“For some reason she was feeling as if she were no longer herself, the person she had been yesterday, but rather some other woman, strong and decisive, undaunted by danger or death. Maybe I don’t care any more if I die, she thought for a moment. Perhaps that was the reason for the cold-blooded way she thought about what would happen in the next few hours.”
Nicaraguan author and poet Gioconda Belli’s 1994 novel, The Inhabited Woman, is a breathtaking, soul moving masterpiece both cerebral and emotionally stirring. Set in an unnamed Central American country during the 1970s, it tells both the story of Itzá, an indigenous woman warrior fighting Spanish invaders, and the story of modern, privileged architect Lavinia who is inadvertently drawn into the National Liberation Movement.
The story begins with the reawakening of Itzá after several hundred years. She describes the feel of being pulled up into the roots, branches, and leaves of the orange tree and the awareness that she is once more alive. She wonders if this is the land she was promised for her warrior’s death but is not disappointed to realize that she now resides in the home of a young, dark-haired beauty who “walks like the women of my tribe, firmly, as we used to move and walk, before the bad times.” She is puzzled by the woman, who lives alone with “eyes large and bright” that “shine with the wonderment of one who is still open to discovery,” but who “is not a goddess, for she is afraid. She closed and locked all the doors before leaving.”
The home Itzá now resides in belongs to Lavinia Alarcón, whom we meet as she embarks on her first day of work. Lavinia belongs to the world of the privileged upper class–educated in Italy, fair-skinned, wealthy–but has recently made decisions out-of-step with her upbringing. Her decision to live alone after college and to use her architect degree to procure a job in architecture rather than find a man to marry has scandalized the tightly-knit inner circles of the elite. She rarely speaks with her parents (whom we discover banished her from their home due to her decision to live alone) and has very little attachment to them in the first place–her childhood was spent mostly with her late Aunt Inés, who left her the large home she now lives in.
Lavinia has recently found herself in a state of general malaise about the status quo. Her country is in the grips of revolution, and the military rulers who run things find they are barely tolerated by the elite and despised by the common people. And while everyone knows about the National Liberation Movement, hardly anyone speaks of it for fear of being silenced. Both aware of this but unsure about how to solve anything, she makes general observations about her city, where squatters in the street are passed by the wealthy in their BMWs.
Her first day at work, Lavinia is confronted with the human aspect of a country embracing capitalistic gain over taking care of its people. One of her new coworkers, Felipe Iturbe, presses her to check out the site of a new shopping complex, then taunts her when she is horrified to discover that the complex will force thousands of homeless from their homes. His claim that he is trying to educate her in “the realities of the world,” and that “it’s good for you to get rid of some of your romantic ideas about architecture,” antagonizes her, and over the next several weeks she is both entranced and repelled by his machismo, teasing, and unasked for consideration.
But attraction works in powerful ways, and one night she and Felipe fall together and discover the animal magnetism of their bodies. Their affair is more than a one-night-stand, and they continue to seek each other out, to spend humid nights clasped in each other’s arms, to create with one another a passion that screams with the strength of jaguars but also builds the bliss of wind softly sighing over the skin of the lake.
Itzá, meanwhile, watches Lavinia grow in confidence and love with Felipe, and knows that the time will come soon when the two women will “meet.” One day, Lavinia makes some fresh orange juice from the tree that is Itzá. As Lavinia drinks the juice, Itzá’s spirit begins to quietly reside inside Lavinia, giving her the ability to see and affect Lavinia’s fears, thoughts, feelings, dreams.
As the story proceeds, Lavinia tries in vain to not be vulgarly jealous of the mysterious hours Felipe keeps, and the way he jumps up and runs off after receiving strange phone calls. Because of his sexist approach toward her and other women, and his flirtatious nature, she assumes he has other women with whom he spends his time, and wonders if he might in fact be married. She resolves to not ask him where he goes, as anytime she tries to get personal he clams up or changes the subject, and though his attitude still irritates her, she cannot walk away from him.
One night, however, she is abruptly confronted with the truth of Felipe’s mysteries, when he drags an unconscious, bleeding man into her bedroom. The man is a revolutionary leader with the National Liberation Movement, and so is Felipe. Thus, Lavinia finds herself in the middle of a movement, forced to decide between a life of resignation to “progress” or a life in which she puts aside her own comfort and privilege to work on the side of the oppressed.
This book is so heavy it took me over a month to finish reading it. The only analogy that even works about the experience is being on a morphine drip, because reading it is like moving through an underwater world where everything is slowed down. But where morphine dulls the senses, this book heightens them, extends them, stirs up more than what one would think could possibly be hidden beneath the surface of any heart. Then to realize that what’s been stirred up resides in one’s own heart and is being pulled to the surface past one’s own apathy and loss of vision–the resurrection of conscience and consciousness, the knowledge that life is not what one once imagined it to be, and that the fires of idealism need not be extinguished.
Belli’s prose is consistently poetic, with lines like, “The darkness smelled of heavy silence. Tigers crouched,” and “there she is in the middle of the night like a lost firefly, floating among us yet unable to reach the place where she belongs.” And while Belli can write straight-forward dialogue and action, beneath it all is the promise of the magic of what words, put together in a certain way, can do.
