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Old 16th May 2005, 10:31   #1
rick green
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Default Gioconda Belli: The Invisible Woman

I spent a few maddening weeks in Nicaragua my sophomore year in college. It’s not overstating the case to say those weeks changed my life. The poverty, the broken revolution, it’s enlightened social goals & failure to extricate itself from violence and autocracy—all of this was more than I could take. I had a sort of mental meltdown. But I was just visiting. When the time was up, I came home, got over the last of the parasites, and moved on. My class/national guilt never quite went away, but it became bearable in time. Lavinia, the heroine of Giaoconda Belli’s novel The Inhabited Woman, can’t go that route. She was born in Nicaragua. (Ahem. Sorry, that’s Faguas.) And though she’s born to privilege, she can’t ignore the poverty and repression surrounding her crystal citadel. In fact, the novel begins with Lavinia already in rebellion against her class. At this early point, however, her indignation is more personal than political. She resents that
“her parents took her all dressed up to parties and let her loose so the little animals in suits and ties could sniff at her. Little domestic animals searching for someone to give them strong, healthy children, cook for them, and keep their homes tidy.”
Through a magic-realist intervention, Lavinia’s awareness of the greater social aspects of class repression grows. She comes to believe that:
“In society, as on an individual level, there existed a collective ‘self-defense’ as a justification for violence; there were different human qualities, people who killed to kill and people who killed for life, to defend and preserve what was human in the face of bestiality and brute force.”
Eventually, she joins the revolutionaries for national liberation, usually referred to as the Movement. It seems that in the Movement, political revolutionaries aren’t necessarily enlightened feminists as well. Lavinia continues to struggle with her identity as a woman as well as a member of the elite.
“In spite of her acceptance by the Movement, she couldn’t stop feeling that her class background was a heavy burden she would like to shed once and for all. It seemed like an unpardonable sin to her, a border that perhaps only a heroic death could totally erase.”
She does find friendship and communion with another female freedom fighter. “The empathy, the complicity between them—the unique, special complicity of gender and purpose, [was] something she didn’t have with” anyone else. At last, near the novel’s exciting climax, all of Lavinia’s doubts are washed away. Her identity merges with the collective goals of the Movement and she devotes herself wholeheartedly to action. Is this a good thing? The submission of the self to the collective, the adoption of a number in place of her name, the use of violent means to noble ends? Maybe so, but at the novel’s climactic end, I was left feeling sad and confused, admiring Lavinia’s devotion to an ideal, bitter about the violence it entailed, and at a loss for how she might have done better. That’s not unlike the feeling with which I left Nicaragua. Incidentally, Belli has written a memoir, The Country Under My Skin, and I think it is by far the better book. In it, she recounts many of the same stories, but with more maturity and perspective than are manifest in The Inhabited Woman. If you’re going to read just one of her books, I suggest The Country Under My Skin. To read both, however, makes for a fascinating comparison.
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Old 16th May 2005, 12:41   #2
John Self
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Excellent, rick - you bring us stuff we wouldn't know about otherwise. For that I salute you.
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