A Bittersweet Melody from Montevideo

Carolina De Robertisu2019s first novel is an intimate history of one family in Uruguay.

By Erasmo Guerra Dec 15, 2009

December 15, 2009

The South American country of Uruguay, with its three million inhabitants, has always seemed invisible and sadly under-sung to Carolina De Robertis. Her family has deep roots there, and while De Robertis herself was born in England, spending part of her childhood in Switzerland before immigrating to the United States at the age of 10, she claims a committed allegiance to the country.

"Is it the same as Paraguay?" De Robertis has been asked. Speaking by phone from her home in Oakland, California, she said: "It’s not even next door.”

Others have gone so far as to say: "Does the place really exist?"

Growing up, she might have wondered the same thing, raised by parents who rarely spoke about the country they fled in the 1970s as it bled under a dictatorial regime. The homeland was a vague, unmapped territory of the past. "Things are bad in Uruguay," was all they said. And so, De Robertis explained, "I was left with this desire to know and understand."

The Invisible Mountain (Knopf), selected by O Magazine as one of their “10 Terrific Reads of 2009,” is a testament to the power of that hunger to know. As one character points out: “It is painful to remember, but more painful to forget.”
The novel is also a love letter to a country and a people. And it’s an intimate history of the capitol city of Montevideo, a place of cobblestone streets, where amethysts are used as doorstops and everyone shares bitter cups of mate.

Montevideo—it is repeatedly observed throughout the book—a flat city that “dared to take the name of a mountain.”
The narrative follows three generations of women of one family: Pajarita, the newborn who went missing and miraculously reappeared in the top-most limb of a ceiba tree; Eva, the poet who ran off with her lover to Buenos Aires and developed an Evita Perón complex; and Salomé, the girl who denounced her love of books to join the Tupamaros, a leftist group of young rebels aiming to liberate the country. 

De Robertis, who’s been writing since she was a young girl, started drafting her book in 2000. In researching her story, she pored through volumes of history books, quickly exhausting the holdings at the Oakland public library, which included a CIA handbook on Uruguay that De Robertis found both “creepy” and enlightening, especially for its description of the Tupas.
A woman who has made social justice the core of her life—she’s worked as a crisis counselor and with the Bay-area group Mujeres Unidas—De Robertis said that like her character Salomé, she felt guilty about shutting herself into a room with books and ideas. “I missed a few protests. I wasn’t on the front lines, marching, advocating for social justice,” she admitted. “It took a long time to accept that art matters on that level. Without books and without storytellers so much would be lost. So much would be hidden. So much would remain silent.”

She also took a number of trips to Uruguay, visiting the Montevideo city hall, with its repository of historical photos. Family and friends handed her loads of books, including prison memoirs and a biography on Yessie Macchi, a high school friend of De Robertis’s mother who joined the Tupas at the age of 15, was captured and imprisoned at 18, and for nearly the next decade and a half was tortured and raped.

For De Robertis, scraps of this story had been traveling inside her, packed away in the old valises of her memory. It was one of those barely filled-in accounts of the old country her parents whispered when the family first moved to California. The dictatorship in Uruguay was just ending, and political prisoners were being released, and her mother received news that among those now free was her girlhood friend Macchi. 

Though the fictional character of Salomé already existed on the page, De Robertis incorporated details she was now discovering. She considered going further and interviewing Macchi, but something about the evasions she was conditioned to accept as a child must’ve proved too strong because De Robertis never brought herself to do it. Macchi passed away in 2008, the same year De Robertis completed the final draft of her book.

Editions of The Invisible Mountain have already appeared in Greek, Dutch and German. De Robertis, an accomplished translator herself—she works from Spanish into English—was recently going over the upcoming Spanish edition. She stayed up til the early hours, drinking mate and eating empanadas as she fine-tuned the draft she’d received from her translator in Madrid. She was determined to capture the Uruguayismos—the verbal ticks and turns-of-phrases specific to the people. She even enlisted two friends, fellow Uruguayans, whom she deferred to as linguistic experts, when she reached the limits of her experience with her own mother tongue.

“It’s so important that this book breathe and live in Spanish,” De Robertis said. "And it has to feel uruguayo."
Though she confessed that she always felt her Spanish, with its regionalisms, was "wrong" compared to “official” Castilian Spanish, she now sees the value of its specificity.
"This is our way of talking," she defended. It was the language used in her family, and, because of their exile, she sensed undertones of isolation, loneliness and longing, like a Carlos Gardel tango album playing in a distant room. With this particular translation, she said she hoped the book and this story “can come home to Uruguay."

Erasmo Guerra is a member of the Macondo Writing Workshop. He lives in New York City.