By Hector Abad (1958-)
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
468 pp. Archipelago Books. $20
I was a curious little kid. Almost too curious. Whenever the adults would sit around and chat the past I would silently sit next to them and absorb their stories. The stories of people who had been long dead felt alive. From this thirst for stories I developed a good ear for newsworthy stories and a penchant for gossip.
As I got older the euphemisms and properties were removed and the real story was told. “Moving to another state” was now divorce; “money problems” were now drugs addictions; and “unfortunate car accidents” were now suicides.
In Hector Abad’s The Farm, the stories of the Angels, a Colombian family, follow a similar formula: you hear a story told by one of the three sibling narrators (Pilar, Eva, and Antonio) directly involved, and then you hear commentary on it from the other two. Some of the stories such as Eva’s retelling of her attempted kidnapping are gripping like a first-person thriller, but others such as Antonio’s retellings of the family history read like the boring “A begat B” sections of the King James Bible.
The story starts with the death of the matriarch of the Angel family, Anita. This event, albeit sad but not emotionally gripping, prompts her three children to tell the reader the stories of La Oculta, the family farm, and the events that have happened there over the last few years.
Pilar, Eva, and Antonio’s suggestions for burial set the stage for their character types for the remainder of the novel:
“[Pilar] said we should cremate her and bring her ashes back to the farm. Antonio…he’d rather we put her in the Angel mausoleum in Jerico…Eva said she didn’t care, that after death it was all the same to her.”
Pilar, the traditional but pragmatic housewife, spends the novel telling the story of her courtship, marriage, and her management of the farm. Her her brutally honest judgments about her siblings, “When I don’t know something or don’t remember…I keep quiet; Tono…does not keep quiet but makes up a story to complete what he’d forgotten or what he doesn’t know” She is devoted to protecting and preserving La Oculta by whatever means necessary, often to the disdain of her siblings.
Eva, the intelligent free spirit, is the hardest to pin down of all the characters. Her chapters revolve around the story of her attempted kidnapping by a local gang and a few other forgettable tales about her ex-boyfriends. She spends most of her airtime running away from La Oculta both literally and figuratively. “I’ve changed lives the way a snake changes skins; I leave behind the withered, dry one and put on another, which I hope is fresh and new, ready to live again.” While Abad tries to give Eva a noble and understandable “You can’t go home again” vibe, she comes off as more aloof than pitiable.
Antonio, the gay violinist, spends his chapters telling the story of his life in America and how in contrasts with La Oculta, his homosexuality, and the story of his ancestors. Antonio’s story is moving and interesting to read but the retelling of his ancestors’ story is dry. Even when Antonio rewrites the stories, they still come off as boring because they lack most good storytelling elements: dialogue and distinguishable characters. The lack of distinguishable characters may be a nod to One Hundred Years of Solitude but the nod is not appreciated for what makes Marquez’s novels so beautiful and interesting is his magical descriptions and genuinely interesting stories. Abad loses his magic when he sacrifices story for administrative details. Obviously the stories mean a lot to Antonio and add a few interesting details to the story but they could have been just been told in dialogue between the characters as happens in some of Pilar’s chapters.
Abad is a genius thinker and writer but has trouble establishing characters. And for a novel that relies on characters so heavily, this failure is noticeable and hard to forgive. Yes, characters can be multifaceted and nuanced. But when Abad tries to make Eva and Antonio sound more interesting than they actually are he gives them a few lines that sound more like authorial demonic possession than like something they would say.
Two examples of this are from Tonio, “Remembering is like embracing the phantoms who made our lives possible here” and from Eva, “Those things that happen when we read a good book, and our own thoughts float, dragged along by the ideas hidden in the writing, like two different clouds that meet and mingle in the sky. Sometimes, they even turn black and let loose a lightning bolt, a thunderclap trembles on our brow, and it rains, we cry, a deep chord gets played that we didn’t know was so tense in our chest, in the center of our body.” Great writing, but very much out of place.
Perhaps Pilar was onto something when she says, “Life is made up of gusts of happiness and gusts of sadness and long years of calm, with no surprises, which are the best.” For what it’s worth, The Farm is an interesting reflection on what Home and Family really mean. But because it is weighed down by dense content, The Farm needed more narrative gusts and a few more surprises to push the reader forward.