An Interview with Carolina de Robertis
Carolina de Robertis's debut novel, The Invisible Mountain, centers on three generations of Uruguayan women, their families, and the political tribulation of that country, along with its sister state of Argentina. She tells a concise, breathtakingly emotional story on a broad canvas stretching from 1890s Buenos Aires and Montevideo, culminating in the days of political stealth actions by the insurgent Uruguayan group the Tupamaros, and the incarceration of their leaders on into the 1970s and 1980s. De Robertis's novel has been ecstatically received on both sides of the Atlantic and in South America. Bookslut caught up w/ her at her L.A. Hotel after her reading at Hollywood's Book Soup bookstore.
You use the archetype or homeomorph of three women in what strikes me as a unique way. You have the fin-de-siècle Parajita, modeled after a great-grandmother, whose active action as a character ceases in the Thirties. Then you have her daughter, Eva, who publishes her poetry and blazes away as such a vital character in Perón-era Uruguay and Argentina (Forties, Fifties, Sixties). Then there is Salome, born in 1951, and a (leftist insurgent) Tupamara in the early Seventies and on through her incarceration into the 1980s. I think of the Greek sisters, Moira (the Fates); Chekhov’s benighted sisters who can’t make it to Moscow, and Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, who are actually different age-stages of the same female character. Where has there been an intergenerational treatment of three women like yours?
I’m glad that you think it works. There are some predecessors, but it's true that many intergenerational novels focus on male lineages as the primary narrative. Some of those books have been a great inspiration to me, and simultaneously made me want to write my way into a lineage through the women, to explore the ties and inheritances and tensions that connect them and keep them apart.
Eva, the poet, was based on your own paternal grandmother Tonita Semelis, actually an Argentine. She was a poet who published two collections in her lifetime, and she suffered from some of the same illnesses as Eva, I believe?
Yes. Eva has episodes of almost classical, Freud-era “female hysteria,” which her to-be husband, the medical doctor Roberto Santos, ends up curing. My grandmother, Eva’s real-life prototype, did suffer occasional, inexplicable paralysis. As for so many women of her generation, her condition was chalked up to mental infirmity rather than seen as potentially having an understandable psychological source.
Eva is exiled because of her tangential involvement with insurgents under Perón’s early presidency.
Yes. The real-life Semelis and my grandfather were exiled for different reasons. But the scenes of departure from Buenos Aires are very much based on historical realities, and the sort of Styx-journey across the Rio De La Plata to Montevideo was a common avenue of exile.
Being cast out of the Garden?
Exactly. And then it worked the other way, too. In the seventies, in the early years of the Uruguayan dictatorship, people would attempt to escape to Argentina. They didn’t realize that the generals of one country very much shared information with the other, as part of a plan called Operation Condor. If you were a Uruguayan exile, your name was probably not only on the Argentine list, but also on the list in post-Allende [Pinochet’s] Chile. For this reason, some of the people who “disappeared” in Argentina were actually Uruguayans searching for safety.
All of this with assistance from the American CIA?
Oh yes, most definitely. The U.S. was bent on preventing another Cuba, or another democratic election like Allende’s in Chile. Those were the days of numerous front organizations -- often with “development” or “unity” in their title -- for the CIA, especially under Kissinger and Nixon. The Alliance for Progress, for example, sent Dan Mitrione to Uruguay as a “technical consultant.” He was a former police chief from Indiana, who was actually teaching torture methods to the Uruguayan police, and the Tupamaro revolutionaries kidnapped him as a way of shining light on his presence. He makes a cameo in the novel.
Going back to Parajita a minute, was she educated and literate? She certainly seems to be.
She is illiterate, though as to my great-grandmother on whom she’s based, I don’t really know the answer. She was swept up and carried to the city when she was seventeen years old, by an Italian immigrant in a traveling carnival, who declared her the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. In family histories and often with female characters in literature, you notice that the woman is often not introduced as a vital presence until after her husband is.
That’s why, with Parajita, and before she establishes herself as an herbal healer and gives birth to Eva, she sort of emerges from a tree? Like Ariel?
