground guinea pig excrement.

Icaza’s insight into the human psyche helps him add depth to these visions of horror, revealing the lies people tell themselves and each other in order to be able to treat fellow human beings like dirt. He shows how greed masquerades as progress and callousness dresses itself up as discipline in the minds of the oppressors. Perhaps most memorable of all is the role of the church in perpetuating the fear and poverty of the Indians, oozing hypocrisy at every pore, as in the scene where Andres goes to try to find a plot in the graveyard for Cunshi and has the pricing structure of the different areas explained to him by the priest:

‘These unpainted wooden crosses belong to the poor cholos and Indians. As you can easily understand they are a little far from the sanctuary, and the prayers sometimes reach them and sometimes don’t. God’s mercy, which is infinite” (the priest made another bow and another salute with his birreta and with his eyes) “has destined these unhappy souls to go to Purgatory. You, my dear Chiliquinga, know what the tortures of Purgatory are like. They’re worse than those of Hell.’

At times, the narrative can be a little hard to follow. While Andres and Cunshi are fully realised, many of the rest of the Native Americans remain shadowy, faceless figures who don’t step off the page. This is exacerbated by Icaza’s stylistic fondness for strange streams of dialogue, in which a myriad of unidentified voices comment on an event as it happens.

But these are small quibbles. All in all, though, this is an extraordinary novel, which forces the reader to confront the chilling capacity of an ordinary person to delude him or herself into sanctioning horrific acts. It reaches beyond the specific social issues of its time to reveal truths about humankind and still resonates 80 years on from its publication. A powerful reminder of what storytelling can do.

The Villagers (Huasipungo) by Jorge Icaza, translated from the Spanish by Bernard Dulsey (Arcturus Paperbacks, 1974)