Review: ‘Fruit of the Drunken Tree’

Review of Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Fruit of the Drunken Tree (New York: Doubleday, 2018).

The author, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, stamps my book copy with a design prepared for such occasions, that of the flowers of the borrachero tree (see photo above) and a fragment from her novel: “We were rich in our stories.”

Excerpted from one of her characters’ memories of early childhood, in the countryside in Boyacá, Colombia, the phrase out of context might strike someone as the recollection of an older person. But her character, the teenage Petrona, already has experienced forced displacement by paramilitary forces, the deaths of family members, impoverishment, and marginalization.

Petrona lives with her mother and remaining family members in an invasión, an impromptu settlement on the mountainous edges of the Colombian capital, Bogotá.

The novel brings together two worlds. The neighborhood in which the book’s other principal character, the younger girl Chula, lives hires security and constructs gates to keep out such “invaders” who might disrupt the illusion of paradise. Maintaining the fiction of separation is difficult in Colombia, though, and in the 1980s and ’90s, when events in the novel take place, violence also comes to the doors of the privileged.

Fruit of the Drunken Tree blends multiple types of silences. We have the silence of Petrona, bearing the legacy of accumulated shame that, at thirteen years old, already has taught her that the way she speaks, dresses, and earns money is inferior. Rojas Contreras, more than any writer I can recall, makes silence a living thing. Chula, in whose house Petrona starts to work, counts Petrona’s syllables. “I always imagined the silence in Petrona’s throat like dry fur draping over her vocal cords,” Chula says, “and when she cleared her throat, I imagined the fur shaking a little, then settling, smooth like hair on a fruit.”

Even more than the mystical borrachero, source of a drug that “takes away free will,” as Rojas Contreras explains in her university talk on April 17, silences drive the story forward. Such lacunae permit the writer to intrude and to chronicle her studied observations of pain. Rojas Contreras links her early career as a gymnast and the athlete’s familiarity with the pain in their bodies to a capacity to discern the suffering in Colombian life, and in her own experience.

Pain, according to the writer, opens a way to understanding and perhaps to extracting meaning from the silences that Chula must interpret. Colombians like Chula have to negotiate all the murky social and political forces that shape their lives. It is somewhat gratifying for people like me, who have great affection for Colombia as outsiders, to learn that even the natives as represented in Rojas Contreras’s book have a hard time making the murderous and corrupt agendas of guerrilla forces, paramilitaries, narcotraffickers, and other armed actors cohere.

For some perspective, Chula and Rojas Contreras herself seek out the library. “Reading about Colombia calmed me,” Chula says, and later, “I went to the library so often, scanning the newspaper for the same subjects, the librarian began to set aside the newspapers before I got there …”

Now an expatriate, Rojas Contreras said writing the book allowed her to go to Colombia when she was not physically present. She tells Scott Simon of NPR that “the country just emerged out of the words.”

She conjures such quotidian Colombian moments as dousing your body with cold rainwater stored clear and shimmery in a blue barrel, mapping out the “safe routes” for travel based on the latest news about paramilitary and rebel-held territories, or drinking chocolate Santafereño on a misty morning in Bogotá.

It is a world different than the Macondo of García Márquez, yet magical and funny and desperately sad all at once.

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