Saturday, October 16, 2010

U is for Uruguay

For the letter U in Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge, I chose Carolina de Robertis's The Invisible Mountain, a century-spanning literary saga about a mother, daughter, and granddaughter and the difficult paths they tread at different stages of their country's history.

I knew little about Uruguay before before beginning this novel.  Its capital, Montevideo, reportedly got its name from a Portuguese sailor's first words upon reaching the land:  "Monte vide eu," or "I see a mountain."  As the story reveals, the meaning is ironic, because the city is relatively flat, boasting little more than a rounded hill.  Each of its three protagonists spends much of her life yearning for something invisible and unattainable, but eventually finds contentment of sorts through another avenue.

Those who enjoy the rich, descriptive language of Allende or Márquez will find much to delight in here.  De Robertis carefully aligns her prose style with her heroines' personalities and the prevailing spirit of each era.  Pajarita, daughter of a gaucho, is born in the tiny town of Tacuarembó in 1899.  An unwanted child whose birth killed her mother, she vanishes from her father's home as a baby and mysteriously reappears nine months later in the branches of a tall tree, or so legend has it.  The chapters detailing her youth and marriage to Ignazio Firielli, a gondola-maker from Venice, are full of vivid metaphors that evoke the colors and textures of nature:

There, through the window, the soft slash of the moon.  There it falls, making silver light on the ground.  This place is home. And it is good.  But it is not the world.  The thought surprised her.  It felt fresh, an unknown herb against the palate of her mind.

No, the whole novel isn't written in this poetic style, but for me, these sections fell in as a natural part of the tale the author tells.

Pajarita becomes a renowned healer, a woman sought out for her knowledge of herbs - one of the few things, along with her indomitable spirit, she brings with her to her new home in the growing city of Montevideo.  Her daughter, Eva, endures a traumatic childhood after her father insists she take a job to help support the family.  A young woman with the soul of a poet, her journey takes her to the heart of Perón's Buenos Aires and back before she finally finds the love she's long deserved.  Eva's daughter Salomé comes of age in a country full of political turmoil; she falls prey to the communist fervor sweeping through Central and South America in the '60s and pays a terrible price.  The final section loops back toward the beginning, with Salomé writing a letter to her own daughter.

The tone shifts from magical realism to sharp reality over the course of the century as Uruguay endures economic hardship, labor unrest, and urban guerrilla warfare and emerges, not unscathed, as a modern, democratic nation. Threaded throughout is Uruguay's complex relationship with the United States.  All of this well-crafted history intertwines with the themes of the inner strength of women and their relationships with one another and the men in their lives.  At the risk of making it sound trite, which it isn't at all, this really is more of a women's book; most of its male characters (adventurers, hot-tempered machismo types, and worse) don't come off looking real well.  And one of the men even decides... well, that would be saying too much.

The Invisible Mountain is a deep and involving work, and I found myself reading slowly in order to absorb the nuances of the author's creative phrasings. Uruguay might not immediately come to mind as a desired setting for historical fiction, but it turns out that this small country tucked into the underside of eastern South America contains a fascinating world worth discovering.

The Invisible Mountain was first published by Knopf in August 2009.  The paperback was published this past August (Vintage, $15.95, 448pp).


  1. Jeannie10:24 PM

    Very different, for sure. I'm not into multi-generational sagas, but I like the author's choice of a country that's pretty fresh territory in historical fiction, at least to readers here in the U.S.

    Thanks for sharing! :-)

  2. Yes - thanks for writing about this. I'm really enjoying these A-Z posts!!!!

  3. Thanks, Jeannie and Michelle!

    We're getting down to the difficult letters in the alphabet now :)

  4. I don't think I have ever come across a novel set in Uruguay. Must take a closer look at this one. Thank you for the inspiring review!

  5. Danielle, I love your blog! I've just bookmarked it. This is the first novel set in Uruguay I've come across, too.

  6. I agree, totally, Sarah. Excellent and very different read. I was thoroughly engrossed.

  7. Betty, I'm pleased to hear you've enjoyed it as well. I'd wondered if anyone else would have heard of it!

  8. Gah, I haven't even done my T post yet, let alone thought about my U post! Need to get onto that I think.

    I do enjoy a good saga, and something with an unusual setting! Thanks for bringing the book to my attention.

  9. Since I enjoy multi-generational sagas (love Edward Rutherfurd) and am looking to branch out a little with my historical fiction selections (I tend to stick to Europe), this one sounds right up my alley!

  10. Marg, I'll be curious to see what you choose for T and U. There has to be someone else who's going to post about the letter U... :)

    Avid Reader - I love Edward Rutherfurd's books, too. This one has not quite as many characters (and they're developed more fully, too), but you get the same sense of history moving along in the background. Hope you like this one!

  11. What a great book for U! It's on my TBR. I am behind and haven't read one for U yet.

  12. This looks great -- I've never heard of it or the author, but will look for her now. Books like this are, for me, the best introduction to a topic or place I'm unfamiliar with.