Friday, November 18, 2022

Ingrid Rojas Contreras, "The Man who Could Move Clouds: a Memoir" (2022)

This magical book carried me far away to places strange and wonderful and sad. I lost myself in its pages, and am not so happy to have found myself again at the end. I may go back when I am done writing this, to see if I can start again at the beginning and disappear once more.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras was born in Colombia in a time of unending violence. Her grandfather was a curandero, and word that, depending on how you say it, can mean either "healer" or "witch." Because of the word's dark associations, his business cards said "Homeopath." He could heal the sick, move clouds to bring rain or stop it, and speak with the dead. He was a famous local character, and people left pleas for help at his grave for decades after he had died.

According to tradition, the grandfather should have passed his secrets on to one of his sons. But his sons, he found, were not worthy; they were too weak, too fearful of ghosts. The child most like him was his daughter, Rojas Contreras' mother. But the tradition forbade teaching the secrets to women, and despite her pleas he would not break that law. Yet she found her own path to a kind of spirit wisdom. After she fell down a well and nearly died, she could see and hear ghosts, and became what I would call a medium. For years she supported her family by counseling clients about their spiritual problems and selling bottles of water that she had infused with prayers. She married an educated man, a scientific skeptic, and he eventually found a job working in the oil industry. Their children grew up in a confused, in-between world, with a mother who talked to ghosts and a father who didn't believe in them, educated in western history and literature but feeling more at home in the stories of ghosts and crazy relatives they heard in the village where they were born.

Eventually the family learns that the father has been put on a list of people the rebels intend to kidnap, and they flee Colombia for Venezuela. They wander South America for years, sometimes living with their father, sometimes apart from him. Two daughters win scholarships to study in America, and their story becomes even more scattered and divided, moving back and forth between continents.

Which is how Ingrid ends up in Chicago, where she has a bicycle accident and lands on her head, plunging her into a strange sort of amnesia. She experiences this forgetting as a burst of freedom, and from this crisis she obains her own power, and becomes a writer. As with her mother, a brush with death unlocked her gifts.

I have no idea what to make of this story. I don't doubt that Rojas Contreras suffered some kind of brain injury, but its effects are hard to disentangle from her long-term mental health struggles. I suspect she is a thoroughly unreliable narrator. She tells crazy stories about, for example, the time her family kept a huge anaconda for a pet, until it had eaten all their chickens and had to be got rid of. Her family is a mess of alcoholism, depression, anxiety, morbid fear of ghosts, suicide, and sundry other mental problems. Rojas Contreras has her own share: anorexia, panic attacks, self harm. 

Through all of this, and much more I have not mentioned, her family remains a family, always trying to be strong for each other, always finding some way to get by. And while they are crazy, they are also wonderful. They are brave, funny, always ready with a joke or a story, and full of lore about herbs, incantations, and spirits. They know hundreds of stories, and love to tell them. Rojas Contreras has found a way to mix the elixir of curandismo and village ghost stories with the wine of literature, and the result is a magic potion of words. This is the best book I have read this year, and it might be the best book I have read in a decade.

*          *          *

The scholar in me, though, has some stuff to say. Rojas Contreras sometimes describes her mestizo heritage as a curse, begun when the conquerors raped Native women, leaving their descendants barred from the white world but torn away from their own heritage. But what is wonderful in this book is precisely the mestizo-ness, the mingling of minds and cultures. Our narrator is a graduate of an American university, I suppose with a degree in literature, a close reader of Jane Austen and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Because she straddles two worlds, she can weave a story that no citizen of one or the other could tell. A memoir like this is no part of anybody's traditional culture, but a creation of refined civilizations. Because Rojas Contreras has been given the secrets of this lore, she can write a book that brings her crazy, magical family to magnificent life.

Incidentally one of the great insights here into "traditional culture" is that it consists, not of unquestioned truths, but of unending debate. Within Rojas Contreras' family people argue constantly over whether curses are real – her mother the medium denies it – what are the powers of ghosts, and even whether particular beings they see are ghosts or strangers. Part of what makes the book great is that we see all these things through the eyes of a whole family of highly argumentative people, seeing much more clearly what this lore means than we would from a recitation of beliefs.

