One interesting characteristic of Latin American magic realism is that it often rejects the European and North American literary legacy of unified narratives. Unified narratives can sometimes unintentionally promote the hegemony of one class and culture. The Potbellied Virgin, written by Ecuador’s Alicia Yánez Cossío in 1985 and translated into English in 2006, is an interesting example of a communal narrative. The reading experience is fascinating though disorienting for a mind trained in North America or Europe.
Although Alicia Yánez Cossío is one of the better-known authors in Ecuador, only two of her books have been translated into English and she is virtually unknown in the United States. The Potbellied Virgin provides a social history of Ecuador between 1900 and 1970, blending voices of the indigenous, the Catholic Church, descendants of the ruling Spanish aristocracy, Marxist revolutionaries, and the military.
The plot revolves around a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary that is cared for by members of Ecuador’s white aristocracy, the Benavides family, specifically the women. Years ago, the Benavides came to the region and simply stole the land from the Pandos family, who were Mestizo landowners. The Mestizos were descendants of European conquerors who were born in South America and with whom some of the indigenous had married.
When the white Benavides laid claim to those lands, the Pando clan sued, but, in the words of the group narrative, “justice is slow and lazy when the rich man fights the poor”. Somewhere along the line, the Virgin statue becomes “pregnant.” The Pandos believe that the deed to their land and the proof of their ownership is being hidden on the Virgin’s dress, hence the belly. A series of military coups and Marxist revolutions ensue as the statue of the Virgin is bandied about amidst both carnage and humorous chaos, resulting in the spontaneous abortion of the deeds.
Yanéz Cossío uses four devices supplant the unified narrative. First, she makes copious use of proverbs. Second, she slides the point of view seamlessly from the main characters to people in the crowd, often with few identifying taglines, gestures, or facial expressions. Third, she uses long plot digressions about things which have nothing to do with the main characters, but which sometimes reveal the animism of the indigenous culture or a bit of social history, a device often evident in García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. And fourth, she uses humor.
The fourth device is evident throughout the novel but mostly at the end, during a brutal yet comical military coup. Professor of comparative literature and writer Kenneth Wishina, quoting narrative theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, writes that the “absolute monoglossic unity” of narratives “can be destroyed by laughter which is rarely present in the majority of Ecuadorian Historical novels” but which is a “dominant motif” in Yanéz Cossío’s work.
Though people often hate “spoilers,” it will increase your enjoyment of this disorienting narrative to know that The Potbellied Virgin ends when one the Benavides’ female descendants runs off with one of the young Pandos who has become a communist, leaving his elderly relatives to sit in the village square as they have spent most of their life doing, unwittingly smoking the scraps of their land deeds, which are blowing about the streets after the coup. Thus the town will find liberty only in the intermarriage of their disparate voices and outlooks.
- Cossío, Alicia Yánez. The Potbellied Virgin. Translated by Amalia Gladhart University of Texas Press. 2006
- Wishnia, Kenneth. Twentieth Century Ecuadorian Narrative: New Readings in the Context of the Americas. Bucknell University Press. 1999.