Back in the 80s when I was traveling in South America I was scared to even leave the airport in Bogota. And I wasn’t exactly the cautious type.… I traveled through Peru sola when the Sendero Luminoso was blowing things up on a regular basis. During those years The South American Handbook advised chaining your suitcase to your wrist and the overhead rail on the train to keep it from being stolen.
Today, of course, tourists are blithely adding Colombia to their itinerary. Whole families even! A friend’s daughter is leading trips out of Medellín. Medellín! Where Pablo Escobar et al. once held sway.
Ingrid Contreras’s Fruit of the Drunken Tree takes us back to those days when Escobar and the paramilitary were waging war; car bombings, assainations and kidnappings were the order of the day; young children were being conscripted to join the guerillas; and the whole country was in a state of fear and anxiety.
She tells the story through the eyes of seven-year-old Chula Santiago, who lives with her upper middle class family in a gated community in Bogotá. The family hires a teenage maid, Petrona, who comes from the mountainous slums with whom Chula falls in love a little, in a little girl crush-like way.
The novel is told in alternating chapters from Chula and Petrona’s point of view. The voices ring authentic and true not only in describing the events around them but also their inner lives.
The prose is gorgeous. When Petrona first comes to Chula’s family she’s almost mute. Chula “always imagined the silence in Petrona’s throat like dry fur draping over her vocal cords, and when she cleared her throast, I imagined the fur shaking a little, then settling smooth like hair on a fruit.”
And this: “War always seemed distant in Bogotá, like niebla descending on the hills and forests of the countryside and jungles. The way it approached us was like fog as well, without us realizing, until it sat embroiling everything around us,”
Early in the novel, the Santiago family is engaging in their weekly Friday television watching: “When Mama changed the channels we were regularly disturbed by the graphic quality of the news reports. I could piece something together from the news –massacres in the countryside, common graves found in farms, peace talks with the guerillas, but I didn’t understand who was responsible for what or what any of it meant.”
One Friday she recognizes a nearby street, the site of a car bomb. The reporter points out a young girl’s severed leg with a red shoe and white sock still attached. It reminded me of the image seared into our current collective consciousness of the three-year-old Syrian refugee boy dead on the beach. The difference for Chula is the nightmare is right outside her window, in her neighborhood. And later her mother takes Chula and her sister to a rally for a presidential candidate which ends in horrific violence.
This is novel about family and class, the haves and the have-nots, and ultimately those who have choices and those who don’t. Most of read read about the Escobar reign of terror and tsk tsked. This book brings you right inside it and its very human toll. It’s a beautifully told story about a tragic time, one that opens your heart and rips it apart.
I have to thank my cousin Linda for re-introducing me to Anne Fadiman’s book Ex Libris. I picked it up when it was first published 20 years ago and I was moving too fast to take it in. I’m in exactly the right place now to appreciate her exquisite sensibility.
Anne Fadiman loves words and language and books and has a way of making what’s fascinating to her fascinating to us as well. Did you ever know you cared about Arctic exploration or William Kunstler’s bad sonnets? Trust me, you will.
Fadiman comes from an uber-literary family. Every Sunday night they gathered around the TV for G.E. College Bowl and Fadiman U, as they called themselves, won almost every time. Just like your family and mine … not. When she was four, she “liked to build castles with [her] father’s pocket-sized, twenty-two volume set of Trollope.” Me too, said no one.
Fadmiman has a great sense of humor whether writing about the challenges of merging her library with her new husband’s, books about food (“My moist frequent response to gastronomic references in literature is an immediate urge to raid the refrigerator”), her compulsion to read anything (“I’d rather have a book but I’d settle for a set of Water Pik Instructions”), and the joys of what she calls “You-Are-There Reading,” reading books in the places they describe (e.g. Steinbeck on Cannery Row, John Wesley Powell in the Grand Canyon).
I know you’re a book lover because you’re reading this. You owe it to yourself to read this book. It’s an absolute delight. Thank you, Linda.