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Book Review
By

Vincent Bosquez

[This review first appeared in

The San Antonio Express-News]


Cellophane
By Marie Arana
Publisher: Dial Press (2006)
ISBN: 0816524920

 

Throughout the ages, telling the truth has always been held in high esteem. From the opening books of the Bible, which give us the commandment against bearing false witness, to elementary school history books that extol the virtue of honesty by repeatedly emphasizing that George Washington never told a lie, we have been continually led to believe that always telling the truth is the right thing to do.

But can always being truthful be too much of a good thing? This philosophical question is put to the test with amazing consequences when a plague of truth strikes a Peruvian family in Marie Arana's first novel, "Cellophane."

Set in the dense rainforest of South America's third largest country, Arana uses Peru's allure as a mystical, magical, inaccessible region where only the most adventurous dare to traverse, as the home base of a patriarchal family led by Don Victor Sobrevilla, an eccentric engineer whose quest for concocting the perfect recipe for cellophane puts into motion a string of events that exposes secrets long kept hidden behind closed lips.

"Not since (Don Victor) set foot on the riverbank and christened the land Floralinda had he sensed that he was on the verge of something significant, that he was as the witchman who birthed his daughters had told him being summoned into the universe. Beware of wanting too much, the witchman had quickly added, for greed always ends in privation."

As Don Victor prepares to enjoy the realization of his dream, life for his family members and close associates becomes convoluted in a vortex of shameful family histories, past and current erotic transgressions, and the destabilization of the only form of community government in the region, making everyone's life as flimsy and transparent as the pieces of cellophane that litter their hacienda's terrain.

Skillfully weaving modern science, folk medicine and religious faith, Arana captures the nuances of life on the Ucayali riverbank, which due to its location in the Amazon rainforest, makes it a part of the world that time and technology often overlook. It's the perfect setting for a tale that begins with the family dog barking strangely and a wild little boy who turns blue and dies with a heart as black as stone, to literal affairs of the clergy, and culminating with loves and lust best kept secret but in the end cannot be contained by man.

Arana, editor of Washington Post Book World, sympathetically demonstrates her knowledge of the region, an area she knows well as she was born in Peru of a Peruvian father and an American mother, and lived in the country for the first 10 years of her life. Her native language Spanish comes in handy as Spanish words and phrases, along with cultural beliefs and reverence to familial hierarchies and religious observances and obligations, set a firm foundation for the book's protagonist to return to or ignore, depending upon circumstance.

Does always telling the truth truly set one free? While "Cellophane" is an original and spirited work of fiction, readers are going to find it hard not to question this central issue of virtue in their own lives, and contemplate whether the secrets they hold in their hearts and tongues are best left alone.

 

Vincent Bosquez is president of the Society of Latino and Hispanic Writers of San Antonio