Carolina De Robertis' The Invisible Mountain opens with a Marquez-esque moment of magical realism: the reappearance of a vanished infant, unharmed, in the upper branches of a ceibo tree on New Year's Day. Signs and portents, folks.
I wonder if Latin American writers get tired of being compared to Marquez. Like, God forbid you be from Latin America and have anything even remotely magical happen in your novel. OH MY GOD YOU'RE JUST LIKE THAT GUY, WHAT'S HIS NAME, MARQUEZ. Still, he casts a long shadow, and De Robertis' has emphasized his influence on her work, so it's hard not to mention him, although De Robertis' moment of magical realism rings false in what is otherwise a tightly crafted book. It feels more like De Robertis is getting it out of the way (magical realism? Check! Reappearing infant!) before moving on.
The Invisible Mountain is more about the things you lose - love you thought was assured, a child you couldn't hold onto, money, dignity, even who you think you are, and the torturous sacrifices and slow bleed of compromises you make to stay alive.
Pajarita, the miraculous infant from the Uruguayan countryside, grows up to marry an alcoholic Italian gondola-maker and becomes enmeshed in a life of domestic misery in Montevideo. Her daughter, Eva, flees her miserable home and predatory employer for life in Buenos Aires with her childhood friend, returning in exile under Peron's dictatorship with her wealthy husband. After her marriage unravels, Eva raises her two children alone, only to watch her daughter, Salome, be arrested and imprisoned after joining a group of young Communists and staging a fatal bank assault.
Mountain is quite beautifully written, especially in its attention to little details - the oily circles left on bakery paper by a box of guava tarts; the flies circling the meat in a butcher's shop; the stench of the young Communists' underground hideout.
Although De Robertis' aim is to show the thread of steel that links the three generations of women, her female and male characters are less individuals than archetypes. The men are, at their best, deserters, and at their worst, abusive or pedophilic, and the women are strong, self-possessed, and preternaturally wise (just for once, could the woman be the one chucking whiskey bottles?). Eva's love affair with her childhood friend, a male-to-female transsexual turned hairdresser, is weirdly problematic. De Robertis' isoolates Eva's love interest in a high-rise apartment, untouched by the tumult of revolution, and keeps their affair sequestered from the rest of the narrative, which feels more like an act of cowardice than one of compassion (despite the free haircuts). Although the teenage Salome is a revolutionary, this book is more concerned with domestic regimes and revolt than national ones - wait long enough, and even the worst regime will pass away, De Robertis seems to suggest.
Still, De Robertis' has an undeniable knack for prose and a sharp eye for details, and although Salome is released from jail following a regime change, De Robertis' resists the temptation to cheat the reader with a pat ending.