Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Trip to South America

If you had a blank map of South America, could you draw in Uruguay – with any accuracy? I certainly couldn’t. But I was prompted to look at a map while reading The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis. It is a novel set in Uruguay (with a small detour to Argentina) during the twentieth century. Most of the events occur in Montevideo: “Monte. Vide. Eu. I see a mountain, said a Portuguese man, among the first Europeans to sight this terrain from sea.” But he was wrong – no mountains, barely a hill, hence the “invisible” of the title.

The story follows the lives of three generations of women: Pajarita, a healer of mind and body with her plants; her daughter Eva, a poet; and Eva’s daughter, Salome. But equally as interesting is the way that De Robertis manages to weave in concurrent historical events including the Cuban revolution, the rise and fall of Juan and Evita Peron, Che Guevara, the docking of the wounded German warship Graf Spee during WW II, and most importantly the change in Uruguay in the 1960s to military rule. The resistance efforts of the Tupamaros are inspiring – and heartbreaking. The portrayal of the lives and conditions of political prisoners is memorable.

De Robertis knows of what she writes. Her parents were Uruguayan, although she herself was raised in Europe and the USA and now lives in Oakland, CA; and she has relatives in Uruguay with whom she spent time while preparing this book. There is a liberal sprinkling of Spanish words and the local culture: lots of smoking, music, drinking (what exactly is a mate?), food (empanadas – those I remember from a cooking class) as well as sexual abuse and poverty.

These are three resilient women (none of the men in their lives comes off very well). Each generation faced very different challenges but each succeeding generation found strength from the one(s) before. “...roots are essential. We begin long before we’re born.” I am glad that I had an opportunity to spend some time with them.


  1. Mate is an herbal drink, like tea, drunk in a social setting. It is served in a communal cup with a communal straw with a filter on the end to strain out the plant material. It is apparently a sign of solidarity with the group to partake of mate. I have tried some, but from a teabag and using my own personal cup!

  2. Great explanation. Thanks. I can't imagine a communal straw these days.