Arid lands, riven by ravines and cut by cracks. Thin cattle, with downcast eyes, were here and there, with a barely believable desperation, licking at the slopes and wastelands of this sad spot. On the ground the skeletons of those that had already succumbed were bleaching, sacrifices of the saltpeter earth which had seized them until starvation, forgetting food; and great flocks of turkey vultures hovered over the stench of the carrion.
This is the classic novel of the Venezuelan Llanos (plains, prairies, steppes). It is one of those novels where the landscape seems to be the main character. But the grasslands are peopled by several memorable characters (even if their names seem a bit TOO obvious to contemporary ears) – the saintly would-be moderniser Dr. Santos, his nemesis the barbarous Doña Bárbara, the evil cardboard-cutout gringo with the unlikely moniker of Mr. Danger, and the ’child of nature’ Marisela, on whom Santos performs an Eliza Doolittle-like transformation into a polished lady. The setting is the lawless (yes, that includes the judges and lawyers) cattle country where rustling is a way of life, sanctioned by tradition and ubiquity. There is a Machiavellian power struggle between the great landowners, especially the cousins Dr. Santos and Doña Bárbara, by fair means and foul (and fowl!) Santos’ plan to fence off the llanos is inevitable but will see the llaneros’ way of life fade into history.
Doña Bárbara is an alpha female who dabbles in magic. No doubt if it was written today we would find a more sympathetic portrayal of the women (and city folk). We shouldn’t fall into the trap of extracting a work from the time when it was written. Nevertheless, both of the women are powerful (Doña Bárbara as much so as any of the men) in what must have been a man’s world.
While Gallegos sees the inevitability of progress, he is deeply nostalgic for the disappearing way of life of which he has a profound understanding. His attitude towards the burghers of Caracas reminded me of “Clancy of the Overflow” by the Australian bush poet Banjo Paterson:
“…And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.
I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall…”
While I think it would be wrong to see this as an early work of magical realism – there is plenty of magic, as practised by Doña Bárbara, in an overwhelmingly superstitions cultural world – the fact that this seminal work is so largely ignored by English readers is a tragedy that leaves a big hole in their knowledge of Latin American literature. The plot is not at all unrealistic.
The author himself is a fascinating character who became President of Venezuela.
GALLEGOS, Rómulo (1884 – 1969), Doña Bárbara, Madrid: Cátedra, 2014 [originally published 1929], ISBN 978-83-376-1539-4