Reviewed by Lucina Schell, Editor
Ideally, literature in translation can illuminate an aspect of our own culture that deserves further reflection. Passionate Nomads by Maria Rosa Lojo, translated by Brett Alan Sanders, is such a work. Tackling Argentina’s difficult history of indigenous genocide, which bears striking resemblance to that carried out in the United States, the novel gives its historical protagonists—and readers—the opportunity to reckon with their past actions and legacies. A historical fantasy, the novel weaves together history, fiction, and myth in unsettling ways.
The novel is grounded in Lojo’s extraordinary talent for mimicking the literary voice of real historical characters, namely Lucio Victorio Mansilla (1831-1913), best known for his literary chronicle Excursión a los indios ranqueles, which describes his visit with the Ranquel Indians as commander of the bordering “Christian territories” during peace treaty negotiations in 1870. Mansilla’s treaty was never ratified, and merely five years later, following a devastating wave of smallpox, President Julio Argentino Roca led a successful campaign of extermination against the Ranqueles. Mansilla’s fairly detailed ethnographic study of their customs and language is essentially all that remains of the Ranquel Indians; it has also become a classic of Argentine literature, and the antecedent of important works like the gaucho epic poem Martín Fierro.
The novel weaves Mansilla’s most famous work, which is taught in Argentine public schools, with a mythology known to most Americans, the Arthurian legends. In this telling of the story, Merlin raised Morgan Le Fay’s daughter by a Galician commoner, the faerie Rosaura dos Carballos, and millennia later, the two decide to relocate to Buenos Aires. This is not the Latin American magical realism some readers may be accustomed to, where the fantastical blends subtly into everyday life. The novel is unabashedly fantastical: immortal Rosaura materializes Mansilla with magical seeds and they set out to retrace his famous journey.
Following the model of early novels like Don Quixote, Lojo’s work pretends to be gleaned from manuscripts written by the characters, rather than an omniscient author. Thus, the novel is made up of extracts from the “manuscript ‘Improbable Journeys’ by Rosaura dos Carballos,” as well as two epistolary manuscripts written by Mansilla. Significantly, Mansilla’s new account mimics the structure of his original chronicle, which was written in the form of letters to his friend Santiago Arcos, published serially in Buenos Aires’s La Tribuna and subsequently collected into a book. Mansilla’s original epigraphs are so verbose and evocative as to be surrealistic: “Tuesday is a bad day. Thirteen is a bad number. The ‘quatorziemes.’ Night march. Thoughts. A dream on horseback. The cut of a whip. Story of a soldier and of Antonio. A halt. A vision and an armadillo” (Mansilla, tr. Gillies, 61). Lojo’s chapter headings written from Mansilla’s point of view are similarly hyperbolic:
Wherein the city of Rio Cuarto is entered and exotic memories revived. Where it is shown that, as ever, absolutely all hotels are very expensive and very bad. (137)
We arrive at Leubucó. Feminists and ethnic minorities. The past returns with its golden halo. (189)
The fragmentary nature of these “manuscripts” pointedly functions to cast doubt on the veracity of all historical narratives in the novel. Even as we are meant to take Mansilla’s accounts of the retracing of his journey as the character’s authentic experience of the novel’s events, we are aware that he, with the help of Rosaura, has written his own faux-historical letters to sell to document collectors in order to finance his ghostly existence. Sanders’ fluent translation conveys Lojo’s talent for voicing both narrators sparklingly, lending realism and empathy to the strange situations Mansilla finds himself in as a transhistorical person. The impeccable annotations illuminate the many historical references and literary allusions, which run the gamut from Dante to Edgar Allen Poe to Galician fiction. For those familiar with Argentine culture, the many details of gaucho dress, Buenos Aires locales, and traditional food are instantly familiar, and by retaining their Spanish terminology, Sanders maintains the book’s unmistakable locality.
As in the quest of Don Quixote, the humor of Mansilla’s revisit to the Ranquel Indians often lies in the dissonance between his expectations and reality. Although his account remains well-read, the historical figure of Mansilla has largely been forgotten, except by historians. Mansilla’s pointed defense of his character to a Mansillian scholar meets with inevitably hilarious results when, unable to reveal that he is Mansilla, he must pretend that he is his own descendant; or when a psychoanalyst suggests he probe his unusually strong identification with the past.
Where Mansilla has been largely forgotten, the Ranquel Indians have disappeared completely. As Mansilla, Rosaura, and Merlin retrace his journey, they not only find no trace of the long-gone Ranquel Indians, but struggle to find the very landmarks that once guided it, a series of small ponds that have long since evaporated, leaving only dry ranches that ironically bear their names. The contemporary ranchers have no knowledge of the significant historical events that once took place on their lands. Mansilla’s historical account has lived on as literature; historical memory has not.
However, as Mansilla penetrates deeper into the territory he once traveled, more ghostly characters emerge, clamoring for his attention, for the restoration of their legacies, truth, or literary fame. The most interesting example is Mansilla’s sister Eduarda, who seeks his help “to change in some degree the destiny of my work” (195). Eduarda hopes to revive her novel Pablo, ou la vie dans les Pampas, originally written in French while she was living in Paris and translated into Spanish for serial publication in Buenos Aires by Mansilla. Having become acquainted with contemporary theories, she relates the plight of the marginalized indigenous to that of subjugated women and seeks to revise her take on “life in the Pampas” based on her newfound friendship in the great beyond with Mariano Rosas, the chief with whom Mansilla negotiated his treaty. As she tells her brother, “Not everyone can in their first life and at first hand, like you, become acquainted in person with the customs of Up Country” (196).
By allowing her characters to flout the strictures of time and space, Lojo’s fantastical conceit gives them the opportunity to grow and change beyond the limitations of their time, as well as to reckon with the hard and fast contemporary reality they in some way had a hand in. While as ghosts they can change themselves, or even attempt to rewrite their stories, the pain these characters must ultimately face is that they cannot undo what has been lost, a pain made all the more acute by their contemporary sensibilities.
The novel culminates at Mansilla’s point of reckoning, the meeting of the chiefs:
We walked toward the resplendence, searching among the dunes for a clearing where the meeting was to take place. As they came closer I could better make out the riders on their luxurious mounts. It would have been better had I never seen them, friend Santiago. Those who weren’t missing an arm or an eye sported bodies sewn together with tremendous scars; others came smiling, with half their skeletons exposed and pieces of scalp floating in the wind. There were those spitting blood, completely tubercular, with half a lung hanging out, and those who’d lost their facial features beneath the dreadful marks of smallpox. (201)
Mansilla is forced to witness the results of his treaty, the stipulations of which the chiefs followed, trusting in Mansilla, but which was never ratified or followed by the “Christians.”
While Argentina’s history may be unfamiliar to most American readers, it so closely mirrors our own, especially during Mansilla’s period, that the events of the book will have unfortunate resonance. It is both to the novel’s credit and detriment that it is so funny, clever, and entertaining. Without an introduction that orients the reader to Mansilla’s account or the history, Lojo’s achievement may go over the heads of readers who simply enjoy the novel on the level of adventure-fantasy. To read the novel on the level that it deserves, Eva Gillies’s excellent translation of Mansilla’s A Visit to the Ranquel Indians makes a valuable companion. Lojo’s humor and fantasy make the hard pill of this historical reclamation easier to swallow, but no less shocking to the system. As pleasurable and revealing as Mansilla’s account, Lojo’s novel is an important book for American readers, and should be enjoyed and savored.