Rosario Ferré: La casa de la laguna (The House on the Lagoon)
As the title tells us, this book is indeed about a house (actually three houses but all built in the same place) on a lagoon but, naturally, it is about the family who built and occupied the houses. We start with Quintín and Isabel Mendizabal. Isabel is the narrator of the book. She and Quintín are sitting on the verandah, well before their marriage, when a sixteen-year old boy who was in love with Isabel starts serenading her with a love song. Quintín is furious and attacks the boy and beats him, to the horror of Isabel. A few days later the boy kills himself. Quintín is, of course, remorseful about the death of the boy but Isabel wonders who she is marrying. She knows that Quintín inherited his temper from his ancestors. Her grandmother warns her off, saying that there are enough kind men in the world and she does not need to marry a man like him. Quintín, however, is aware of his anger and the couple agree to examine the origins of anger in their respective families as if it were a disease and try to avoid the mistakes of their forebears. This book is that examination or, more particularly, a history of the family.
Quintín’s father was Buenaventura Mendizabal. He was Spanish at a time when there was lot of poverty in Spain, so he came to Puerto Rico to make his fortune. He was not just an adventurer but descended from Pizarro and had the documents to prove it. (Like many things in the novel, the veracity of these documents is later questioned.) Pedigree was very important in Puerto Rico. He built himself a shack on the far side of the (fictitious) Alamares Lagoon and used the spring there which had been abandoned by its owner. When the owner was found dead in mysterious circumstances, Buenaventura took over the spring and the owner’s cottage. As a result, he was able to give fresh water to the Spanish ships, who could not get water in San Juan, as the aqueduct was too small to supply them. He did not charge them but they gave him casks of wine, which he sold. This was the start of his fortune. When World War I came, he managed to smuggle food in through the German submarine blockade and made a lot more money that way. The fact that he might have colluded with the Germans was never proved.
When Rebecca Arrigoitia was named Queen of the Spanish Antilles, she turned down every man as her King, till she met Buenaventura. Her mother reluctantly accepted him, as he did have a pedigree. The couple were soon married and her grandfather gave him two merchant vessels to help him in his business. Buenaventura had already built a small house but when he and Rebecca met Milan Pavel, a fashionable architect, they got him to build their house. Pavel had been influenced by or, more accurately, stole from Frank Lloyd Wright and had ended up on Puerto Rico, where no-one knew of Frank Lloyd Wright, so no-one accused him of stealing Wright’s designs. However, for Rebecca and Buenaventura, he came up with an original design. It was magnificent house. Rebecca, who had artistic aspirations and was a dancer, influenced by Isadora Duncan, wanted to use the house for her arty friends. Buenaventura, now the Spanish consul, would not tolerate this and wanted it only for his political and business dinners and meetings. Rebecca put up with his for a while and then left him to return to her parents. He came crawling to her and she got her way. When she did a dance of the seven veils for her friends, Buenaventura was furious. He beat her up and then tore down the house and built a new more austere one. Rebecca had a succession of pregnancies and her artistic aspirations faded.
Meanwhile, we are following in great detail the stories of various relatives and a few other key persons, from the servant who is a sort of witch doctor, to the police chief, who shot unarmed, young demonstrators, from the wife who refused to learn Spanish and therefore could never fit in to the twin brothers who shared a wife. There are murders, suicides, deaths by witchcraft, forced abortions, rapes and a fair amount of violence. A lot of the story is told against the background of Puerto Rican history. When the US took over, they soon claimed that there was no Puerto Rican history before it became a US territory, something which Ferré is clearly out to disprove. However, most of the story is set during the period under US control, and we follow the Puerto Ricans who are for independence, those who want statehood and those that want to remain as a semi-independent commonwealth.
Meanwhile, we are also following the story of Quintín and Isabel. One day, Quintín finds hidden the manuscript of the first part of the book. He reads it at night when Isabel is asleep. He is at times shocked. Isabel is clearly an unreliable narrator, at least according to Quintín, and he disagrees with a lot of what she recounts. He is also shocked when she reveals what he sees as highly confidential information about their affair as well as family secrets (of which there seem to be a lot), which he would rather remain hidden. He had studied history at college and would prefer a historical approach rather than Isabel’s literary approach. But it’s not a work of art. It’s a feminist treatise, an Independentista manifesto; worst of all, it distorts history. She keeps changing her hiding place but, sooner or later, he finds them all and then starts annotating her text, where he disagrees with her interpretation or her view of the events. She is now, of course, well aware that he is reading it and he is well aware that she knows, but neither of them will discuss is openly.
While this is going on, we learn of the problems with his family. His two younger sisters have both married Spanish viscounts and they return with them to Puerto Rico. Both viscounts and viscountesses expect to be kept in luxury and soon the export-import business is struggling. Fortunately, Buenaventura seems to have a secret supply of money (Isabel suggests that it was bribes from the Germans during the war) but when he suddenly dies, the money dries up and there is no evidence where it came from. The family have to tighten their belts, only they do not. Quintín is struggling to keep the business going but neither his mother nor his siblings are helping in any way. Things can only get worse as the story leads up to the 1993 referendum on statehood and they certainly do, for the family, for Quintín and his still uncontrolled anger in particular, and for the house.
As Quintín points out above, this is a feminist novel. Most of the men come out badly, being either too weak, too violent, too selfish or too inept. Ferré does not fall into the trap of making the women out to be saints. Many of them are, indeed, victims, including Isabel, victim of her husband’s violent tempers, but some of them are certainly strong women, fighting for their individual rights and sometimes paying the price for this. This book is, in part, about Puerto Rican history (Ferré is the daughter of a former governor, so she will have seen some of it at first-hand) but it is also about how a family (and its house) can be destroyed if behaviour is not controlled and people do not behave responsibly. Above all, for us as readers, it is a superb and complex story, full of colourful characters, each with their own issues and each with their story to tell.
First published in English 1995 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
First published in Spanish 1996 by Emecé