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Rómulo Gallegos: Doña Bárbara (Doña Bárbara)

For Venezuelans, this is the novel, their national epic. As it was written well before the Boom, it has tended to be neglected in the English-speaking world, even though it is in print in both the United States and the United Kingdom. This is a pity, as it really is an excellent novel of the civilisation versus the untamed wilderness type, with the slight twist that the untamed wilderness is represented by a woman.

The main setting is Altamira, what was once a large ranch in the Venezuelan plains. It was founded by don Evaristo Luzardo but his heirs had split the property and squabbled. The two remaining families – the Luzardos and Barqueros – fought over what was left, often with disastrous consequences. Meanwhile, a young woman of native American origin, Bárbara, was working on a boat that plied its trade, not always legal, on the river. She meets a passenger, Asdrúbal, who promises to save her from this life of virtual servitude. But he is killed and she is raped and she never forgets this and her hatred of men starts from this incident. She has now become all-powerful, operating her own estate called El Miedo (it means fear). She has had an affair with Lorenzo Barquero, last of the Barqueros, and even had a child by him, but she has thrown both Barquero and their daughter, Marisela, out, leaving Barquero a broken man. The other heir, Santos Luzardo (Santos, of course, comes from the Spanish for saint, while Luzardo is burning light), a successful lawyer in Caracas, has come out to Altamira to see about selling the estate.

The novel tells how Santos decides that he cannot leave the estate to Doña Bárbara and how he, as the representative of civilisation, will stand up to her and her henchmen, including the American, Mister Danger, Melquíades (better known as El Brujeador, which translates as something like The Creator of Spells) and Balbino Paiba (who nominally works for Altamira but is, at the beginning of the novel, Doña Bárbara’s lover). With the help of Antonio and his friend, María Nieves (who, despite his name, is a man), Santos resists her series of dirty tricks, which include theft and violence, black magic and, of course, sex. Doña Bárbara falls for Santos who, in turn, is more attracted to Marisela, the innocent who could go either way, i.e. be either civilised or become like Doña Bárbara. Gallegos’ sympathies are clear but he still manages to portray Doña Bárbara as the major character and someone who dominates the novel, whatever her creator may think of her. It is Gallegos’ skill to not only show this woman and her ways but also to give us a story of Venezuela which is rich in characterisation and background, with a fascinating plot, and leave us with a novel that deserves to be better known in the English-speaking world.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1929 by Araluce
First published in English 1931 by J. Cape and H. Smith
Translated by Robert Malloy