Fruit of the Drunken Tree. Ingrid Rojas Contreras. New York: Doubleday, 2018. 306 pages.
Through the evocative counterpoint of Chula and Petrona, the first novel by Colombian writer Ingrid Rojas Contreras explores the ways in which many children experience drug trafficking and inequity. Concurrently, it forges a female alliance by means of questions, longings, and affection. This book, initially published in English in 2018, was selected for and appeared in the editors’ choice section of The New York Times that same year; it also received the Silver Medal at the California Book Awards. The brilliant style and renewed perspective it brings to the effects of armed conflict on childhood make Fruit of the Drunken Tree a thought-provoking read with which to begin reflecting on the traumatic pervasiveness of war.
From an unclear point in time in her adulthood, Chula Santiago recounts her life at the age of seven. In the following passage, she confesses what she thought the first time she saw the new handmaid walking around her house in Bogotá: “I wondered what Petrona thought about as she closed her eyes. I imagined that something hard was swelling from the inside of her, and if we left it alone, Petrona would turn to stone. At times I was sure it was beginning to happen because the light began glowing gray on her cheeks and her chest wasn’t moving with her breath” (28). Petrona, only a few years older than Chula and displaced by paramilitary groups, had gone from living in Boyaca to relocating with her family to an informal settlement on the mountainsides of the country’s capital. Chula, the observer, is a girl who has the opportunity to be a girl and the leisure time with which to sagaciously analyze her family’s and her country’s reality. Whereas Petrona, the statuelike girl, has grown up forcibly and unprotected.
The novel’s events are allegorical given that the two main characters coincidentally experience many of the social and political problems of the late 20th century (classism, racial discrimination, gender violence, kidnapping, forced displacement, and encounters with guerilla and paramilitary groups). Nevertheless, the novel has a structural feature that becomes ethical. The narrative’s interwoven construction not only revitalizes the story but also highlights the fact that every Colombian, as an agent of the armed conflict, coexists organically. This dual narrative evokes other works, such as the novel Little Fires Everywhere (2018), or the movies Matar a Jesús (2017) or Roma (2018), in which the stories of different lives are told in parallel. Additionally, through the narrative process, the audience notices not only the similarities but also the deep-seated differences between the characters who coincide in a tense social space. Chula and Petrona share a national reality of political violence, corruption, and fear; nonetheless, their social classes distance them and give them very different challenges and tools with which to survive. This constant female symmetry that mingles with an unavoidable intersectionality makes the tale even more complex and leads us to question: how do we deal with guilt amidst a conflict that appears selective but actually harms us all? How is our own fear of violence different from that of others?
In addition to the structure of fifty-one (51) sections that can be read fluently, the novel’s creation of both female worlds is exceptionally rich. In particular, I highlight Chula’s construction, whose voice makes for a narrative full of imaginative moments, childish obsessions, and an acute and intimate way of perceiving and describing the world. Rojas lays the solid foundations of a coming-of-age novel in which the perception of everyday life suggests a time of its own, that of the memory of pain, of the strangeness of growing up in a country with adverse social and political conditions. Chula regales us with details and laughter, mixes rawness with naivety, and throws us into the inner world of a middle-class girl trying to understand the ominous: what is an oligarchy? How can a country both love and hate a man such as Pablo Escobar? Or why do informal settlements cause fear while other migrations are seen as social advancement? On the other hand, Petrona’s voice is not so well-achieved; it rises shyly and loses credibility due to the seemingly unfounded tone that is discordant with the character’s life journey. However, the poetic act of combining these two childhoods successfully denaturalizes what time and recurrent violence sometimes seek to normalize: dispossession and inequality.
Aside from this intimate recollection of time, the story also takes into account a specific historical period around drug trafficking, which is soundly re-enacted using a national archive of songs, telenovelas, newspaper headlines, and media images of the conflict. The story takes place between 1980 and 1990, back when Escobar spread fear and corruption in an environment that was already deteriorated by the decay of national institutions and a general national fragmentation. Chula’s obsession with Escobar creates a parallel political and social story: in the novel, we veer between the girls’ micro-stories, which are interwoven into the macro-story of organized violence. This crisscrossing between what we as Colombians know happened in the 80s and the emotionally enriched lives of Chula and Petrona allows readers to reflect upon memory and omission: at times, the characters remain silent about the realities they are living; at others, they discuss or write about their experiences. This reflection regarding the uses of silence and memory—be it in Colombia or in exile—makes fiction a possible space in which to see (ourselves) and fight essentialism.
In some of the interviews Rojas has given, there are clues regarding the language she uses in her work. In the original English edition, it is evident how some of her ideas about migration intertwine with her desire to create transliterations, preserving Spanish grammatical structures within the English language. This playful translation not only distorts some expressions but also ensures a reflection on how displacement and exile can reinvent language. In contrast, the Spanish edition from Vintage Random House has several errors associated with punctuation and spelling that overshadow the creation of the text’s vividly imaginative universe.
The book opens and closes with a letter and a photograph. Both act as mirrors to their readers because their pages question how we approach or distance ourselves from others. It is amid this interplay of distancing and proximity that the Brugmansia arbórea alba appears, the drunken tree and its far-off perfume that makes every passer-by dizzy with its powerful poison, the chemical base of scopolamine, which can drive anyone mad and erase the memory of all those who dare come too close. In turn, Fruit of the Drunken Tree does not allow us to forget that the emotions, the territories, and the bodies of Colombians are wounded by violence. Nor does it stop reminding us that in order to understand the past, we need to understand—and imagine—the conditions under which the other lives. These girls’ paths underline the necessity of fighting forgetfulness and apathy, which are direct effects of smelling the drunken tree or living in a present that carries the weight of decades of death, revenge, and injustice. Ingrid Rojas’ novel entails the ethical and creative act of looking closely at the faces of the conflict’s different actors and imagining them in all their humanity, with all the pain and the memory that this exercise of awareness demands.
Translated by Ana Gabriela Pérez Guarnizo