I could go on for hours like this, because the richness of this book struck so many chords in me, but let me get back to the topic at hand. 

Rojas Contreras finds the root of her family's woes in colonialism: in their poverty, in the unending violence, in their vast loss of heritage. This does not overwhelm the story, but it is part of the world view, and I suspect it helped the book to get a National Book Awards nomination. But coming to the story as I did, steeped in Euopean lore, I could not help but notice that the tradition of Bucaramanga's curanderos is at least as much European as native. For example they have a whole lore of treasure hunting, using iron divining rods and looking for mysterious lights on the ground, along with incantations to protect them from guardian spirits. These passages could have been copied verbatim from a book of European folklore. Some of the stories they tell have more to do with ancient Greek myth than anything of pre-Columbian America: snakes in cribs, spirit tempresses that lure men to watery graves. In fact one gaping hole in Rojas Contreras' education seems to be anthropology; all she knows of Native culture, or what she thinks of as Native culture, is the stories of her Spanish-speaking, mixed race family. She doesn't seem to have ever met a traditional Indian, and I guess nobody ever assigned her the Popol Vuh or Black Elk Speaks. She tries to get glimpses of the Native past from details like the names of rivers, but can only imagine the lost world that lay behind those tiny cracks in the wall of forgetting.

When someone like Rojas Contreras denounces imperialism and white culture, I find myself asking where this leaves the speaker. The words, whether Spanish or English, are European; the ways of thinking, writing, and understanding are European. The political, racial analysis that underlies the rage is European. A good portion of the speaker's genes are European, and maybe it should be mentioned that the reason there are so many more people of Indian ancestry in Spanish America than in el Norte is precisely because of the genetic mixing, which passed to mestizos a much greater resistance to European diseases.

Maybe that is the complaint, that there is pretty much nothing in the world that is not infected with European words and ideas. But to wish that away is, for a Colombian novelist and memoirist, to wish away yourself.

Given the pain she has endured, maybe Rojas Contreras would find that appealing. But for me, as a reader, it is the collision of worlds that is most wonderful to behold. I have read many actual Native stories, and none of them are as magical to me as The Man Who Could Move Clouds.

Yes, there is suffering. Colonization was a terrible event, and Rojas Contreras has endured great personal pain. And yet here we are, with a truly wonderful book that could have come into the world in no other way.

Rojas Contreras' mother tells her, describing her spiritual consulting practice, 

The biggest thing I have learned all these years is that nobody wants the truth, but everyone wants a story.

What remains? Rojas Contreras asks herself, after an old book turns to dust in her hands:

The person who escapes.
The mind that forgets itself.
The culture that is thought to be erased.
The answer is everything.
Everything survives.


David said...

"Incidentally one of the great insights here into "traditional culture" is that it consists, not of unquestioned truths, but of unending debate."

This has absolutely been my impression as well. "Traditional culture, unified thought," is a trope with many sources, and it serves many purposes. It sweetens the memories of oldsters, feeds the narcissism and self-hatred of moderns, bolsters outsider politicians. But in all cases it is, it seems to me, more or less a fallacy.

David said...

That obsessive ambivalence about colonialism and race-mixing--especially race-mixing by rape--is a obviously a huge part of Latin American culture, maybe even at or near the core of it. Consider Octavio Paz's discussion in Labyrinth of Solitude on the expression "Somos Mexicanos, hijos de la chingada."

One can ask, as you do, where denouncing a part of one's background leaves the speaker--but surely the answer you give is exactly itself part of the obsessive ambivalence. Part of what makes that ambivalence so culturally powerful is that there are no easy solutions. The European heritage in Latin America can't be escaped; it has many, many attractions and uses and powers; but the violence of its coming can't be reasoned into non-problem. (The same could be said of the heritage of slave-holding in western civ.)

I think the real problem comes when one tries to turn these concerns into political-institutional power, either on the side of saying, "No one can ever study Plato again" or the side of "the main themes of our education system should be Classics and Our Flag." (Incidentally, imo a fad of giving prizes to one side or the other is a pretty minor problem, and one not worth wasting much breath over.)