Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Review: Marie Arana. Cellophane.

NY: Dial Press, 2006. ISBN 0385336640

Michael Sedano

A prankster's perpetual motion machine and a picture postcard of what seems an impossible structure captures a young man's imagination. He sees through the perpetual motion machine–a ball bearing driven along a track by a hidden electric fan– but the iron building perched on a hill surrounded by jungle sparks the young man's quest to produce his own engineering marvel in the nineteenth century Peruvian Amazon watershed. Something like that doesn’t belong in such a place. That people can do something like that doesn’t mean they should.

The point is lost on the young man, Victor Sobrevilla Paniagua. He becomes an engineer, finds a livelihood in a rich foreigner’s paper factory out in the middle of nowhere. The foreigner dies, leaving Victor in possession of the papermill’s equipment with nary an heir nor creditor in sight. Victor steals the factory--moves the papermill, kit and kaboodle, deeper into the jungle where he establishes a family plantation dubbed “Floralinda” and thus begins his family saga.

This is the skeleton of Marie Arana’s 2006 novel, Cellophane. The novel takes its title from Victor’s obsession with transforming hemp, cotton, and local weeds into the shimmering transparency that would demonstrate his own miracle in the jungle like that iron house that didn’t belong. Arana is not so obvious, however, choosing instead to place the reader in the heart of the family, seeing what they choose to see.

Floralinda seems to prosper under the Engineer’s labors. His family grows, his factory grows, his fortune grows. Victor comes to be known as the shapechanger because he can convert trees, grasses, hemp, and other local vegetation into massive rolls of brown paper and familial prosperity. Only occasionally does the novel allude to the terrible pollution that papermaking brings to pristine environments, but the depredations are never far from the surface.

Strange happenings begin to turn the family’s fortunes from prosperity to asperity. We begin seeing the falsehood behind the seeming paradise. Insanity, marital infidelity, deformity signal impending disaster. A plague of truthfulness infects the family. People blurt out closely held secrets, truths emerge unthinkingly. The priest confesses his carnal knowledge of a woman at an early stage of his career. To comfort him, Sobrevilla’s wife tells the assembled family that her father was a priest. Another confession: a grandparent was a Chinese coolie, a truly abhorrent heritage to an outraged daughter-in-law who considers her lineage to have passed from Spanish royalty. Then there are the shrunken heads.

These are only a few of dozens of strange happenings in the Amazon jungle that Arana weaves into an involving story that plays upon perception, reality, and false vision. Floralinda takes on the character of the world seen through the transparency of cellophane. Don Victor’s close friend and confessor, an indio medicine man named Yorumbo, explains near the middle of the novel, “You say you can see through your paper. But that kind of seeing means nothing. A man sees through water and air, doesn’t he? Just as a man sees through water to find a fish, just as he sees through air to find a bird, you must see past your shine to find what your heart really hungers for. The burden of your paper, pacu, is that it will force to you to look elsewhere.”

The beauty of the passage is its false transparency. While the indio seems to be making a profound disclosure, at its heart the statement has no meaning while speaking a kind of truth. “Elsewhere“ is so nondirectional that all Don Victor can do is stare along the same sightline, not seeing yet consumed by his vision. Events slowly begin growing out of his control like the seed that sprouted in a monastery. It grew into a huge tree that consumed the entire structure.

Truth be told, the novel plods along from development to development. Not without its moments of sheer delight, like the jivaro headshrinkers, or the delightful seduction of the grandchildren’s nanny. Don Victor traps a hatful of butterflies in order to greet the outwardly unremarkable teacher possessed of a wonderful figure. With a tip of the hat and explosion of color, the delighted schoolteacher is softened up. The sight sets the plantation tongues to wagging and the lustful Victor’s passion on an ever upward arc that brings about his downfall.

Arana finds the heart of her story in betrayal. The novel’s pace quickens when government arrives at Floralinda and turns everything inside out. Those who had lived off Floralinda’s prosperity turn against the family in a frenzy of looting and rejection. In the end, the fantasy of paradise becomes the reality of master and economic slave. The Sobrevillas, whose domesticity we witnessed from inside the family’s domicile and the author’s chosen perspective, finally are revealed by the acts of the people of Floralinda.

The cook’s husband makes the point clearly. “He shook the cross over his head. ‘Don’t you see? It’s over! No more bullies! No more threats from that priest! No more orders from the señora! We can raise that baby in your belly as a Nahua, as a proud creature of this forest, as our fathers raised us to be!’”

In the end, the family floats away from Floralinda like some shipwrecked crew. Victor takes out the fortune he’d bought as a child and that had guided his vision all those years. He wonders what kind of paper it was made from. He releases it and it sweeps away in the wind.

Already the middle of January and turning the corner into February. Look for Gina Marysol Ruiz' Wednesday column. And on Thursday, La Bloga welcomes our guest columnist, Lisa Alvarado. I'll see you next week.



Manuel Ramos said...

Ms. Arana was a presenter at the Words and Music Literary Feast in New Orleans back in November. She and others, including Luis Rodriguez, spoke about memoir writing. One point she made was that she was spurred on to write her memoir (American Chicas) when secrets started coming out about her own family back in Peru. Your review of her novel makes me think that she has continued in that same vein -- betrayal, secrets, etc., and how such lingering wounds can fester and eventually destroy a family. Just my guess, though, as I have not yet read either of her books. Thanks for the review.

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