Marta Brunet: Humo hacia el Sur [Smoke Towards the South]
Brunet’s novels tend to tell the stories of women, often poor women, and the world of children. This one, her longest, is no different. It is set in a small, relatively remote Chilean village. We see the role of the women from the first. Two couples meet every day for an hour. But what we see is the women talking, while the men are off playing billiards. We do see the two men later and they do talk, but mainly about issues concerning their women. For the rest of the time, they are generally content with their billiards and books. María Soledad Pérez has been friends for eight years with doña Batilde de la Riestra. Their respective husbands are Ernesto and don Juan Manuel. Doña Batilde, as is her custom, is urging María Soledad to get a job, to give her some independence from her husband. (She herself is very well off and, indeed, that seems why don Juan Manuel married her.) It is also soon very clear that doña Batilde is an interfering woman who very much likes things her own way. Her husband has moved up in political terms, having briefly been a minister and is now a senator. But it is also clear that this gives doña Batilde more pleasure than it does don Juan Manuel. We learn from other inhabitants that don Juan Manuel has not done a very good job, merely acting as voting fodder for his party and only became minister because the party leader wasn’t watching! It now looks as though he is going to be pushed out, to make way for new blood, which is of far more concern to doña Batilde than to him.
We soon learn that there is more to Ernesto than the apparently happy husband and father. Not only is he quite controlling but he is also having an affair with Moraima (one of the topics he discusses with don Juan Manuel). Moraima and her madam are also seen as victims of a male-dominated society by Brunet and her portrait of them is sympathetic. Paca Cueto, a woman who is neither the poorest of the poor nor in the upper strata of the local society like María Soledad and doña Batilde, struggles to find a place and, of course, a husband. Finally, we have the Pérez’ unfortunate French governess, known only as Mademoiselle. She was engaged to Pierre but he, a professional soldier, did not have enough money for a dowry so, to allow him to time to save, she took the opportunity of becoming a French governess in Chile while he saved up. She has since renewed her contract in Chile for another three years and during the course of the book she will admit that she no longer loves him and he, in turn, writes (through her mother) asking to be released from his promise.
There is one other important character and that is Solita, the Pérez’ daughter. She lives in her own world, observing the adults, more bemused than critical but generally concerned with her own pleasures, riding her pony and playing fantasy games with her dolls. Brunet introduces her now and then to give us a different perspective from the adults and their problems. As always, Brunet writes a wonderfully poetic novel. There are interesting scenes such as the two women who are neighbours, both of whom have been invited to the same party. Neither wants to arrive first so they wait till the other departs, watching out of their respective windows for this to happen. Then there is the strange couple who live in a fine house just outside the departmental boundaries. No-one sees to know when they arrived or how they ended up in the house or, indeed, who they are. Both don Juan Manual and the local governor have visited them but they speak a strange language no-one can understand. We learn a bit about them when we hear that he is called John Smith. Their presence remains throughout the novel.
The problem with this novel is that there is no main plot. We do follow, somewhat, the story of the bridge. Should a bridge be built at the end of the village, which will allow others to come here more easily? Doña Batilde is opposed but others favour it. There is a cataclysm, briefly hinted at early on – the novel’s title, almost the last words of the book, give a clue to what it is. But overall there is no major plot line for us to follow, merely the day-to-day stories of the villagers. But Brunet writes well and it certainly is an enjoyable if not exciting novel.
First published in Spanish 1946 by Losada
No English translation