2019, 223 p. Translated from Spanish by Elizabeth Bryer
Now that the rest of South America seems to be blowing itself up politically, Venezuela has fallen out of the world news a bit. However, given that Nicolás Maduro is still in power and Juan Guaido isn’t, the situation in Venezuela probably remains much as it has been for the last couple of years. Millions of Venezuelans have left their country, driven out by hyperinflation and shortages.
This novel is set in current-day Caracas. A young journalist Adelaida Falcón has just buried her mother, who has died of cancer despite Adelaida spending the last of their money on what turned out to be useless drugs. Adelaida was the only child of a single mother, and the two women were close. As Adelaida packs up her mother’s belongings, her world becomes increasingly small, focussed just on her own apartment building.
However, it is not just the loss of her mother than is driving Adelaida’s isolation within her apartment. Out on the streets, vigilante gangs, often under the protection of the government, are roaming and shooting. One day she returns home to find that her apartment has been taken over by one of these gangs, headed by the intimidating female gang leader La Mariscala. When she turns to her next door neighbour for help, she finds her neighbour is lying dead in her apartment, presumably through natural causes. Her neighbour’s death provides a way of escaping her increasingly claustrophobic situation. Meanwhile, she is joined by the brother of a university friend, who had been scooped up into the government’s paramilitary scheme to turn protestors into henchmen. His presence is both comforting and dangerous.
This is a very female-driven book. The two women form a family unit, and the now-deceased woman next door is crucial to the plot. Interestingly, the Spanish title of the book translates to “The daughter of the Spanish Woman”, a title which makes more sense once you have read the book. While the male gangs outside are intimidating, it is the women led by La Mariscala who are occupying and violating Adelaida’s home next door, who are the most terrifying. Meanwhile, we have the whole idea of ‘motherland’ and exile.
There are a lot of coincidences in the plot of this book, and it doesn’t do to think about them too much lest the whole scenario fall apart. Instead, I more enjoyed the tension of not knowing whether she was going to escape, especially in the closing pages of the book. Even more, I was interested in (‘enjoyed’ is not the word) the exploration of a society which is breaking down completely, leaving individuals to fend for themselves. I suspect that the author hasn’t had to imagine too much here, and that she is drawing on her knowledge of current events in Venezuela. It is poignant and frightening to see a formerly-wealthy country spiralling into collapse and lawlessness. It has made me read the news even more carefully.
I read this book in translation from the Spanish. While reading the book in English, I stopped at the sentence “Only a small difference in sound separates ‘leave’ from ‘live’“. That’s true in English, I thought, but I wondered what the original sentence was, because it doesn’t work in Spanish. As if she had been reading my thoughts, the translator Elizabeth Bryer wrote a note at the end, explaining that sentence, and how hard she had had to work on it. The original was “Tan solo una letra separa ‘partir’ de ‘parir'” ( translation: Just a single letter separates “to leave” from “to give birth”) . I think that she did a damned good job finding two English words that evoke the same idea, while having a similar sound – although the connection with motherhood doesn’t come through. Nonetheless, well done that translator!! I bet there were shouts of “Yes!” and high-fives all round when she worked it out.
My rating: 7/10
Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Read because: I read a review somewhere (can’t remember where) and I like reading books from Latin America.