Magical realism seems to be a staple of Latin American literature, so I was not surprised to find it in the book I read for Ecuador, Bruna and Her Sisters in the Sleeping City, by Alicia Yánez Cossío. The title character, Bruna, comes from an eccentric family that was once wealthy but has since squandered most of their riches. They are descended from a Spanish explorer and an indigenous woman who was forced to marry him. The family lives in a mountain village where everyone seems to be affected by a sluggishness attributed to soroche, or altitude sickness.
The book is full of stories about Bruna’s relatives, both living and long dead. We learn about the great-great-grandfather who died in a duel over who was going to sit where at a fiesta; the rich great aunt who captured the attention of all the men in the city; the great uncle whose life's work was to weave a carpet so long that the Pope would be able to walk on it all the way from Rome; the great uncle who was obsessed with frogs and built a huge frog nursery; the uncle whose matchbox collection took over the house; and the aunt whose obnoxious displays of piety made everyone else’s lives miserable as she plotted her own ascent into heaven.
Death is a major theme in this book, as someone or another is always dying in the family, which means everyone has to dress in black for months on end. This is particularly vexing for Bruna, who is young and vibrant and wants to wear colorful clothes. No sooner does the period of mourning end for one family member than someone else dies. Bruna would rather focus on living, knowing that “one lives only once and that a beautiful, full life, as deep as the limitless sea, is barely an atom in the eternity of time.”
Another theme is the conflict between the European settlers and the indigenous people, which is most poignantly expressed in the story of the family’s matriarch, whose name and religion were taken from her when she was forced to marry Bruna’s great-great-grandfather. “And she was named María from the moment they spilled water over her bowed head and washed away the idea of the sun god, chilling her heart, which had been warmed by the fire of his rays, and told her about some unknown god who seemed to get angry much more often than he should have.”
Because so much of the book is devoted to Bruna’s relatives, it took me a long time to realize that Bruna herself was undergoing an awakening that coincided with the awareness that was developing in women all over the world at the time of the book’s publication in 1971. She was beginning to question the way things had always been, with women considered to be good for nothing except to be wives and mothers. As the narrator says, “The women were giant ovaries, dressed in black.” Bruna begins to resent the unequal treatment of boys and girls, and she finally decides to take control of her own life, because, “[i]f you only lived once, it was necessary to feel fully like a human, a person, a woman.” Only by leaving the sleeping city does Bruna begin to experience the fullness of life.
No particular Ecuadorian dishes are mentioned in Bruna and Her Sisters in the Sleeping City, so I went to the International Vegetarian Union website to look for a recipe. I found one for quinoa soup with potatoes and tomatoes that sounded intriguing. It turned out okay, but the recipe calls for two cups of soy milk, which resulted in a pretty strong soy taste. If I had it to do over again, I’d either try almond milk instead, or just use vegetable broth.
The book contains numerous references to the family’s cherry tree: “a very tall, hundred-year-old cherry tree that dropped its fruit all over the orchard and onto the neighbors’ patios and whose branches sheltered hundreds of skittish and gluttonous singing birds.” And since it happens to be cherry season here right now, it seemed only fitting that I have a nice bowl of cherries for dessert after my soup.
GlobalGiving listed many different projects in Ecuador that were in need of donations. I didn’t have to read very far, however, before finding the one I wanted to support, a library bus that will take books and other materials to children in six remote coastal villages in the Manabi province. This bus will supplement an existing program in which Domingo the donkey has been taking books to the children in a different village, following the devastation of Manabi province in an earthquake in 2016. More information about the library bus project is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/library-bus-for-northern-manabi-coast-ecuador/.
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