Your novel The Dark Bride (transl. by Stephen A. Lytle) is set around the banks of the Magdalena River, in a Colombian village fueled by “whores, plata and oil.” Immersed in the violence of this place, we follow the work of a reporter who tries piece together the complicated puzzle that form the trajectory of Sayonara, a legendary prostitute that lived in that village.
The story of Sayonara – “The Dark Bride” – is told in a fragmented way, alternating in time and space. It takes place in the 1940s, and begins when the protagonist is still a girl. After the death of her Indian mother, Sayonara is abandoned by her white father, and comes to the village of Tora, determined to become a prostitute. Under the care of Todos los Santos, an old woman who founded the red light district of La Catunga, Sayonara is metamorphosed into a biblical beauty: the most popular prostitute in the neighborhood.
The novel’s setting alternates between the festive neighborhood of La Catunga, the jungle around the village of Tora, and the oil refinery that operates nearby. Tropical Oil is an US multinational that, at the time, had the concession for oil exploration in Colombia. Sayonara finds herself at the center of a love triangle between two friends who work in that company: Sacramento, who had met the girl when she was still a child and had not yet become a renowned woman, is a man consumed by the stigma of being the son a prostitute; and Payanés, a combative and passionate man who keeps a secret, and religiously visit the girl, on the last Friday of each month.
As this troubled romance backdrop, you describe, in vivid lines, the many conflicts between the refinery workers and their foreign employers, as well as the conflicts between the girls of La Catunga and Tora‘s municipal authorities. During a strike that ends in massacre, oil workers and prostitutes briefly unite themselves in resistance to the forces that exploited and oppressed them. When the authorities conclude that married men would be more dependent on the company – and therefore more docile to the US interests – La Catunga is devastated, the prostitutes are pushed out of their homes by the police, and a veneer of respectability is poured over the neighborhood.
The story is narrated by a female reporter that, in the second half of the 1990s, becomes fascinated by an old picture of Sayonara she finds by chance. Determined to research more about the history of the girl, the reporter confronts testimonials from older prostitutes and Sayonara’s old customers, as well as oil workers and local inhabitants. Throughout her research, the reporter outlines not only the trajectory of Sayonara, but also punctuates the lives of the characters that surrounded the protagonist: Machuca, a prostitute passionate about books; Olga, a victim of polio; and Fideo, a victim of alcoholism.
The civil war and the economic oppression are obliquely alluded: the lightness of some scenes, colorful like a Gauguin painting, is sometimes blended with the brutality of corpses floating down the river. The novel’s Colombian background, such as described by you, is lush, tormented and bloody.
You do a good job in trying not to stigmatize nor to romanticize prostitution. The inhabitants of La Catunga are not victimized nor judged by their choices. If it is certain that some of the characters bend to feelings of shame and guilt, or succumb to the narrow moralism of their village, many of the prostitutes in the book are able to enjoy a type of autonomy that was rare among the women of that time. Honor and shame are “the opposite sides of the same coin” in your novel.
Some negative elements weaken, however, the narrative’s power: a) many of the characters are presented in a static way, and often end up being reduced to the stereotype of the noble savage, the exotic and friendly Latin American; b) the statements given to the reporter are too uniform, devoid of different perspectives or contradictions; c) the plot sometimes drags and turns on itself.
The book’s main strength however, is the fact that, by portraying, in a fictionalized way, the close relationship between bourgeois morality and economic exploitation, The Dark Bride can achieve a mythological flavor, without having to resort to the more explicit ingredients of an already saturated magical realism. You give almost mythical contours to your ordinary characters (and, especially to the socially proscribed ones): although devoid of fantastic elements, the events in the lives of the protagonist and her rival lovers are sudden and often inconsistent, as it is common in folk tales and legends. With the dignity conferred by the closeness of touching the skin of anothe, the narrator gives voice to proscribed characters who, otherwise, would have been erased from the history of that small Colombian village.
“Cover me with your skin,” Sayonara asked Payanes, and he spread over her and clothed her and made himself more hers than her own skin, and he blanketed her with his chest, that foreign chest, which in a simple, miraculous instant made itself so familiar. And so comforting. A chest like a roof that shields and protects, and there, outside, let the world end, let it rain sparks and let God do whatever he chooses.
– Laura Restrepo, The Dark Bride
Like gusts of air in an empty house, the breaths of many strange men blew on her neck. Her life was tangled up in that sleepy haze of foreign bodies that passed through her bed, one after another, in the procession of their indifference. Her bedroom was conquered territory, the camp of any army, and her white sheet was the flag of her purchased love. Her naked body accepted with indolence the rubbing of skins that were odorless, or that smelled of distant places, and on which neither her touch nor her eyes wanted to linger. Until suddenly, without warning, came the contact with the skin that somehow awakened her, giving her the touch that her fingertips, alert at last, demanded, and in the skin of that stranger she felt the exact temperature that reminded her of happiness.
– Laura Restrepo, The Dark Bride
About the book:
- HarperCollins, 2003, transl. Stephan Lytle, 368 p. Goodreads
- Original title: La novia oscura
- First published in 1999
- My rating: 3 stars