By Carolina De Robertis
“What if so much living made you dangerous,” thinks Romina, a young Uruguayan activist eager to fight the brutal military dictatorship that took power on the eve of her sexual awakening. Though the junta has criminalized “affronts to decency,” jailing and torturing queer citizens alongside dissidents and guerrilla fighters, Romina is tired of delaying her life: “Why not resist. Also I will never love a man.” In the 1970s and ’80s — decades before a new regime legalized gay marriage — communists, activists and social outcasts demanded their freedom. They resisted and suffered, but outlived the junta. “Cantoras,” Carolina De Robertis’s brazenly hopeful fourth novel, is an ode to their will to survive and rebuild.
In 1977, five rebellious friends (cantoras, or singers, as lesbians were called) escape the spying neighbors and disapproving parents of Montevideo for the remote seaside fishing village of Cabo Polonio. They want to be alone, to eat, drink and talk openly in “a circle of the possible.” La Venus, a frustrated housewife, longs for a child. A butcher’s daughter named Flaca, with her male cologne and her heartbreaking caballero swagger, cooks and cares for her friends. Paz, a curious teenager, longs for freedom — and for Flaca’s skill with women. Malena, prim and mysterious, guards her secrets. And clever, political Romina, raped in prison by the men she calls “the Only Three” (it could have been more), desperately awaits her menstrual period so she won’t need an illegal abortion, given all that her parents, as immigrant Ukrainian Jews, have already endured.
The friends buy a shack and return to Cabo Polonio again and again, taking comfort in flame-cooked fish and gourds of maté, sheltering against new loss, old trauma and the constant threat of soldiers and other violent men. Over their years at the beach, new bonds form, lovers are introduced and the women change, just as their shack changes. Until the resistance grows and their country can return to itself, they create “a kind of family, woven from the castoffs, like a quilt made from strips of leftover fabric no one wanted. They wanted each other.”
The great success of this novel is that it shows how tyranny, even if you can hide from it by living a quiet life, is a thief of joy and love — and not just love that’s been deemed subversive, like that of the cantoras. Fear dulls people to the pain of others. De Robertis’s precise, chilling insight into the daily agonies of life under a dictatorship rivals Ariel Dorfman’s. She describes Montevideo during the junta as a place where curiosity dies, “a place to shrink into yourself and mind your own business.” She gives most of the novel’s political knowledge to Romina, whose lucid explanations of the military coup enlarge the scope of the narrative and give it context.
Though the plot of “Cantoras” spans almost 40 years in the lives of these ardently progressive women, it’s strangely removed from global events: There’s no mention of the AIDS crisis, gay icons, revolutions elsewhere. Then again, it follows that young working-class women of that era would have had little access to the world outside Uruguay, so that even a few months in Buenos Aires seems like an epic parting. Perhaps for a related reason, a brush with a real-life Nazi feels shoehorned in, a harrowing story that deserves to be fully realized, not a plot twist.
De Robertis’s prose is most moving when it’s direct and unembellished, but her metaphors can be heavy-handed, as in the overuse of water imagery — emotions, words, hearts, bodies always seem to be drowning, spilling, pouring. Sex is decisively three-note: lovers aching, melting or opening. And then there are the mixed metaphors: “aching flames unleashed, spilled out”; “the water called to them, blanketing the sand with its low roar.” By refusing to let a thing be only itself, De Robertis robs simple objects and gestures of their innate beauty and power. “Cracks … burrowed under layers of plaster.” Scattered kitchen tools are “like refugees.”
And yet, De Robertis captures these remarkable women not as outsiders but as complex, flawed human beings. They’re most affecting in their smallest pleasures and disappointments: the joy of being left alone by men, the urge to summon ugliness like a shield, the wonder of a lasting cantora relationship (“We get no forevers”), the cruelty of other radicals calling “faggotry” a distraction, the gloom of monogamy when a hard-won freedom calls and a lover has also been a protector.
“Cantoras” is bold and unapologetic, a challenge to the notion of “normalcy” and a tribute to the power of love, friendship and political resistance. It’s a revolutionary fable, ideal for this moment, offered with wisdom and care. De Robertis takes us inside a repressive regime during a time of global revolution and social discord much like our own. She reminds us that the young can force social change and urges them to act when they see tyranny taking hold. “The essence of dictatorship,” she writes, is that “no matter where you are or how ordinary you seem, you’re in a cage.”
Dina Nayeri’s latest book is a memoir, “The Ungrateful Refugee.”
By Carolina De Robertis
317 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.