Where do the dead go once they transition out of the realm of the living? Though not central to the plot this is the question that buttresses the main premise and argument of this singular novel by one of Venezuela’s most established authors, Ana Teresa Torres. Doña Inés Vilegas y Solórzano is a wealthy landowner in the colonial province of Venezuela, a direct descendant of the first settler of the vast stretches of land that open to the east of Caracas. Precisely this land, just south of the coastal mountain range, is the protagonist of the story, a fertile valley that slopes gently into the shoreline about 100 kilometers away from the capital, and which early in the 18th century became home to the first official town of black people, Curiepe, established by the freed slave Juan del Rosario.
Juan del Rosario’s audacity—a proper town, sanctioned by king and Church, of current and former slaves, no less—sparks indignation among the ruling class but no one is more aggrieved than Doña Inés, who not only is Juan del Rosario’s former owner but also the official proprietor of the land he claims. The origin of the controversy is found at the heart of the Villegas household as Don Alejandro, Doña Inés’ husband and a councilman in the city of Caracas, promises to bequeath Juan del Rosario, his illegitimate son with a house slave, a piece of land on the eastern boundaries of the Villegas plantation. Doña Inés, aware of Juan del Rosario’s kinship, is happy to grant him certain privileges, raising him as her own son’s play mate, sending him out to learn a trade, and eventually granting him his freedom. Therefore she sees Juan del Rosario’s plans to establish a settlement of black people on what she still considers her land as a personal affront against her generosity, against her goodwill.
For the rest of the novel Doña Inés embarks on a stubborn legal battle against Juan del Rosario’s purported rights to settle a territory that had already been officially settled by her family in 1663, even though in practice no trace of human presence could be found in the fallow land. Yet in Doña Inés’ conception of the world these legal proceedings are a matter of principle, an issue of power ahead of profit, for in her view even if Juan del Rosario is a free citizen he remains her freedman, and even if Don Alejandro promised his bastard son a piece of land, it is still her land to administer. Because for Doña Inés this legal battle is also a matter of legacy, not only in the sense of a heritage passed down from generation to generation but, more importantly, in terms of recording for posterity the way things happened, the way things are or at least the way things should be (to her). It is a matter or memory, of etching in stone her version, her claims, her life. In other words, her legal wrangle with Juan del Rosario—and the novel that chronicles it—bears all the weight of history.
This aspect is further nuanced by the fact that a lawsuit that dates back to the beginning of the 1700s, and that involves documentation issued as early as 1663, is still—or rather again—being negotiated in the late 1980s, the chronological baseline, the present time, as it were, from which the whole novel is narrated. Not that Doña Inés lives as long as that: longevous as she is—she dies at the venerable age of 82 towards the end of the 1700s—it is rather the fact that she has left unfinished business which allows her to witness, if not experience, human affairs even 200 years after her death.
Thus, through the haughty voice of Doña Inés we are informed of the often outlandish events that have shaped the life of this once poor and underdeveloped province on the Caribbean shores of the South American mainland. We become privy to the almost comical incompetence of Spanish governor after Spanish governor and we are alerted to the ever-present threat of raids by English corsairs of the scarcely populated settlements along the coastline. We learn of the first slave revolts and are afforded front row seats in the long saga of victories and defeats that weave the epic that is Venezuela’s war of independence—the intrigues that led to the establishment of a junta in support of the deposed Bourbon king during the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, the emergence of Simón Bolívar as a military hero, the earthquake of 1812 which effectively razed Caracas to the ground and brought down with it the First Republic, the retreat to Orient, the Admirable Campaign, the final victory in the fields of Carabobo and the subsequent rise of local generals with highly localised support who, a few decades later, would make Venezuela descend into a period of constant civil war. We are confronted with revolutions of all colours—blue, red, yellow—and fancy names—Legaliser, Restaurative—all of which bring the same result, the installation of some despotic character in power for a short period of time.
Through the popularization of all sorts of ideological tendencies in the country, from conservative values to liberalism, from so-called Parisianism (a beautification initiative that intended to make Caracas resemble the French capital) to extreme nationalism, Doña Inés’ lawsuit, carried forward by her relatives, keeps her in contact with the realm of the living. Unable to communicate with those she has left behind, she displays an insatiable thirst for learning the ways of the modern world, even after her land is definitely expropriated by the autocratic government of Cipriano Castro, the first of five consecutive Andean heads of state who would rule the country’s fate for the best part of a century. Doña Inés’ curiosity seems not to be shared by all other disembodied beings, yet she is perfectly capable of communicating with the other dead, with Don Alejandro and Juan del Rosario for instance, but also with onetime monarchs such as Phillip V and Charles III (neither of which responds to her promptings, though, much like they ignored her pleas in her lifetime).
As Doña Inés Versus Oblivion progresses the narrative device that enables the reader to partake in all these episodes of Venezuelan history starts losing its edge, becoming less surprising as it grows more repetitive. The narrator’s distinctive tone, at once refined and familiar, scornful and irresistibly amusing, makes for a pleasant read but Ana Teresa Torres’ biggest issue is that the limitations of her narrator are necessarily also the limitations of her reader. Thus, as Doña Inés tells in astonishment the details of an age and a reality which she couldn’t possibly have fathomed in her times, the reader is left with a novel in which much of the action is filtered through a third party. But the greatest joy of reading (and writing) fiction is, surely, experiencing in the (literary) flesh the highs and lows of the lives of characters who are often a world apart from us.
Torres is aware of this shortcoming, and at various points abandons the perspective of her narrator to give us firsthand accounts of critical characters and situation. These are undoubtedly the most persuasive moments in the novel, and rather understandably they grow even more vivid as the context in which they take place is set closer to our times. In this respect, Doña Inés’ struggle against oblivion gains momentum in the final segments of the book, when the prospect of ending the centuries-long conflict threatens to end the narrator’s investment in the realm of flesh and bone. If Doña Inés is about to be sentenced to eternal rest, though, she will go down with a flourish as it becomes evident that informal negotiations, not legal proceedings, are the most effective way to solve problems. In a simple yet elegant twist, the descendants of Doña Inés and Juan del Rosario join forces to develop a commercial enterprise that will inject funds and employment to the region of Curiepe, that will bring progress, development, and that ultimately will heal the wounds of centuries of hate.
A rare opportunity to delve into Venezuelan literature for English readers, Doña Inés Versus Oblivion is far from a perfect book, but it’s certainly a fascinating one. Winner of the 1998 Mobil Pegasus Prize for Literature, this is a palpable example of the ways in which oil money can have a strong impact on culture, both in crude-rich countries and in consumer ones. But the most poignant aspect of this uplifting novel is how different the future turned out to be merely twenty years after it was written. Full of hope and optimism for things to come, Doña Inés Versus Oblivion comes as a shrewd reminder that the horror that has unfolded in Venezuela did not have to be—yet perhaps this can be used to understand that what lies ahead doesn’t necessarily have to involve rancour and revenge either.
Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald on Saturday 10 June 2017.