Review of Malambo by Lucía Charún-Illescas,
published by Swan Isle Press
The Rimac river, Peru.
It is always a pleasure to hold a book with an artistic dustcover, printed on quality paper. Further, there has been insufficient translation of Latin American works into English and I admire the initiative of non-profit presses such as Swan Isle Press.
I was eager to read ‘Malambo’ because of the unusual setting of Peru in the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century. The author, an historian, has written her first novel about a little-known theme, the way of life of those affected by the slavery, rife at that time.
Peru was central to the Spanish Inquisition. Slaves from Africa, the mainland and indigenous minority groups suffered horrific treatment. Those who survived the brutality of their treatment were priced according to their health and strength. Those ‘freed’ often found themselves in a worse position. This novel shows how slaves might save up earnings or win favours from owners to buy their freedom or that of their kin, creating families with both enslaved and free, skilled and unskilled, rural and urban folk.
Within the social hierarchy of the slave stratum, the black artisans had the highest rank due to their skills. They worked as carpenters, tailors, blacksmiths, swordsmiths and silversmiths. This group enjoyed more freedom than their fellows who worked at large haciendas or in private households. Spanish small-business keepers would dispatch servant-artisans to carry out a job independently and then return to their owner. Skilled black artisans sometimes took a role of a low-ranking employee for their trades were a major avenue of social progress.
Illescas’ novel is populated with characters from different walks of life, but the main focus is upon those of African descent. An atmospheric opening reveals the significance of the river Rimac, both as a character in its own right, and in the way it divided rich from poor residences in the area. The opening introduces the best drawn character, Tomason, an ancient painter of high repute who has escaped his master yet is still bound to him at a distance. Initially he is found jut finising a work with inadequate tools to keep the master satisfied.
Thereupon, the first half of the novel’s number of characters and frequent changes of tense make for a taxing read. It is as though the people and events wash up against each other in waves, like flotsam in the river when it rises. Early on, a missing father is found dead in it. He has briefly left his daughter, Pancha, with Tomason but when he is lost, Tomason uncomplainingly rears the girl like an honorary grandfather.
As a reference to magical thinking and the whispering myths from the culture of origin, the river gives gossip, it is listened to for information.
The many characters are used to display the fusion of races and cultures in Lima: Jews, Christians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Creoles, negroes, mestizos and mulattoes. If a character has need there is the possibility of ‘disappearing’ amongst negroes in Lima, who were equal in number to Peruvians. We are shown those individuals who prosper, often illegitimately, as well as those who suffer. The interchanges between individuals reflect the daily experience of servitude, abuse, diligence and deviance.
The elderly painter lives in squalor and hardship, yet retains his power and dignity. A religious painting is awaited from him. He makes his master wait. More eagerly, he decorates the walls of his cave-like home in coal, a medium he knows will fade with time, like himself. We see that his illustrations record events, experiences, beliefs, truths. As time goes on, the painter becomes increasingly focussed on the dust in the air, how it lies around him, how the sun shines through it.
In the novel’s second half, there is more flow and pace. The events show the difficulties, brutalities and social spirit that mark the characters’ lives. A four poster bed is one character’s heritage, her only possession. Its removal by officers is on the basis that it is forbidden for a negro to sleep on a bed. The bed travels around town its resting place dependent upon the fortunes of its owner, its ‘acceptance’.
The reader is shown the branding sheds and methods of torture, the horrendous way in which slaves are transported and kept. A skilled negro silversmith is mistakenly believed to be a thief and is murdered in the most brutal manner. The perpetrator is subsequently told, calmly, that he did a bad thing. He recognises this without apparent upset. An innocent traveller, seeking only to record the places and peoples he finds, is drugged and branded on the face. He refuses to blame the perpetrators, victims of slavery and the awful branding sheds. The female married slave forced to regularly sleep with her master is beaten into disability to appease the master’s wife, but continues to work and sleep as required. Illescu relates all such very violent events unemotionally. It is as though such acts were so commonplace that they are passively accepted if not condoned. And so the negroes submitted to their fate.
When the innocent traveller is lost, he is told the land lies between the river on one side and the mountain on the other. Malambo is that place, between two potential powers, conveniently near to Lima but far enough for secrets to be held there. Power lies on one side of the Rincon, hardship on the other.
Along the river’s path, Pancha seeks the truth of her father’s death. Her first foray from Malambo is described like a coming of age. Tomason wonders if the travelling bed will find acceptance. Pancha’s ‘finding her path home’ after her search is also used symbolically, and will end in marriage.
There are passages that have beauty and spark associations in the reader’s mind, such as the intrusion of myth, mostly Yorumba, the main character’s homeland.
As for criticism, I found the dialogue jerky and no guide to characterisation. One character spoke much like another, giving background and essential information in an artificial manner. The dialogue did not convince or lift the narrative. The manner of changing tense within the same paragraph did disconcert me and I was conscious of a struggle between my reading of the author’s intent and the translation of it. The reader needs to know if s/he is ‘in the moment’ or looking back upon it.
It is always important to hold separate the skill of the writer from that of the translator. I believe that when a novel is translated, it should represent the strength of the description such that the reader’s ignorance of the original language is not a problem. I was not sure that the translator managed this task. There were several instances of inelegance: a discrete/discreet confusion, ‘wind’ as a verb and as a noun in the same sentence obliterating the meaning, and occasional sentence construction that did not reflect naturalistic English.
In conclusion, I would recommend this novel because of its insight into a world little-known and the importance of recognising the African heritage within Peru. However, Illescas is more a historian than a novelist. If this story had been told from the point of view of Tomason, or even alternating between him and Altagracia, the injured woman, the reader would have had more emotional investment in the tale. As it stands, the work is of more historical than literary importance, but an interesting read for all that.
This month the Huffington Post presented an article about the inequalities in obtaining clean water in Peru. It seems that which side of the river you come from still determines your fate and your future.
I quote from the article: “Local residents of the shantytown” (characterised as Malambo in the novel) “pay 3.22 dollars per cubic metre of water, compared to just 45 cents of a dollar that is paid a few blocks away, across the main avenue, in Rinconada del Lago, one of Lima’s most exclusive neighbourhoods.