- Doña Inés versus Oblivion
An aristocratic matriarch in eighteenth-century Caracas, Doña Inés Villegas y Solórzano has misplaced the titles to her lands. Despite her increasing age and frailty, she searches for the documents her entire adult life and then, after her death in 1780, in the afterlife as well. Her grip on the property in question—La Trinidad, a plantation in coastal Curiepe—is threatened by Juan del Rosario, the illegitimate son of her husband and a slave woman. Doña Inés versus Oblivion, winner of the 1998 Pegasus Prize for Literature and here skillfully translated by Gregory Rabassa, follows the struggle of Rosario’s mulatto descendants and the white heirs of Doña Inés through personal crises and Venezuela’s volcanic history.
From her omniscient haunts Doña Inés narrates the lives of those who prosper and those who suffer after her time. She explains, for instance, how an infant descendant is saved during the War of Independence in 1814: the baby is carried off into the jungle, raised there for several years, and then returned to her “rightful” place as a young woman [End Page 172] of society. Through the expletives Doña Inés hurls at Rosario and his black descendants, and through the treatment of the latter by the state and private industry, Ana Teresa Torres depicts class and race conflicts in Venezuela down through the generations.
The novel blossoms beautifully after the first fifty pages. We are seduced by the lives of the two competing lineages, and each life threads into the next. Although the digressions sometimes detract from the main story line, they are always engaging. For the confused reader, a summary of events related to the ownership of La Trinidad is given near the end by a lawyer who provides counsel to Francisco Villaverde—in whose hands the outcome of the final battle lies.
Doña Inés is a captivating storyteller. Sensuous thoughts and memories flow from her mind and lips, rendering in detail, by turns, a sparsely furnished wooden house on the junglelike plantation and the easy afternoons afforded only to the white upper class. In this way Torres covers the development of an entire nation beset with slavery, earthquakes, plagues, wars, dictatorship, and modernity. The lush plantation land and the former colonial center of Caracas change spectacularly: gaslights appear around the park, the railroad plows its way through cacao trees, cobblestones are blanketed with concrete, and the wealthy move from the downtown to the suburbs. Doña Inés is outraged by the encroaching brothels and the men who frequent them; each generation is more uncouth than the last. The reader experiences the consequences of the passing years visually, aurally, and viscerally as Doña Inés regards all of these changes despairingly through a thick and sultry nostalgia.
What emerges most strongly from Doña Inés’s tales as they shadow an individual until his life blends into that of someone else is the importance of documenting the struggle. Don Heliodoro, the lawyer eager to help Villaverde reclaim his family lands, laments Venezuela’s rejection and hatred of history. A self-taught historian, he toils without hope of recognition or respect. Doña Inés, who helplessly watches the merging of destinies, cannot accept the prospect of being forgotten. The notion that someday her lineage could disappear is repugnant to her. In La Trinidad, Doña Inés envisions immortality. Her will and determination are striking, but the final negotiations over the land—resolved through partnerships with developers, investors, and councilmen—are beyond her control. In the final pages, as she consigns her struggle and her voice to oblivion, Doña Inés realizes that no matter how infallible her memory may be, how tenacious her hold on the past, the titles to her land must crumble and turn to dust.