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Cellophaneby Marie Arana
Synopses & Reviews
Don Victor Sobrevilla, a lovable, eccentric engineer, always dreamed of founding a paper factory in the heart of the Peruvian rain forest, and at the opening of this miraculous novel his dream has come true — until he discovers the recipe for cellophane. In a life already filled with signs and portents, the family dog suddenly begins to cough strangely. A wild little boy turns azurite blue. All at once Don Victor is overwhelmed by memories of his erotic past; his prim wife, Doña Mariana, reveals the shocking truth about her origins; the three Sobrevilla children turn their love lives upside down; the family priest blurts out a long-held secret...
A hilarious plague of truth has descended on the once well-behaved Sobrevillas, only the beginning of this brilliantly realized, generous-hearted novel. Marie Arana's style, originality, and trenchant wit will establish her as one of the most audacious talents in fiction today and Cellophane as one of the most evocative and spirited novels of the year.
"Arana, author of American Chica and editor of Washington Post Book World, revisits her native Peru with a tale as bawdy, raucous and dense as the jungle whose presence encroaches on every page. Arana's first novel depicts a family — and a country — on the fulcrum between the old ways and the new, between feudalism and revolution. At the height of the Great Depression, paper engineer Don Victor Sobrevilla pitches his small empire where the trees are — in the heart of the rain forest — constructing a highly successful paper factory and a vast hacienda, Floralinda, far from the political centers of Trujillo and Lima, linked only to the outside world by the dangerous and unpredictable Amazon. When, in 1952, Don Victor discovers the formula for cellophane, his household is afflicted with a 'plague of truth,' a compulsion to confess their most shameful histories and most hidden yearnings, to make their stories as transparent as the paper itself. When desires are laid bare, so are the conflicts that the family has kept hidden for so long, resulting in interlocking quests for power. The novel's broadly comic first half makes the story's violent culmination even more harrowing. (June 27)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Peruvians who live in the coastal cities inherited their fear of the Amazon from the Incas, who mistrusted both the vast, impenetrable green monster of the jungle and the ever-shifting brown serpent that flows sluggishly through its heart. They built their temples and cities in the highest, driest places, free from mosquito bites and spider webs. Europeans settlers added a crude moral dimension, believing... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) that hot and humid places could only make men mad and women wanton, and so even today the good people of Lima prefer the man-made morass of humanity and concrete. Not so Maria Arana, the editor of The Post's Book World. A limena she might be, but her debut novel dives with gusto into the undergrowth. Its teeming, vivacious prose mirrors the exuberance of the tropical rainforest. With her intensity and seemingly reckless enthusiasm, the author is, in fact, merely being faithful to her protagonist, Don Victor Sobrevilla Paniagua, an eccentric inventor who swaps his home in the prosperous town of Trujillo on the coast for a paper factory on a bend in the river. The locals, recruited into his enterprise, call him the 'shapechanger.' But their boss is a proud materialist and says he loves paper because of its tangibility, because it is like 'portable life.' Despite the emphatic italics of that last word, he seems insensible to the vital — and volatile — forces that flow through living things. Colonials, even the best-intentioned ones, possess restless souls. Having succeeded in the wilderness as a paper maker, Don Victor is fired by a newborn ambition to produce cellophane. His compliant extended family blithely ignores the trees he has hacked down and the effluence his factory pours into the river, willing themselves to believe that there is perhaps an essential innocence and purity in their decision to go back to nature. They feel safe out there, hidden from view. But the jungle, far from obscuring reality behind a wall of vegetation, becomes a theater of catharsis and revelation for the Sobrevillas. A 'plague of tongues' — that's to say, of talk and confession, rumor and regret — descends on the household and, released from the required discretions of urban society, each character divulges, in turn, his or her innermost secret. No one in the clan remains untouched by the truth disease. For Don Victor, it's the memory of the one-time love of his life, Vanessa, a hot youthful urge that is reawakened and duly redirected at his children's tutor, Marcela. He also tells the family that one of their ancestors is not from some idealized pueblo in the wastes of Estremadura but from the Orient — a genuine shock for Europhile bourgeois Latin Americans. His wife makes even more dramatic confessions about her ancestry, and her own dalliances with a nimble-fingered bookseller. Even the priest, ultimate moral guardian for Senora Sobrevilla and the paper factory employees — though not for Don Victor, a would-be heathen and devotee of the ayahuasca truth drug — feels compelled to reveal an earlier crime of