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.
The Uruguay that Salome experiences, though, is one heading down the path of oppression, and by the time she graduates from high school she has become a member of an urban guerrilla group dedicated to overthrowing the government. After her cell successfully kidnaps an American special adviser to the police — he’s teaching them torture techniques to be employed on political prisoners — it’s only a matter of time before she is arrested, tortured, and jailed. Part of her torture consisted of rape, and so the fourth generation, Victoria, is born in prison. At a month old, when the guards take the baby away to be christened, it is stolen by resistance members who managed to escape and sent away to live with her brother Robert in California.
The Invisible Mountain is fascinating and beautiful in the way De Robertis is able to mix grim reality with the elements of the fantastic that seem to be a hallmark of the best South American fiction. What makes the book so effective is the masterful job the author has done with creating the characters populating the story. While it would have been easy and simplistic to make men the villains of the piece, she ensures that the reader spends enough time with each so we can no more blame them completely for what happens than we would blame the rock we stub our toe on by accident. Of course, the three women are the lead characters, and, therefore, we know them the best. De Robertis has created masterful portraits of each of them.
While they are the heroines of the piece, they are not made out to be specifically heroic or perfect. In each case, we are shown their weaknesses, as well as their strengths, so while we may admire them, we don’t idealize them. This is not an attempt to make women out to be anything more than they are, and because of that we respect and admire the characters all the more. It’s in spite of their frailties that they are able to stand up and be proud of themselves, and that’s an impressive accomplishment in any character no matter what their gender.
You may not have known much about the small South American country of Uruguay before starting to read The Invisible Mountain, but, once you’ve finished it, you’ll not only have a good grasp of its history, but a deeper understanding of South America in general. While the three women are the major characters, Uruguay itself is a character that makes its presence felt throughout the book. You’ll never think of history as boring and impersonal again after reading this book and its intimate introduction to Uruguay.