‘Cantoras’ by Carolina de Robertis – Five Women Around a Campfire

 

‘Cantoras’ by Carolina de Robertis   (2019) –  317 pages

The small country of Uruguay was supposed to be immune from collapsing into a dictatorship. It was supposed to be a tiny oasis of calm. The country prided itself on being a progressive democracy, a role model. However on June 27, 1973 it fell into the throes of a severely repressive military dictatorship. Citizens were arrested and disappeared for no reason. Many of these were tortured and/or murdered it was found out later. Large numbers of people left the country, escaped as exiles. Not until 1984 was Uruguay returned to civilian rule.

‘Cantoras’ is the story of that appalling time in Uruguay told from the perspective of five women who had thought they had found refuge on a remote beach on the Atlantic Ocean. These women all have a special reason to be concerned about the alarming events in their country because they are women who are attracted to other women. They call themselves “Cantoras” which is the Portuguese word for female singers or songstresses.

There was no future for women in this godforsaken country, must less for women like her.”

We readers are there when one or more of these women fall in love or fall apart or bring in another woman from outside the group.

She had never seduced a woman who was so much older than her before; the thrill of it helped her survive the terror of her days. She was only seventeen years old but she’d been watching men for a long time, the way they acted as if they knew the answers to questions before they were asked, as if they carried the answers in their mouths and trousers.”

We are there when one of this female group is arrested.

There she was, a prisoner flanked by soldiers in plain clothes, and yet she looked as free and normal as anyone else. The essence of dictatorship, she thought. On the bus, on the street, at home; no matter where you are or how ordinary you seem, you’re in a cage.”

I have previously read the novel ‘Perla’ by Carolina de Robertis which is also about the military dictatorship in Uruguay. After reading ‘Perla’ I was already sure that I had discovered a new major world-class novelist in Carolina de Robertis, and ‘Cantoras’ reinforces that view. ‘Cantoras’ is a moving blend of the political and the personal, how these women start, continue, and end their romantic relationships under difficult conditions.

…at twenty-eight, she would never know how much of who she was was deformed by dictatorship, like a plant twisting its shape to find light. That so much had been lost or broken.”

We do not realize how important freedom is to living our lives until it disappears. The significance of living freely and the destruction of lives caused by the loss of freedom are conditions too many South Americans know all too well.

We don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone. Freedom is like that. It’s like air. When you have it, you don’t notice it.” – Boris Yeltsin

 

Grade :    A-

 

 

3 responses to this post.

  1. You know, when I was a girl, we studied (for some bizarre reason) South America in geography at school. We used to make a bit of a joke of it because it was so easy to memorise for exams. They all exported bananas and coffee and nobody bothered to study what kind of government they had because the examiners knew that every other week one or other of them would have a coup and whatever students had learned would be wrong. Jokes aside, it fixed South America in my mind as a politically unstable place best left off any bucket list we might have been dreaming of.
    When I was in my 20s, CIA/USA interference in South American countries began to be acknowledged, but it didn’t change my half-baked opinions much. I basically wrote off the entire continent as a lost cause, and considered it of no interest to me.
    It wasn’t until I was in my forties and I actually met people who were refugees from Chile that I began to understand what that kind of instability meant, to real people, with real families.
    However, my efforts to redress my ignorance have been stymied by the literature I’ve come across. I don’t like Isobel Allende’s magic realism, and I don’t like Marquez’s casual acceptance of under-age sex with girls. The novellas I’ve read have all been weirdly fractured — and you know me, I don’t mind fractured narratives,but these ones have been beyond my comfort zone. So I’m wondering, is this one a book you think I might like?

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    • Hi Lisa,
      Carolina de Robertis is very good on writing about that era of South American dictatorships which were instigated and propped up by the US CIA and Henry Kissinger. It will be many decades before South Americans will look on the US with anything but distrust. It was Kissinger who gave the dictators the idea to take their countries’ progressives up in airplanes and drop them into the ocean.

      de Robertis deals with solely this brutal political situation in ‘Perla’. In ‘Cantoras’ she deals with the dictatorship as well as the love affairs between these women.

      Three other fine novels about the South American dictatorships are ‘I the Supreme’ by Augusto Roa Bastos, ‘Feast of the Goat’ by Mario Vargas Llhosa, and ‘The Peron Novel’ by Tomas Eloy Martinez.

      I have read quite a lot of South American novels, all in translation except for de Robertis who writes in English. One classic Brazilian writer I really like is Jorge Amado whose novels are more cheerful and optimistic than the above. Of modern South American writers other of my favorites besides Carolina de Robertis are Juan Garcia Vasquez and Laura Restrepo, both from Colombia.

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  2. Thank you for this helpful answer… I’ve felt this to be a gap in my reading for a long time. I’m going to make myself a little South American wishlist at Goodreads and see what I can track down.

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