Yes. It’s a kind of creation myth.
After Eva’s letter revealing government abuses is published and circulated in mimeograph -- in early Fifties -- against her husband’s will, we see Eva begin to deeply question not just the political utility, but the moral rightness and comfort of her marriage. When Dr. Santos grills her about how stupid she could have been to become involved in revolutionary events, the thought runs through her mind: You’re almost an old man. The idea is that he is too set in his ways to appreciate needed political change...
That’s interesting. I hadn’t connected it that way before.
He has just reminded her that any cooperation with insurgents would jeopardize the family, and says she has no idea what the police of the Perón regime are capable of. Is he perhaps making good points about her naïveté?
Perhaps, but by then, as both a poet and a mother, she is also aware of the risks and costs, not only of taking action, but also of inaction. She holds her baby and thinks of the mother of a brutalized youth. How will she live with herself if she does nothing?
The third of your “Three Women” is the daughter Eva gives birth to in a Buenos Aires hospital in 1951, Salomé. You have a marvelous ability, kind of like Woody Allen in Zelig, to get historical figures to walk into the fiction quite believably. You have the young Che Guevara as a medical student and intern coming into the room and advising on breast feeding.
Well, he was definitely a resident at a Buenos Aires hospital in that year, so he was up for grabs. And then his formal first name, “Ernesto,” is used as Salomé’s middle name, Ernestina.
Salomé’s early character traits -- feistiness, a melancholy kindness -- make for her iconoclasm at an early stage of her adolescence.
Yes. The Tupamaro movement was full of teenagers and young adults, the most clean-cut, intelligent, and upstanding youths. No one would have guessed that they were hiding guns under their mattresses and plotting revolution.
The last sentence of the Eva section has Salomé sleeping, “far away on a raft of dreams.” They seem to be dreams of rebellion.
Perhaps they are.
Many of us who were teenagers, and sort of high school revolutionaries in the very late Sixties and early Seventies, looked on the Tupamaros as heroes. And there was the Costa-Gavras film State of Siege, about one of their biggest actions, the kidnapping of Dan Mitrione. I take it you had much more historical material to work with for Salomé than the other characters.
There are published diaries and journals of the Tupamaros, and books have been written on them. I drew on many sources, including the works of María Esther Gilio, Mauricio Rosencof, and Lawrence Weschler, as well as the biography of Yessie Macchi, a Tupamara who was a high school friend of my mother’s and who inspired the character of Salomé.
The Tupamaros were also different from many insurgent groups, including the Monteneros in neighboring Argentina, because of the breadth of their popular support, correct?
Yes. They had very wide popular support in Montevideo and the countryside -- in the early years, that is. They were known as the “Robin Hoods” of Uruguay, because they robbed casinos and gave out money to the poor.
The book will, without question, be popular in Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile. Have Spanish rights been sold?
Yes, to a Madrid publisher who will distribute the book in Latin America.
Who has influenced you?
Many, many writers. Woolf, Saramago, Morrison, Rushdie, Faulkner. Gabriel García Marquez, certainly.
Did you read [García Marquez's] Living To Tell The Tale? Amazing how he copped to all the Latin American man infidelity stereotypes, pretty unapologetically. But I couldn’t put it down.
That baby picture of GGM that looks out at you from the spine? Amazing.
One of the two epigraphs for Invisible Mountain is from Clarice Lispector: “A silence so great that hopelessness is shamed. Mountains so high that hopelessness is shamed.” She is enjoying an enormous resurgence now because of the biography...
Yes, Ben Moser, Why This World. And he does not at all overstate her greatness. I was just on a panel at the Texas Book Festival with him. Tremendously intelligent man, a fantastic guy, and I’m so glad he’s helping strengthen her place among the greatest South American -- and world -- writers of the twentieth century.
What are you working on now?
A new novel, set across the river in Buenos Aires in 2001, about a young Argentinian woman raised in a military family who meets the dripping ghost of a desaparecido, and is forced to confront the hidden past that connects them.