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Yolanda Oreamuno: La ruta de su evasión [The Route of Her Escape]

This was Yolanda Oreamuno’s only published novel, her previous novel having been unpublished and then lost. It is an excellent feminist novel, where most of the men do not come out well and where most of the women are often seen as victims of their fathers or spouses/boyfriends.

We follow the story of the Mendoza family, a bourgeois family. Don Vasco is the bullying, cruel paterfamilias. His wife is the long-suffering Teresa who, for much of the book, is very ill. They have three children: Roberto, Gabriel and Alvaro. The other main characters are Juliana, the cook, housekeeper and general factotum of the household, Cristina, Roberto’s wife, and Aurora and Elena, girlfriends of Gabriel. We also meet Vasco’s friend, Esteban.

We see from the beginning what Vasco is like. Roberto sends his younger brother, Gabriel, out to look for Vasco who is, as is often the case, out getting drunk and/or chasing women. This happens frequently, with Vasco gone for a couple of days and then found in some seedy dive, completely drunk. His wife is lying ill in her bed.

Teresa came from a relatively poor family, her father dying young. Don Vasco seemed like a good catch. Her mother liked him for his status and good manners and she liked him because he was good-looking. But the marriage has not been happy. He abuses her, making her strip while he ogles her and squeezing her breasts till it hurts. A lot of his behaviour we learn from Teresa herself. As she lies in sick bed, she ruminates on her life with him and it is not a pretty picture. From his drunkenness and abuse, to his ignoring her, belittling her and keeping her short of money, there is a long litany of cruelty that we gradually learn about. This is not just her raving as her sons confirm it in a key scene where Roberto tells his father that he is leaving the family home and tells him why.

Not only does he bully her, he is cruel about the children. When she first gets pregnant, he blames her for it. When Roberto is born, he lays down rules. The child must not either laugh or cry. He must sleep only at the appointed hours.

Roberto is, in many respects like his father, though not as bad. He met Cristina at college. He was not particularly attracted to her, as she is fairly plain but, nevertheless, he had sex with her. She became pregnant and Roberto feels that he has to do the decent thing and he marries her though, as he makes clear to her on more than one occasion, he does not love her. The couple are still students and penniless, so they have to live in the Mendoza residence. Cristina is very good at looking after her mother-in-law.

She asks Roberto why he is so cold to her. His response is that, firstly, it is in his nature, and, secondly, he has met his obligations to her by marrying her and has no obligation to be affectionate with her. She is naturally very upset by this. Sadly, she later dies in childbirth, as does the baby. She had had to go to the hospital on her own, as none of the family would take her.

Roberto had previously changed his lifestyle, eating only organic food, to the annoyance of Juliana, the cook, who cannot always find the foods he wants and finds it difficult to cook in the way he wants and at the times he wants, and exercising a lot. However, like his father, once he has made up his mind to do something, that is the way it will be. He makes no concessions to Juliana. Eventually, the others, Gabriel excepted, who always opposes his brother, follow suit.

Gabriel has two girlfriends. The first is Aurora. She is not really a girlfriend but is clearly attracted to Gabriel and does not hide her feelings. She comes to the house for three reasons: Juliana’s cakes, to help look after Teresa but, above all, to see Gabriel. He is aware of her affection for him but, like his father and brother with, respectively, Teresa and Cristina, treats her cruelly.

Gabriel will later meet Elena Viales at college. Elena is made of stronger stuff than Aurora. She has been brought up by very a rich father. Like virtually all the men in this book, he is not a good man and not a good father. However, his harsh treatment of her has toughened her and made her more resilient in the hands of a Mendoza. However, when Gabriel wants to marry her, he finds out, when speaking to her father, where Elena gets her resilience from. But it is Elena who says to him casi todo lo que es verdad es silencioso [Almost everything that is truth is silent]. So he goes back to Aurora and he, too, moves out of the family home, primarily, as he tells Aurora, because he hates his father. Not surprisingly, the relationship has its problems.

And Alvaro? Alvaro is the sad one, the depressed one, the one who quite simply has not been able to cope with either his family or his life. He just stays in his room masturbating.

Men, says Aurora, are all, to a greater or lesser degree, convinced of the certainty of their superiority and this certainly is a key theme of the novel. The weakness of at least some women, Aurora realises, is that they submit to their men. She recognises that her mother did this with her father and she finds herself doing the same with Gabriel. Fortunately, her awareness is a step on the road to recovery.

This really is a superb novel as Oreamuno skilfully dissects a family which is entirely dysfunctional, at least as regards the four men in it. She shows their faults and weaknesses from every angle: from a third person narrative, from the rambling thoughts of the dying Teresa, from the perspective of others they come into contact with and, of course, from their actions. The men are weak, insensitive, controlling and utterly self-centred. No-one in this novel is happy or even close to it, the men because of their faults and the women because they are victims of these men. I cannot understand why this novel has not been translated into English or, indeed, into any other language. Perhaps it is because it is Costa Rican or perhaps it is because it is by a woman. Whichever it is, it really does deserve to be better known.

Publishing history

First published 1948 by Editorial del Ministerio de Educación pública, Guatemala
No English translation