I did a short note on Carolina de Robertis’s novel The Invisible Mountain in a recent Books for Readers Newsletter, and I recommended the book then and do now. It’s a wonderful book.
It also makes me think again about whether and when this or any novel– keeping in mind that the strong suit of all novels is specificity and concreteness– goes beyond using history and political movements as background. The Invisible Mountain does that background beautifully and naturally. It puts the history and social movements of Uruguay and Argentina to wonderful use and brings them to life. What did I know about the history of that region before I read this novel? I’d heard of the Tupamaros, and I could sing one line of “Don’t cry for me, Argentina.”
The politics is admirably organic. Working class people seem extremely sophisticated in their understanding of power relations. In one branch of the central family, everyone is a communist, and an uncle goes to fight for the revolution in Cuba. Not a lot is made of it– it’s just who they are. I love the way it is just there, part of this family, part of Uruguay.
So in some ways, I feel like De Robertis is lucky simply to have received a world with considerable political sophistication. Her working class people are so different from the ones I grew up among. Even members of the United Mine Workers I knew used to separate their enthusiasm for the union from any critique of the social system.
I think what you’re commenting on here is a reality: that working-class and oppressed people in much if not all the rest of the world are much more politically aware, much more, yes I’ll say it, class-conscious, than are those in the United States. It seems to me that most people in this country are quite ignorant politically and historically–not their fault, I hasten to add, rather a result of an educational system that’s designed to suppress class consciousness and social awareness, and mass media that continue the work. Go to Cuba, as I did in 1996 with a group of labor union activists, or to Chile, or Mexico, or Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, and have a conversation with any person on the street; she or he will know more about U.S. history and current events than almost anyone from the U.S. will, and of course it goes without saying that the U.S. person will know next to nothing about Latin America. Or just stay here, and go to the annual May Day rally in Union Square, where you’ll meet immigrants from all over Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa, who brought with them to this country their experiences and lessons of workers’ struggle, and who are not burdened with this nonsense about “we’re all middle class” or “entrepeneurship is the way forward” that so hobbles folks here. And of course there is a stronger, more recent– present-day, in fact!– current of out-and-out anti-capitalist, pro-socialist, revolutionary activism throughout Latin America. I agree with you that The Invisible Mountain reflects all this. And like you, I loved how the political context is seamlessly woven into the story.
The way the Cuban Revolution, Che, etc., are referenced in this novel is accurate and honest. We’re so used in this country to fiction that demonizes revolutionary leaders and portrays revolutionary activists as cynical manipulative egotistical monsters that it’s startling to come across a novel that does not. That simply portrays how it was and is. I didn’t have to brace myself, or cringe, or curse, as I so often must. It’s honest. Not sugarcoated, not fake or starry-eyed, but also not stacked against the fighters, the ones who try to make things better. They’re flawed but genuine, and they suffer.
What moves me are the three S’s: suffering, solidarity and struggle. Human suffering is or ought to be the great topic of literature, maybe of all art, I think. But I don’t want only to cry. I want the whole grand canvas, which is how suffering leads to solidarity and solidarity begets struggle. De Robertis achieves this in her novel.
Very well put– the cringe factor any left-leaning reader gets used to when something political pops up in an American novel. It’s likely to be embarrassing or else lead to an explosion, sex, or disillusion. Or all of the above. I share your pleasure in being able to relax politically in De Robertis’s world.
I also wanted to address your assertion– I don’t think I’ve ever heard it elsewhere– that “Human suffering is or ought to be the great topic of literature, maybe of all art.” Wow. Do you really believe that? I’d say that human suffering and human joy and human struggle (which is far from the same as suffering of course) and human cussedness and all the rest of it are the great topics of literature. That is to say, literature (probably all art) ought to be one place where we get a sense of wholeness out of the disparate elements of life.
But whose wholeness?
On an abstract level, sure, the subject of art and especially literature should be all of human experience, hell all of the world, why leave it to humans (have you read, for example, Barbara Gowdy’s wonderful novel The White Bone, all of whose characters are elephants?), even all of the universe (couldn’t some talented writer make a gripping novel out of the Big Bang?). I know I ought to retreat from any pronouncement about what art ought to be that is more limited than all that. And yet. On reflection I’ll stick to saying that what moves me, little old me in all my subjectivity, and hey maybe it’s my Jewishness among other things, is suffering humanity. Along, certainly, with all that entails, love, loss, moments of hope and joy, but most of all struggle and solidarity.
It’s not that I want to read about the depredations of suffering–I’m not like the loathsome Mother Theresa who believed that poverty was holy, that poor people’s suffering sanctified them and to help them keep suffering is an uplifting noble endeavor, nor am I into suffering porn, I don’t find it arousing–but rather the shared experience of it in class society and how that leads to struggle. How the downtrodden find the resources to join hands and rise up.
As to joy, the great good things, the many-faceted complexities of life, this is a political question, isn’t it? A class question? Whose joy, what great good things, what complexity? We’ve already talked about all these novels of middle-class life that I increasingly find boring and meaningless whatever the plot or theme. So what’s the inverse? I guess I always come back to solidarity and struggle. When I think of fiction that lifts me up, that resonates, it is never about interpersonal relationships, family in particular, as the vast majority published in this country seems to be. Frankly at this point that’s all blah blah blah to me. The relations I want to read about are between co-workers, members of oppressed groups, etc. The complexities I want to read about have to do with groping for connections, grappling with challenges, feeling forward toward action. Coming together. Strategizing. Mobilizing. Acting.
First, I actually think there is fiction out there with good writing of the type you are yearning for: it’s in some of the books we’ve already mentioned in earlier discussions. I’m thinking of the Easter Uprising in At Swim, Two Boys but also an old Proletarian literature story, Meridel LeSueur’s “I Was Marching.” That story analyzes the experience of a self-identified middle-class woman joining a strike. Not enough, for sure, but some of it is out there. I think what you are really calling for, and let me join my voice in the call, is for you and me and others to write about these things and find publishers who will publish the writing. Which made me think of collecting some exemplary or at least decent passages of that kind of writing. (I’m always looking for teacher materials). I’d be interested in analyzing how those scenes work.
And, in fact, I know you have some scenes of big demonstrations in your writing and a wonderful passage about a pogrom, which is certainly about suffering and groups in motion. I’ve written a passage about a character at an anti-war demonstration where she felt alienated, and then also at a smaller demonstration where she felt very much a part of the big things. I’m interested in how fiction writers can handle this technically. How do we order the sentences, hold at once the individual point of view and the whole crowd? I guess I’ve moved from politics to writing, but that’s one of the things I want from Politerature (other than a reading list): a practical as well as theoretical discussion of how to make politerature.