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 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).