From the verdant hills of Rio de Janeiro to Evita Perón’s glittering Buenos Aires, from the haven of a corner butcher shop to the halls of the United States Embassy in Montevideo, this gripping novel—at once expansive and lush with detail—examines the intertwined fates of a continent and a family in upheaval. The Invisible Mountain is a deeply intimate exploration of the search for love and authenticity in the lives of three women, and a penetrating portrait of the small, tenacious nation of Uruguay, shaken by the gales of the twentieth century.
On the first day of the year 1900, a small town deep in the Uruguayan countryside gathers to witness a miracle—the mysterious reappearance of a lost infant, Pajarita—and unravel its portents for the century. Later, as a young woman in the capital city—Montevideo, brimming with growth and promise—Pajarita begins a lineage of fiercely independent women with her enamored husband, Ignazio, a young immigrant from Italy and the inheritor of both a talent for boat making and a latent, more sinister family trait. Their daughter, Eva, a fragile yet ferociously stubborn beauty intent on becoming a poet, overcomes an early, shattering betrayal to embark on a most unconventional path toward personal and artistic fulfillment. And Eva’s daughter, Salomé, awakening to both her sensuality and political convictions amid the violent turmoil of the late 1960s, finds herself dangerously attracted to a cadre of urban guerrilla rebels, despite the terrible consequences of such principled fearlessness.
Provocative, heartbreaking and ultimately life-affirming, The Invisible Mountain is a poignant celebration of the potency of familial love, the will to survive in the most hopeless of circumstances, and, above all, the fierce, fortifying connection between mother and daughter. A Q&A with Carolina De Robertis Question:
When did you first have the idea to write The Invisible Mountain?
Was there a particular event or idea that was its genesis? Answer:
The first moment of genesis occurred when I was ten years old. It was 1985, democracy had just returned to Uruguay, and my mother’s childhood friend was released from political imprisonment. This friend had joined a revolutionary movement at the age of fifteen, and spent thirteen years behind bars under the dictatorship. When my mother learned of her release, our California home filled with an unspoken weight which seemed inextricably tied, not only to this woman’s story, but to our story as well, the greater story of Uruguay. As a child, I was left with burning questions about history, identity, and the radioactive secrets buried beneath the surface of a culture. Those burning questions—along with the desire to bring the beautiful nation of Uruguay to life in an epic book—eventually became the seeds of The Invisible Mountain
The novelist Annie Dillard
has said it beautifully: “There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” Q:
Where does the title The Invisible Mountain
come from? A:
According to national lore, the name “Montevideo” comes from an early Portuguese sailor who, on sighting the land that would become Uruguay, called out “Monte vide eu,” or “I see a mountain.” The great irony in this story—which is something of a national joke, as well as a potent parable of this little nation’s self-perception—is that the city of Montevideo lacks elevation. The mountain the man was referring to is actually a low, unassuming hill. I see the themes of this story running though the characters’ lives as they hunger and strive for intangible entities they cannot see.
The title also resonates for me because I see this book, in a sense, as a sprawling love letter to Montevideo—a salute to a small, inimitable city that, against all odds or visual evidence, dares to bear a name that evokes mountains. I have always lived in regions where no one knows about the tiny nation of Uruguay, where people rarely know how to find it on a map—it often feels, globally speaking, like an invisible place, as so many smaller nations do in an increasingly globalized world. Perhaps Uruguay, itself, is the invisible mountain, the complex and stunning terrain that goes unseen. I don’t think writers hold monopolies on interpretation; readers have just as much right to unfold meaning in a text, so I leave it for them to decide. Q:
Why did you decide to make this story a generational saga following the lives of three generations of women over 90 years? A:
The shortest, most direct answer is that this is the book that needed to be written, the book that insisted on coming through. I’m not sure that I ever made such a decision; it feels more as though the story chose me.
It’s certainly true that, among the family narratives I inherited, the women’s stories fascinated me the most. The men in my lineage tended to leave an elaborate oral legacy, while the women were often glossed over with a sentence or two. It seemed to me that there must be a great deal of treasure buried in that silence, and the beautiful thing about fiction is that it can recreate such treasures, even when the factual details have been lost forever.
Creating room for women’s unheard voices has also been a passion of mine beyond the world of fiction. In my early and mid-twenties, in the period when I began writing this book, I spent five years working as a full-time rape crisis counselor. I founded a program for Spanish-speaking Latinas, and listened to over a thousand rape survivors and their loved ones as they delved into and grappled with their experience with sexual assault. I simply don’t have words for how much I learned from my clients, both about the harrowing traumas they endured and the immense resilience they drew on to survive and recover. While none of their individual stories are told here, they taught me more about violence, silence, and human strength than I could have found in a hundred libraries, and I could not have written this book without them. Q: The Invisible Mountain
is a story about family and the power of love and legacy. Yet it also a gripping portrait of a nation very much shaken by the upheavals of the twentieth century. There is much actual history that runs through this novel—from the early days in Montevideo to the days of Peron in Argentina to the Tupamaros revolutionaries in Uruguay. Did you have to do any research into these events, or was much of it drawn from embraces of family who lived through them? Do you have family still living in Uruguay now? A:
I did an enormous amount of research. I went to many libraries, pored over books, and consulted with people who knew more than me. Toni Morrison
, whose historical novels are a great inspiration, once said, “I’m just trying to look at something without blinking, to see what it was like, or it could have been like, and how that had something to do with the way we live now.” It was incredibly important to me to look the history of Uruguay in the eye, without blinking, and do my best to explore its implications for everyday life through the worlds of my characters.
I have a wonderful extended family in Montevideo, and my cousins Andrea and Oscar were particularly generous with information, conversation, and help finding the answers to strange questions—not to mention a place to stay. I also drew on friends in Montevideo, like Evelyn, who gave me a stack of history books that proved immensely valuable. I also have an amazing extended family in Buenos Aires, on my father’s side. The last time I visited them, they sent me home with a huge suitcase crammed with books; the customs agents were floored. I’ve been using those books to develop my second novel.
(Photo © Joanne Chan)
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The history of Uruguay through the 20th century sparks personal tragedies amid political intrigues and cultural upheavals in this enchanting, funny and heartbreaking debut novel. Three generations of women populate this sweeping saga: Pajarita, the miracle child who at the dawn of the new century disappears and then reappears in a tree, born twice, as the residents of her small town say; Eva, Pajarita's daughter, who suffers a cruel childhood and learns to spin her painful experiences into a new life of art and adventure as a poet; and Salomé, seduced by communism and nearly losing everything fighting for the cause she believes will save her country. This novel is beautifully written yet deliberate in its storytelling. It gains momentum as the women's lives spin increasingly out of control while Uruguay sinks into war, economic instability and revolution. An extraordinary first effort whose epic scope and deft handling reverberate with the deep pull of ancestry, the powerful influence of one's country and the sacrifices of reinvention. (Aug.)
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