Margaret Mascarenha's novel The Disappearance of Irene Dos Santos is a fascinating tale about two girls and thirty years of recent Venezuelan history. In the first chapter Lily tells her story which seems like a girl-growing-up-story and but is in reality a Dickens-like novel about all of Venezuela. Mascarenha is like Toni Morrison or Alice Walker telling the repressed stories of a culture.
The tales begins when the girl Lily met Irene when Irene joined Lily's class at the bilingual Academia Roosevelt built with American oil money. The two girls are ten and become fast friends. For Lily's 15th birthday, her father takes her, his wife and Irene to a Christmas holiday in the jungles of Maquiritare where Irene disappears and Lily is left traumatized. Fifteen years later in 2004 when she is about to give a baby she slips and falls but also is haunted by her lost friend Irene. Then the rest of the book is eight people telling their stories hoping to help Lily feel better and have a healthy baby.
The stories unfold: Efrain is an Indian boy living with his grandmother in the jungle grieving for his mother who left and hasn't returned; Consuelo, Lily's mother, tells of bearing Lily and also forty years earlier when her rebel husband Ismael was imprisoned when she visited the head of the Department of Security to get his release; Lily's godmother Amparo, married to the wealthy TV executive Alejandro, tells how she rebelled against the society wife role by becoming the town's leading midwife. As we hear nine people's stories a whole history of Venezuela over 45 years unfolds.
The history begins when Lily's father Ismael Martinez, a Native American and leading singer/poet of the country, tells how he joins a rebel movement of Native peope resisting the wealthy's appropriation of Indian's land. Amparo's husband Alejandro tells how he joined the rebel movement. Efrain's grandfather was leader of the Indian rebels who led an innsurrection of unarmed Indians against the oil companies in the Delta which was brutally put down. In tale after fascinating tale the history of each person unfolds. As the tales unfold, the history of the girls Lily and Irene becomes part of the 45 year saga--the latest chapters.
Besides giving us the political nation, the novelist gives us an alternative culture of Venezuela centered around the Indian cult figure of Maria Lionza. Maria Lionza, an Indian princess/goddess, was reconigzed by dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez in the 1950s as the symbol of national identity for Venezuela--the partron saint of the nation. Maria Lionza has three "courts": one led by Simon Bolivar, the liberator of the country from the Spanis; the second led by "El Negro Felipe," a black independence fighter; and the third led by "El Indio Guaicapuro," who fought against the conquerors during the Conquest. Thus Maria Lionza represents the three races--white, black, and red--who make up Venezuela.
The novel comes out of this alternative Venezuelan culture where Ismael, a rebel poet and singer, sings and tells the latest Robin Hood stories of the poor Venezuealans. The leaders of the Indians' rebellion take names of the leaders of Maria Lionza's court as if the mythological heroes came to life again in 1970s Venezuela. The whole novel is like one long song praising the rebels who row against the wind with the poor and with the Indians. Also, Ismael in his chapter recounts his Indian intiation and how he learns to cross over into the land of dreams. Many of the characters are part-Indians who take their dreams as seriously as they take reality. A Jungian psychoanalyst helps Irene intrepret her dream.
A second alternative culture in the novel is radio novels and telenovelas--the soap operas on radio and TV beloved by the women throughout Latin America. This novel crosses into modern culture of TV in its Venezuelan form: Alejandro is head of the TV station; Lily's husband writes radio and TV telenovelas; Irene at the novel's end reappears to tell her story of her lost years and then becomes a writer of radio novelas. The novelist tells us in an epilogue that the serial novel on radio and TV became "a genre of melodrama that depicted soical ills in a more popular and less literary format" ... and had a basic "tendency to go extending itself as long as the audience for it existed ....."
Mascarenhas like Isabel Allende in her novel Eva Luna adopts the popular melodramatic novela form to the literary novel. In the final chapter when Irene finally gets her life together to become a writer the titles of her radio novelas are the chapters of this book. Is the novel just stories that Irene made up for the radio scripts? Or is Irene writing her autobiography? The novel combines the Latin American novela with postmodernist questioning of reality with Indian dream worlds with Jungian psycology that accepts the dream life. The Diappearnce of Irene Dos Santos is one of 2009's great novels in English introducing the English-speaking reader to a fascinating world of two girls growing up in the other Venezuela and to the other Venezuela.
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