Review of Doña Barbaba

Doña Barbaba is a compelling epic of the llanos – the easterly region of Venezuela – that translated into several movies and television series. In the backstory we learn that the settler progenitors of the protagonists of the story enacted horrors on the indigenous tribes from the Cunaviche to the Aruaca basin in order dispossess the natives. They were successful in doing so, but as a result of this the families involved were cursed. While something not spoken of, like Voldemort’s name, even generations later it still informs the behavior of those working at the Altamira ranch. There is on area on the property with a tree long ago struck by lightning around which nothing grows. The peons and the ranch hands all avoid this area.

Following the settlement of the area and the curse, the Luzardo family began to have internal conflict. When the family became rich and numerous, some of its members went to the city, and petitioned for parts of the land to be sold. This eventually happened, giving rise to two families in control of this vast region. Whether it was the curse of the indigenous or just the vanity of those engaged in the reprisals, a dispute between the two heads soon emptied nearly both branches of the family.

The laws set up in the wake of indigenous dispossession was according to rules that encouraged many varieties of primitive capitalist accumulative behaviors by hook or by crook. Be it theft of animals by branding over another ranches mark, finding buyers that didn’t care what was what, or enacting lawsuit in the court of a judge that’s already in pocket, the llanos are are place where “the only way to get respect here is to kill someone.” This is because the llanos, like New York City for Carrie, is a place location with a life and personality all of its own.

TV series adaptation of Dona Barbara set in modern times

One of the compelling metaphors mobilized in the beginning is the reflection by the narrator that those that settled the llanos were not entirely men – but were centaurs. This is sensible given the amount of time that they spend on their horses and also the classical conception of them as half-beast half men. They are the ones between beast, or indigenous people, and men, as while they scatter them

Doña Barbara not so subtly represents the settler barbarism required to dispossess people of their historic rights. She has a daughter out of wedlock, Marisela, with Lorenzo, the cousin of the soon to be introduced protagonist Santos Luzardo, but leaves the child to him so that she can focus on accumulating her own ranch.

Illustration by Alberto Nicasio from the Peuser edition

Much like Rosario Tiejeras, which I read immediately preceding this, Doña Barbara was raped as a teenager. Barbara too is associated with magic and murder. Though she has no group of girls that seek to follow her ways, The Ogress as she is called, is also quite attractive and uses her feminine wiles to get what she needs done. Because of this she never needs to pull the trigger on someone who has something she wants or who has insulted her herself, but this is as she has a veritable stable of disreputable men on the run from authorities in other areas are willing to do anything for her should they think that it is what she wants. Doña Barbara’s dalliance with dark rituals is also more than a passing phase. She has a Dark Stranger, code for the devil, which helps her in her plans to enrich herself.

Santos Luzardo, a doctor by education, representing the purportedly calmer and legalistic side of civilization – ironic considering the criminality it took for his family to obtain the land – and seeks to undo the encroachment made on his families property by Doña Babara and her retinue of henchmen.

Romulo Gallegos’ includes a number of songs and poem fragments throughout the book. This impressed and surprised me, as having no real experience working as a cattle hand, I’d never have imagined the degree to which they laud poetry – as if to provide their inner refinement despite their outer simple appearance. In one of many similar passages connecting the cowboy to song and poetry, Gallegos writers the following:

“As evening came on, the cowboys came back in noisy groups, began to talk, and ended by singing their thoughts in ballad form, for if there is anything which must be said, the Plainsman always has a ballad or a poem which says it and says it better than speech.”

All in all I really loved this book, the narrative was compelling, the cast of color characters were lifelike and for a 400+ page book the pace of it was fast. I loved all that proto-magical realist elements in it which showcased the many superstitions and strong beliefs of the people in the region. I look forward to reading this again in a few years and finding new things to appreciate about it.

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