Do you know where Uruguay is? What’s to know anyway, another backward country that can’t even figure out how to run its own affairs. What’s to know is that people have lived and died there for as long as people have lived and died anywhere else in this hemisphere. A small country, but still a country, Uruguay sits between Brazil and Argentina on the Atlantic coast of South America, whose major port town, Montevideo, takes its name from the Portuguese for ” I see a mountain” Monte vide eu.
The Portuguese sailors who had landed there first had seen El Cerro, and perhaps after so long at sea it appeared a mountain to their eyes, but to Ignazio Firielli, freshly arrived from Italy in 1911, compared to the Alps of his former homeland, it’s merely a hill. However, seeking to start a new life following the death of his mother and father — the latter had killed the former and then himself — he’s not about to be overly particular about these things. Finding work and surviving is what’s important for him now. After four years of empty work, chance takes him into a poker game with the members of a traveling carnival and his eventual employment as their new stable boy. It’s thus that he travels inland and meets the woman who will be his wife, Pajarita, who will give birth to Eva, who in her turn will bear Salome, who in turn will give birth to Victoria.
The Invisible Mountain, the new novel by Carolina De Robertis published by Random House Canada, traces the history of Uruguay since 1900 through the eyes of its women. For, while Ignazio plays a necessary role in the proceedings, it’s the first three generations of this family’s women who we follow through the pages of this story as their struggle to find themselves runs parallel to their country’s struggle for freedom. The story begins before Ignazio even sails to South American, and while it could be said to begin with the founding of Uruguay, as according to Pajarita’s aunt Tita her great-grandfather was Jose Gervasio Artigas, the great liberator of the country who led the fight for independence with gauchos, Indians, and freed slaves, it really begins with the birth of Pajarita.
Pajarita’s mother died giving birth to her, which was how her aunt Tita came to live with her and her brother Aritgas. However, shortly after she was born one night, the family laid down to sleep and woke the next morning to find the child had vanished. For the rest of the year Tita scoured the countryside surrounding the small village where they lived for the baby with no success. The following New Years Day, however — 1900 — Pajarita was found in the top of a tree thirty meters above the ground. It was only after Aritgas went to fetch Tita and she shooed the assembled villagers away from the tree, that it shook itself and Pajarita flew into her aunt’s waiting arms. Which is how she was given the name meaning “little bird.”
Pajarita, her daughter Eva, and her granddaughter Salome are our guides through the twentieth century in South America. Pajarita listens to her brother as he recounts life in Brazil, and the constant battle for power there make her and her friends grateful for their peaceful existence in Uruguay. There are laws protecting workers, unions, and good schools for their children. Eva has opportunities to better herself that her mother lacked. However, events — and her father’s demons — change the course of her life irrevocably. Hoping to find a better life, Eva flees to Argentina and the bright promise offered by the new government of Juan Peron and his wife Evita.
Argentina almost proves a disaster, but she’s saved from ruin and maybe death by Dr. Robert Santos, who not only nurses her back to health in hospital, but falls in love with her. Instead of doing what other men his class have done for generations and taking a low born mistress, he shocks and appalls his family and friends by breaking off his engagement to a society girl in order to marry Eva. As well as having two children, Robert and Salome, Eva’s nascent talent for poetry begins to bloom during her marriage, and she even manages to publish the occasional poem. However, the shiny promise of the Perons tarnishes with corruption, and when Eva assists a colleague of her husband’s in writing a memorandum about the torture and framing of a political prisoner, she and her family are forced into exile. Late one night, they steal away on a boat back to Uruguay.