DONA INES VS. OBLIVION
By Ana Teresa Torres.
Translated by Gregory Rabassa.
243 pp. Baton Rouge:
Louisiana State University Press. $27.50.
Like a great ship inching away from the dock, Ana Teresa Torres’s ”Dona Ines vs. Oblivion” — winner of the 1998 Pegasus Prize for Literature and the Venezuelan writer’s first novel to be translated into English — moves with languid dignity through its opening paragraph:
”My life has been a passage through slow mornings, long days that time ran through sluggishly as I supervised the work of the slave women, watching them sweep the flagstones in the courtyard, polish the floor tiles and the glazed wall mosaics I’d brought from Andalusia, gather the fallen leaves from the lemon tree, and water the guava tree in the yard; embroidering a point or two on a mantle or taking a turn through the kitchen to taste the soup and see that everything was as it should be before Alejandro’s arrival and asking him during lunch what had been discussed at the council, what the price for cacao was and whether the ship carrying it had sunk.”
The year is 1715; the place is the Caracas mansion of a wealthy Venezuelan planter; the speaker is Dona Ines Villegas y Solorzano, the plantation owner’s wife; and the feeling is of a stable and circumscribed world, of daily life seemingly inoculated against time.
Then everything slides into change — that is, history — and in less than a page her plantation has been lost, her slaves have run off, her husband and children have died, and Dona Ines finds herself reduced to a carcass on urine-stained sheets searching through piles of letters, decrees, rulings, writs, briefs and pleas for the title deeds to her land. By the end of the novel, the wilderness surrounding the once-thriving plantation has been replaced by a jungle of paper and parchment. This flood of change and decay becomes so relentless as to batter Torres’s novel into a sort of punch-drunk permanence. For nearly 300 years and over the course of more than 200 pages, Dona Ines — first as an old woman, then as a ghost — searches for her deeds while telling her story to a galaxy of corpses: her husband, Alejandro; her houseboy (the husband’s illegitimate son, fathered with a slave girl); and various progeny and historical figures, from the king of Spain and the governor of Venezuela to runaway slaves; and finally to her great-great-great-granddaughter’s nephew, an entrepreneur in modern Caracas.
Through it all, Dona Ines’s cranky, engaging, importuning, resentful, obsessed and relentless voice guides us through a family history that is also mired in Venezuelan history — in earthquakes and floods, in slave rebellions, wars of independence, dictatorships, democracy and the discovery of oil. Much of this dual history reads like a mock Bible, with its litany of battles and disasters on the one hand and its blizzard of begats on the other. Dona Ines’s genes survive, but just barely. Down through the centuries, they thread a labyrinth of change, tenuously maintaining their continuity.
Alas, along the way a great deal of the historical material in this novel proves excessively sweeping. Events often come in a ”torrent” or a ”deluge,” and ultimately the unruly populace is like ”a river overflowing its banks.” Novelists often find themselves voicing complaints against their own methods through their characters, and Torres is no exception. Early in the novel, her narrator refers to ”all the names that have been flitting by,” and toward the end one of her characters apologizes to another, saying, ”I suppose you’ve been overwhelmed by so many details.” Readers may safely assume that in the midst of the complex web of this novel — its allusions, its many characters, its multidimensional narration, which feels at times like a game of 3-D chess — this smiling apology is also directed at them.
Nor is Torres’s device of having her narrator tell this very busy story to a variety of people, living and dead, without its clumsy moments. It requires many rhetorical questions and asides, all laden with fragments of exposition, and even some disingenuous failures of memory. The challenge is to turn this awkwardness into art, and sometimes Torres does, particularly when Dona Ines colors the story with her rants against change, her retrograde opinions, her rage at her impotence. But too often we are left with prose that is full of the sort of excess expositional baggage that has become a staple of magic realism.
Only when the novel turns to the singular stories of particular people, and dwells with them for a while, does it fulfill its very rich potential. It takes some time to get there, though. After almost 50 pages, the first such story unfolds, the account of Isabel, widow of Dona Ines’s grandson, and her flight from Caracas during Simon Bolivar’s war of independence. It’s a relief to be able to follow the fortunes of a small set of characters, though this story does contain one of the more insidious cliches of white accounts of slavery: the black slave who, torn between freedom and loyalty, chooses loyalty and rescues her mistress’s child. Later, the stories of Dona Ines’s descendants become more surprising and fresh, and the slow ship of this novel at last picks up speed. My favorite is that of Domingo Snchez, grandson of Dona Ines’s great-grandson’s overseer, who falls in love with the virginal cleaning girl at a whorehouse, then cruelly betrays her and goes on to become a successful pimp, then a minister in the early-20th-century government of the Venezuelan dictator General Gomez.
The stories converge in the 1980’s when the last of Dona Ines’s long line of progeny forms a partnership with a putative descendant of the freed black slave accused of stealing her lands back in the 18th century. The result is a tourist center, complete with a golf course, where the plantation used to be.
To her credit, Torres doesn’t take the easy path and exaggerate this decline into tawdriness. Given the novel’s rich yet overwhelming mural of history, such a resolution is appropriately anticlimactic. In the very last passages, though — and thanks to the music of Gregory Rabassa’s forceful translation — the novel manages to sing once again: ”And you, Alejandro, what are you doing that you don’t hug me? I see you sitting there with your dusty jacket, your tricorn hat at a tilt, your shoes unbuckled, your body spongy like a puppet’s, and still and all you’re my beloved corpse.”