Beyond the Ties of Blood
- Florencia Mallon
- Pegasus Books
- 371 pp.
- Reviewed by Herta B. Feely
- July 16, 2012
This chillingly realistic novel depicts a tragedy similar to what many Chileans endured after Gen. Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government in 1973.
Reviewed by Herta B. Feely
The disappearance, torture and execution of thousands of Chileans after General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected President Salvador Allende in 1973 is a modern-day tragedy of immense proportions. It is said that in remembering the victims of the tragedy, we honor them. And I agree. To that end, a few books have been written, a few documentaries and films made. But there is room for many more.
Florencia Mallon’s new novel, Beyond the Ties of Blood, is the latest book to honor those victims with its fictional depiction of a tragedy very similar to what many Chileans endured in real life. It’s the story of a young woman, Eugenia Aldunate, who falls in love with a charismatic leftist leader, Manuel Bronstein, at the University of Santiago. After the 1973 coup d’etat, Eugenia is arrested, imprisoned and tortured for months. It doesn’t matter that she herself had not been active in the efforts of the left, that she had been politically apathetic. She is forced to witness the torture of her lover, Manuel, one of the many who “disappeared” and was murdered in the 1970s. Though ultimately released, a pregnant Eugenia is left with scars, both physical and emotional.
The novel then fast-forwards 20 years: Eugenia has been living in exile in the United Staes with her daughter, Laura, and is asked to return to Chile to testify in Manuel’s murder before the Truth Commission in Santiago. She must relive events from the moment she met Manuel to the present, and so do we, as readers, through multiple points of view.
In addition to recalling events through the perspectives of Eugenia and Manuel, told in sequential sections, Mallon also tells the story from the point of view of Manuel’s Jewish mother; the mother’s friend, who is a native Mapuche; Eugenia’s lesbian sister; and several others. This might sound like a bit much, but these multifaceted perspectives are layered with incidents of prejudicial behaviors that we still find in society today, where biases shift with the changing circumstances. Multiple points of view also underscore the universality of what happened in Chile in the 1970s and remind us how intolerance wreaks havoc and destruction on its victims — not just in Chile but throughout the world, no matter what the bias.
One truth that Mallon depicts well is that havoc doesn’t end with the victims. Eugenia and Manuel’s horror and tragedy ripples out and affects dozens of others: their family, friends and allies. They all suffer the tragedy of losing someone to political imprisonment, torture, disappearance and murder. And their suffering doesn’t end at the moment of the victim’s death — it extends for years and sometimes generations beyond the event. Laura, for example, does not know her father, and never will.
Throughout the novel, Mallon’s prose fluctuates between the violent and the lyrical. She recounts one of Eugenia’s experiences with violence shortly after the coup: “The thought that she must get up had not even completely formed in her head before she felt a fist hit her face and she was down on the floor.” Later in the novel, Mallon’s lyricism is evident, where a change in setting is also a welcome relief for the reader from her depictions of the sadistic brutality that existed during Chile’s Pinochet years: “But in the countryside the wheat nursed its spiky golden crown, turning eagerly toward the light, while potato plants hugged the sides of the rolling hills and sent out blue and white flowers that trumpeted the approaching harvest.”
Though ultimately I enjoyed and appreciated Beyond the Ties of Blood, I found the first 100 pages problematic and a bit disappointing because of issues with structure, plot and point of view. The beginning of the novel, told through Eugenia’s eyes, represents a constant shifting in time and place, and much of the story is “told” rather than “shown.” It seems that the author felt a need to establish the basic parameters early in the story and introduce us to many of the book’s characters, even though much of this is revisited in greater detail later. And then, when Mallon shifts from Eugenia’s point of view to Manuel’s, she ends up repeating much of the story without significantly furthering the plot. It wasn’t until the end of Manuel’s section, on page 108, that I became invested in the story and its outcome.
Because of the subject matter — terrain with which I’m familiar — I want to say unequivocally that I loved this book. But I can’t say that. I can say, however, that Mallon not only does an admirable job on a tough topic, but she adds to the oeuvre of writing on Chile’s regrettable past — writing that is essential to proving wrong the adage about victors being the ones to write history; writing that iscritical to honor the lives of those who perished, and to ease the pain of their families, friends and descendants.
Herta B. Feely is an editor and writer (www.chrysaliseditorial.com). She has received several awards and fellowships for her writing, which has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies. She is co-editor of Confessions: Fact or Fiction?, published in 2011.