Originally Published in The New York Times
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio - March 5, 2021
To someone who grew up reading the giants of the Latin American Boom generation in translation — Vargas Llosa, García Márquez — it was surprising that Patricia Engel’s third novel, “Infinite Country,” was not translated from the Spanish: The book sounds like Edith Grossman but with a borrowed amp and feedback. The prose is serpentine and exciting as it takes the scenic route to nowhere. There is a compliment in that. Her writing sets out to be majestic, and it is, like an overflowing soufflé.
The novel follows a mixed-status family as they struggle to survive and reunite after a father’s deportation from the United States. The teenage Talia, American-born but raised in Colombia, escapes a reform school in the Andes and races to make her plane to rejoin her mom and siblings in New York. Twenty years of page-turning family history are told as she rushes to catch that plane.
The most unforgettable scenes in the novel are the intimate and meticulously rendered descriptions of Andean landscapes and mythology, of Colombia’s long history of violence. Engel’s capacity to dive deep into history and folklore extends also into her narration of the life of Talia’s father and the family patriarch, Mauro. One senses Engel building a mythology around him, too.
[ Read an excerpt from “Infinite Country.” ]
The novel captures the romance of the immigrants’ first days in America with a visceral tenderness. Their skin darkens in the Texan sun. They see the ocean for the first time. I feel sorry for their lost youth, then angry at their gullibility. For Talia and her family never lose their innocence, even as they withstand unimaginable systemic violence, and find phantoms of intergenerational trauma like buried mines inside themselves. Such windup dolls exist, to be sure, but most undocumented immigrants I know are being held together by faith and rubber bands.
Talia’s young mother, Elena, in particular, is presented as a saint, naïve and eternally suffering — an exquisite new iteration of a noble savage in the hands of a writer who is not herself undocumented. When the white owner of the restaurant where Elena cleans bathrooms rapes her, she feels guilty for her infidelity. The narrator points out that until now, she has been with no man besides her husband, a testament to her purity.
Elena’s body, it seems, has integrity only when it is uncorrupted by knowledge and awareness. When she is in the hospital giving birth to her third child, a nurse tactlessly inquires how she plans to take care of three kids on one income. Elena thinks about forced sterilizations in Colombia, “how they lured women to clinics offering free gynecological services and the women came out unaware they could no longer have children.” To her, babies are not burdens. The scene implicitly links the American nurse with the centuries-old record of colonial eugenics imposed on Indigenous and Black women, and our brave Elena champions her reproductive rights.
But does she really know her reproductive rights? After her rape, she prays and panics until she gets her period. When my undocumented mother gave birth to my brother in this country, the nurses, always Afro-Latina or Mestiza, waited until my father was out of the room to discuss family planning — not to talk about children as a burden, but to suggest social services that could help my poor family. But they knew sex was taboo for my mom, and that this might be her only chance to make a choice. Elena quotes the Colombian saying that “a baby arrives with a loaf of bread under its arm” as a sort of rebuttal. Such earnest, romantic repetition of ancestral wisdom in Latino art is often done by American artists who have choices, privileges and resources that our subjects, fictional or not, do not have. Literature about undocumented people in this country is too rare — and too often written by writers who’ve never been undocumented — for the literary world to continue to act as if we all still lived in Macondo.
This is a compulsively readable novel that will make you feel the oxytocin of comfort and delusion. The ending reads like child-of-immigrant fan fiction. I’d hire Engel to ghostwrite my nightmares. Mauro’s love for his daughter motivates him to overcome alcoholism and homelessness, cross the border safely and reunite with the wife he still loves. The siblings who’ve never met yet smell familiar to one another. The novel closes as husband and wife are dancing, their bodies in perfect sync.