A debut novel from Washington Post Book World editor Arana (American Chica, 2001) that blends magical realism with matter-of-fact descriptions of things Amazonian.
Like the Peruvian poet César Vallejo’s “Black Stone Lying on a White Stone” and the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Peruvian-American Arana’s narrative opens with an intimation of mortality: Its protagonist, the sonorously named Don Victor Sobrevilla Paniagua, foresees his death “in a bustling metropolis, surrounded by doting women.” But first he must find an opposite setting, for Don Victor has an obsession with paper. Thus, in 1913, he treks across the Andes to a place that does not appear on any map, the vegetation-choked hamlet of Floralinda, where he founds a papermaking empire. Mad scientist that he is, Don Victor is not satisfied with paper alone, though his obsession endures: He realizes that one can make paper from any plant, and that bit of occult knowledge informs the rest of his life. Still, his larger ambition is to make something else, even greater than the French engineer Gustave Eiffel’s iron building downriver: “To erect an iron house in the Amazon had been spectacular. To produce cellophane in quantities would be a miracle.” His children—one wild, one bookish, one hauntingly beautiful, all a little odd—tolerate Don Victor’s dream, as does his wife, Mariana, at least to some extent. Where they differ, they do so openly, for over much of the narrative, the people of Floralinda are afflicted with a habit of speaking the truth. (The encounter of the village priest with a supposedly possessed and most worldly woman is a stitch.) All that changes, though, when outsiders arrive, one by one: an Australian adventurer, an American mapmaker and eventually the army, after which Don Victor’s world changes, slipping “from cellophane to official parchment.”
A pleasure to read.