passion. Erotic currents ripple through this novel, and we are lured to eavesdrop on illicit encounters. Often, passionate yearnings are repressed or confounded, but occasionally the sexual energy surges forward. Thus, a young, independent-minded Indian woman unleashes her feline spirits and ensnares a bored husband from the Sobrevilla family. But the truth disease leads not only to the irruption of desire, but also to an apocalypse of longing, violence, lunacy and confusion. When missives and military men from the civilized world arrive on the estate, they bring a whiff of an alternative, urban existence with them, and they muddy the waters with echoes from a past life. Murmurs of revolution stir in the jungle. The Sobrevilla family proves not to be quite so solid after all. Eventually, racial tensions between whites and natives come to the fore, and Don Victor's grand scheme seems doomed. The denouement of the novel turns on two basic mysteries. First, that the 'river is cursed.' Second, that everything is connected, 'bound together' just like the jungle and the river. Both are teased out of exchanges between Don Victor and his trusted curandero, Yorumbo. Thus the cellophane, far from being a harmless wrapping and a trick of technology, becomes a motif for the sparkling clarity that has befallen all those who live on the Sobrevilla estate. Revisiting some of the classic Latin American types — the mordant military general, the wizard-like lover, the good gringo — Arana steps confidently onto the stage of magic realism, with its surreal politics and its ironic rendering of postcolonial stereotypes. But she is also faithful to the magic-realist manifesto in not admitting a neat discrepancy between metaphor and truth, and in 'Cellophane,' the Sobrevillas learn that such a distinction is merely another convenient prejudice they have brought with them from the city. We should not be surprised: As a writer, Arana could hardly share the simplistic vision of paper as a blank item of commerce. Fair-minded employers they may be, but the Sobrevillas are 'termite people' in the eyes of all the natives, friends and enemies. Arana's deftest stroke is in modifying our perception of Don Victor — who starts out as an industrious innovator and likable visionary only to become a bumbling, passive tyrant — without repelling any of our sympathy. It sometimes seems that writers of Latin American fiction employ wonder and hyperbole in their renderings of everyday reality in the way an artist might pick up a thicker brush or select a more vivid hue of green. But the onrush of awe and turbulence that drives along Arana's impressive novel is born of a frank contemplation of the natural world and of a family out of its usual milieu. The magical elements that inhere in every storm, every tree, every tiny whirlpool and eddy of the river are the undoing of Don Victor's creative vision and bring about the destruction of a home and a dream. He baptized the site of his factory Floralinda, but it never finds its way onto the maps. The Incas are proven right: The jungle is as alive as any human being, but it is also so vast as to seem infinite and ruthless in its appetite for assimilation." Reviewed by Chris Moss, a travel writer and literary critic who reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Memorable fiction....Arana brings a freshness to the style that is all her own, elegant and lyrical but at the same time sparse, and no doubt enriched by a vocabulary infused with the rhythms of her two languages." The Miami Herald
"Arana's writing is both lush and funny...This is a great book." People
"Exuberant and virtuosic....Conflict takes on a teeming array of forms in Cellophane: whites versus natives, religion versus magic, feudalism versus revolution. It's a vision of the rain forest as a place where every strain of human drama grows as tangled as the encroaching vines — and in depicting this, Arana has wound her themes together with an energetic, subtly controlled wildness."San Francisco Chronicle Books
"Rich in themes, symbolism, conflict and character....It's also, for those who just want a good tale, a brilliant piece of storytelling that combines magical realism in the tradition of writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez with comedic looks at human foibles and misunderstandings a la Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream." The Fort Worth Star-Telegram
"Marie Arana's sumptuous, often erotic and wholly enchanting novel, Cellophane....owes a debt to the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende....A superb example of the magic that a gifted storyteller can work with ink and paper."Los Angeles Times Book Review
"An absolutely spellbinding tale....Arana's prose is captivating, and she provides some incredibly beguiling moments." Philadelphia City Paper
From noted writer and National Book Award finalist Arana comes a debut novel with all the power and grace of her acclaimed memoir, American Chica.
About the Author
Marie Arana is the editor of the Washington Post Book World. Born in Peru of a Peruvian father and an American mother, she is the author of American Chica, a finalist for the PEN-Memoir Award and the National Book Award, and a collection of columns, The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work. Marie Arana lives in Washington, D.C., and Lima, Peru.
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