Monday, December 23, 2013

Uruguay: "The Tree of Red Stars" by Tessa Bridal

What does it take for someone to become a revolutionary?  Tessa Bridal gives us a long look at a young woman's growth from privileged daughter of the landowning class to someone actively protesting the military dictatorship that ran her country from 1968 to 1984. The Tree of Red Stars is a poinsettia -- which can grow to 4 meters (about 13 feet) in its native climate -- but it is also a symbol of protest.

The narrator, Magdalena, perches in a poinsettia tree in front of her house from age 5 onward. From there she and her bosom friend Emilia learn almost everything of importance in their lives. They spot the arrival of Gabriela, who lives in a hillside shack with her children and comes down to the city to collect the cast-offs of the wealthy. They hear about Magda's much older cousins and their plans for the future during a period of 400% plus inflation. They watch the handsome boys--later young men--of the neighborhood as they find (or are forced into) their place in the relatively small society (3.4 million people now in the entire country).

They fear whatever it is that keeps Emilia's mother, Lilita, out late at night and learn that the neighbor Francisca has guns hidden in her house. They befriend Cora, whose parents were saved from the Nazis in Holland and settled in this new land, where they just want to be left alone.

Magda, as a young adult, meets up with Cora again and learns even more about the resistance movement she has covertly observed.

" ...I felt like a person marooned on a desert island, receiving, instead of sending, bottled messages. A whole underlayer of society, of people working to change the world, had been revealed to me. I felt that Gabriela, Lilita, señora Francisca, the students who helped after Che's speech had been trying to tell me something...Everything I'd heard and seen until that moment started falling into place...and I didn't want to just absorb it any more. I wanted to act. I started to understand that if people like me stopped to think about why Gabriela lived as she did, about why a woman like señora Francisca hid guns in her house, about why Lilia's friend Juan was tortured, about why a group of students would be chased by policemen ... if we only stopped long enough to think about such things, perhaps the world would change. I was young enough to think I could change it..." (p. 211-212) 

Magda, for family reasons, had been sent to a school where she learns English and this puts her in a position to work for the U.S. Information Service circa 1970. While there, she learns of the horrors committed by a man whose kidnapping and execution play a central role in the story. This event in the novel is based on a real event (as is a later kidnapping and release of a British official). The man was a sheriff in Richmond, Indiana in the 1950s and was recruited by the CIA and/or FBI to train military and police forces in Latin American countries in torture and "interrogation techniques."

The turning point for Magda from casually political Uruguayan into enraged revolutionary comes when she sees the effects of this man's work. Her reaction is an affirmation of the statement that all politics are personal.

In some ways, this novel depicts a 20th century "Great Game" played out in Latin America between the United States and Soviet Union, while each sought to keep the other from being "the Power" in the region. We read Magda's observations of the U.S. while living in Michigan as an exchange student and her commentary about the death of Salvador Allende in Chile.  We see the tensions of a landowning class that sells its beef and mineral rights to the North and the survival efforts of people as the country is weighted down by international debt and more.

It is also a loving description of daily life, national traditions, historical events and more that shape the Uruguayan culture. This includes everything from how the maid serves tea and the proper way to drink mate (a traditional infusion) to relations between women and men and parents and children. The chapters are like wooden beads, each self-contained as a very short story, but linking together to make a strand that connects generations as Magda searches for justice for her country and for her love.

No comments:

Post a Comment