And the characters are written beautifully. Many reviews I’ve read on this book take issue with the character development in this novel, calling many characters flat, static, one-dimensional, unrealistic. But I couldn’t disagree more. Lavinia, is, of course, the major focus here, and her journey from privileged white girl to active revolutionary is stunning. She begins this journey believing in the “peacefulness of poverty,” a romanticized attitude I myself have formerly held and have seen used as an excuse by many privileged individuals and groups to maintain the status quo. Through her experiences connecting with those to whom life has been rather more than unkind, Lavinia begins to understand that her discontent, while real and earnest, is nothing in comparison to the daily struggles of the truly oppressed. Yet instead of giving into the guilt this evokes in her, she pushes through it to become the ally the Movement needs.
Felipe is another character written beautifully. He is flawed, sexist, arrogant, condescending; he hates that he had no choice but to involve Lavinia, and fights the idea that she’s involved, not just of concern for her safety, but because she is the “shore of my river. If you swam with me, where would the shore be?” But he is a warrior, doing whatever is necessary to fight for justice and the good of the oppressed, and the tenderness with which he treats Lavinia, the way his body worships hers in the dark night and gravitates toward hers at work, as if she is the North star in his world, creates a complexity in him that cannot be easily summed up. And as his love for her turns to respecting her ideas, he gradually confronts and overcomes his beliefs about relationships during revolution and in general.
The supporting characters are many, and each plays a role. Lavinia’s childhood friend Sara represents her old life, and their Sunday morning brunches are filled with talks of the absurdity of men thinking they are needed in the home and the pressures to have children. Sara’s husband Adrian represents the scornful attitude of the breadwinner toward women who are striking out on their own, as well as a reminder of how those who are involved in Movements can fizzle out when faced with the choice between ideals and prosperity. The revolutionary Sebastián provides mentoring and rigidity of the need for the Movement and is often overly simplistic, but also cries and rethinks things. And the revolutionary Flor, a nurse, is the sister Lavinia never knew she craved. Each of these characters, and the very many more, are portrayed in such a way that there is no denying their complexity and humanness. Even the “evil” characters, such as The General and his wife, are painted with the brush of understanding, though no excuses are made for their harmful policies and egregious violations of the humanity of others.
The dual storyline, of course, adds another layer of complexity, and is beautifully arranged. The book isn’t split evenly between Lavinia and Itza, focusing much more on Lavinia, but Itzá’s narrative is compelling, drawing breath from Lavinia’s experiences and relating them to her own. Felipe reminds Itzá of her own lover, Yarince. The hesitation Lavinia feels about getting involved reminds Itzá of her own mother’s admonition that women are to stay home and tend the fires, waiting for the warriors’ return. The multitude of parallels are not overwhelming; rather, they provide the sense of interconnectedness. Though Itzá wonders if the fighting of hundreds of years ago was in vain, she does not give in to despair, and the narrative gives way to hope in the face of darkness as Itzá propels Lavinia forward through the fear and uncertainty, hoping that this time, real change will happen.
Throughout this book is the voice of two strong women from different lives, different times. The feminism of The Inhabited Woman is splendid. Both Lavinia and Itzá embrace their own sexual natures. I was surprised by how erotic the book became in parts, but it was never pornographic–it’s easy to tell that a woman at ease with herself wrote it. Both women also throw off the restrictions of their relative societies, choosing to live their lives on their own terms and at ease with their own consciences.
Surprisingly, I didn’t struggle with the theme of violent revolution. I’m a pretty staunch pacifist. I don’t eat meat, or kill bugs, or agree with those who say (or allude) that violence (or the threat of violence) is necessary for revolution. But I also know that I’m very privileged to have never lived through war or terrorism. Not only that, but because I’m femme enough to pass as straight, was raised Christian, am white as a freaking lily, and well-educated, I’ve never had to live in daily fear of anyone targeting me. I understand that my ability to choose pacifism is a privileged choice. And because of that, even though I abhor violence and would rather let myself be killed than to kill another, the violent actions of the Movement and the revolutionaries struck a deep chord in me. The idea that sometimes, justice might take the form of guerrilla movements and espionage and duplicity and yes, death to the oppressors, didn’t horrify me as much as I thought it would.
I feel it’s especially relevant right now as so many of us are watching the news obsessively, terrified that our lives and so many of our friends, families, and communities will be targeted (or perhaps already have been) in the wake of this unbelievable election. So many fighting back with words, social action, love, etc. So many fighting back with protests. Some fighting back violently. And while I personally feel that I could never take up arms, I can’t deny that there may come a time when so many feel that there is no other choice and are willing to accept the consequences of violence.
So if you want a deep, heavy, poignant, gritty read based on the real experiences of revolution that can also explore the beauty and magic of the female spirit to get shit done, may I recommend you read this book? It won’t let you down.
Rating: 5/5 (it’s going on my Favorites shelf in my living room)
About the Author:
Gioconda Belli is one of Nicaragua’s major political and intellectual voices. Born in Managua in 1948, Belli studied advertising and journalism in Philadelphia, and then returned to her country to get involved with the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship. In 1970, she joined the FSLN (the Sandinista National Liberation Front). After the Sandinista’s triumph in 1979, she occupied several posts in the revolutionary government, all the while publishing poetry, novels, children’s stories, and numerous essays in national and international newspapers. Today, Belli is considered by Nicaraguans to be one of the most independent, critically engaged intellectuals in the struggle for democracy. She is married to an American and divides her time, as well as her subject matter as a cultural critic, between Nicaragua and the United States. (from BOMBmagazine). Her book The Inhabited Woman is semi-autobiographical and the first book to relate a female perspective on the Sandinista revolution.