Friday, February 25, 2011

Book 49, Venezuela: "Doña Bárbara" by Rómulo Gallegos

This is going to be a rushed entry, because I’m seriously sleepy. But man oh man, am I proud that I’ve finished this book: the most famous Latin American novel prior to One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of those classics my Spanish literature profesora talked about back in college when it was assumed we were gonna be polyglot intellectuals for life.

(It’s weird. I couldn’t find any Venezuelan authors in Central Lending: I was going to choose between an Edwardian proto sci-fi thriller, a German Enlightenment travel memoir and a Norwegian romance. When I’d decided on this title, I had to Amazon it over to my friend in London – thanks Simon! The above copy was ultimately from the discard heap of the Houston Public Library.)

Doña Bárbara is epic, not just because it’s a sweeping romance of the prairies, complete with rough-and-ready cowboys, crocodile hunting, evil gringo capitalists, drunkards, deadly family feuds and romantic tension between the strapping country-born, city-bred, horse-taming lawyer Santos Luzardo and the gorgeous 15 year-old virgin Marisela.

No, what sticks with everyone is the eponymous character herself, the tempestuous mestiza villainess who’s seduced Luzardo’s cousin out of his fortune, running her ranch like a tyrant, a cacica or female Indian chief. The contemporary soap opera makes her out to be a heroine, a woman before her time, but she’s quite the antagonist in the novel: a destroyer of fine, virtuous men and a witch with regular communications with the Devil.

Oh, but she’s a marvelous figure. Gallegos says in his preface that she’s a mere personification of the savannahs, beautiful and deadly and a deadly threat to civilization itself, but he humanizes her with a past story of heartbreak and betrayal and a tragic infatuation with Luzardo himself, which is all the more fucked-up when the girl who’s really going to get him is her illegitimate daughter, Marisela (who is herself a cousin once removed from Luzardo, which is nuts, but this was the outback. Get over it).

She’s actually perceived as monstrous for her androgynous costume and her ability to do men’s work – her very name means not just Dame Barbara, but also the Barbarous Lady. But on the other hand, she provided a strong female Wild West archetype for Spanish America that's endured to this day. All North America has is Annie Oakley and Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman. I'll take the bad-ass fictional lady over either of those real-life chicks.

Marisela’s pretty fascinating, too. Sure, she has her girlish foolishness as she pines for her man, but she’s discovered by Luzardo living in grunting, mud-smeared poverty in the middle of nowhere, growing into sophistication and beauty as he educates her in the ways of etiquette and grammar. She isn’t just an embodiment of the land to be conquered: we’re reminded time and again of her native intelligence that makes her a matching helpmeet to our hero –
Well, okay, I take it back. She is basically the native who must be civilized, but she’s reared to be an equal, not a servant.

Mind you, my Spanish is rusty and the text is full of 1920s country colloquialisms, so I only understood about, say, four words out of every five. There’s a lot to this book that didn’t get through my skull. There’s an English translation somewhere out there in the world. Maybe I’ll read it someday.

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In the meantime, enjoy some contemporary music from Venezuelan/American pop star Devendra Banhardt! Man, it's good to be back in South America.

Representative quote: Tal era la famosa doña Bárbara, lujuria y superstición, codicia y crueldad, y allá en el fondo del alma sombría una pequeña cosa pura y dolorosa: el recuerdo de Asdrúbal, el amor frustrado que pudo hacerla buena. Pero aun esto mismo adquiría los terribles caracteres de un culto bárbaro que exigiera sacrificios humanos: el recuerdo de Asdrúbal la asaltaba siempre que se tropezaba en su camino con un hombre en quien valiera la pena hacer presa.

Next book: John Agard’s Lovelines for a Goat-Born Woman, from Guyana. (I think.)

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