Review: An Ache to Return – The Farm by Héctor Abad
Review by Ivonne Ayala
With careful prose, we are submerged into the history of the Ángels’ family in Hector Abad’s most recent book The Farm translated from Spanish by Anne Mclean. Abad is one of Colombia’s leading authors and considered one of the great writers following in the footsteps of Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Gabriel García Márquez. Abad’s body of work include translations from Italian to Spanish, essays, novels, contributions to Latin American magazines and newspapers, and Oblivion: A Memoir detailing the death of his father by Colombian paramilitaries. In The Farm we are presented with a captivating family story narrated by the voices of the siblings: Antonio, Eva, and Pilar. Abad presents us with three different perspectives of the farm named La Oculta (The Hidden). The character’s contrasting connection with ancestral ties, love for the land, and the violence that is experienced differently through their relationship with the farm reveal Colombia’s visceral reality as well as its concealed paradise.
A novel of generations cannot be told without the presence of the dead who seem to always bring ripples of the past when the living remember them. A clash between the past and the present, of ancestors and inheritance, Abad creates tension even with the dead. This is accomplished by the voice of the three narrators, but especially Antonio’s. Being the youngest of the three, Antonio or Toño (as he is called by his family), is obsessed with capturing the family’s genealogy. One might think that the same story is being retold throughout the novel, but isn’t that what all families do, retell the same story in different ways? Abad makes us contemplate what it means to know about our ancestors and the names that have been passed on through the years. We begin to see how the past influences the Angel’s family present, and how their choices are altered by the continuous remembrance of those long dead.
As we keep learning about the characters’ past we begin to see that this novel is about Love. Yet love in its truest sense: complex, violent, grotesque, passionate, and deadly at times. Abad doesn’t hide from posing the big questions. What does it mean to love a piece of land, to have responsibility towards a legacy when the fruit that it bears burdens its citizens with violence and death? By Antonio’s fascination of recording the family’s history, we witness the honest beginnings of settlers that cultivated the land, settled a town, but most importantly owned a piece of it. Arriving with nothing, away from their homeland, these settlers knew the meaning of owning a piece of land. It meant a place to call one’s own, a home so far away from home, a legacy for generations to come. For these people, land was all that a man could give to his family, a place that could bear fruits. Land served as an equaling force, in the book one of the settlers says, “But for now everyone is going to start, if not with exactly the same, then with something that is very similar: land” (p. 143).
Pilar the oldest of the three, unlike Antonio, doesn’t care for the names of people she never met, Pilar loves the land a majestic paradise that she promised her father she would never sell. La Oculta is described as: “the infinite colors of the flowers and fruits, with the breezes…with the buzzing of the cicadas at midday, with the flight of the cranes, the parrots and butterflies” (p.25).
This Garden of Eden though full of magic and peace is contrasted by other places beyond the Colombian mountains.
The disparity of Latin American traditions with the modernity of America and the relationship with space and place are illustrated by Antonio’s partner Jon an artist in New York. Jon is not entirely sure why Antonio has such an affinity for a place that is too hot, where the people are too nice, and where the family is always together. But Antonio reveals to us his love for this place saying:
A person gets used to a body the way one gets used to a farm or a landscape: there is something comforting about always seeing the same thing every day…As La Oculta will always be my home, the only place I feel is my own, joined to me like a limb (p.181).
While a place can elicit such feelings of belonging and affinity, it can drive others away like it did with Eva. Eva the younger sister experiences the most traumatic event of her life during a stay in the farm and with this unveils the tragedies that have happened in Colombia. La Oculta’s striking paradise is contrasted with the reality in which many of Latin America has drowned in: violence. Hector Abad splashes us with the cold hard reality of the kidnappings, murder, and injustices of a land that has been mutilated by those responsible for the well-being of the people; the government. How can one love a land that is barren that starves its own people to death? How can citizens be expected to have an appreciation, a responsibility towards a place, a space that instead of giving and producing has taken so much from them? Eva grounds us in this reality, and asks her older sister Pilar if it is worth sacrificing so much for a place that can end up killing you?
Everyone has an Oculta, a paradise and a nightmare that hides the deepest and darkest secrets of our family. While some like Antonio are fascinated by genealogy and embrace phantoms, others like Pilar don’t care for last names or dead ancestors but only to preserve the land. Yet Eva, unlike her siblings doesn’t want to carry the burden of the family’s legacy any longer saying, “property ties us down” and sometimes the knot is too tight to let us breathe (p.354). But others grasp on the idea of rebuilding what inevitably is falling down. Buildings deteriorate and no matter how much you try to keep up you’ll soon go down with them. At the end when the trees are cut, when the macaws fly away, and the lake has been drained, only a skeleton “white as chalk” looking back at us remains (p.463).
Nostalgia “is an ache to return” and this ache is carried by the familiarity not only of places but also of language (p.113). Anne McLean’s careful interpretation and translation, extends the savory language of so many Latin American writers by still maintaining words that captivate us with mystery. Like little bread crumbs words such as: sancocho, guacharacas, guanábana, currucutú, colerín calambroso, bambucos, porros, pasillos and others keep the characters’ true personality of expression present. This translation extends the meaning into English, while preserving the eternal musicality of the Spanish language. As our life is interpreted and expressed by language, there is also a part of us that gets left in the places we experience. We carry these places inside us because they keep a piece of our soul. Perhaps that is why we are always aching to return.