By Marie Arana
Dial Press, $24, 384 pages
REVIEWED BY YAEL GOLDSTEIN
I’ve never before been tempted to use the word “luscious” to describe a work of fiction, but “Cellophane,” the debut novel by Marie Arana, whose 2001 memoir, “American Chica,” was a finalist for the National Book Award, strikes me as demanding the adjective.
The gorgeously evocative writing, fantastical jungle setting, and picaresque narrative that seems to cling to the border where high drama slides almost irresistibly into melodrama, together conspire to bring forth a reading experience so fully sensory that it’s rather how I imagine it would feel to step into the Amazonian dreamscape in which the novel is set.
The first impression one has upon entering the world of madly ambitious engineer Don Victor Sobrevilla and his family is of an extravagant proliferation of life, as exotic new plotlines sprout forth from nearly every page.
But as these stories gracefully twine around each other like so many greedy vines, it becomes the density that overwhelms one’s senses: the delicious disorientation that comes from no longer caring where one thing ends and another begins, and instead simply reveling in the confusing tangle of an organic whole.
This idea of a dense, tangled unity — what one character, Don Victor’s Catholic priest, calls the “great connectedness of things,” and another, Don Victor’s shaman, calls “the great web that is this universe” — is a major theme of “Cellophane.” As is race, class, truth, desire, power and sin, just to name a few. Though this may sound like a great many subjects for a novel to tackle, the heady ideas mingle naturally and easily with the general and unapologetic abundance pulsating through this book.
To even attempt to do justice to all the plots, characters and opinions Ms. Arana folds into her universe would be an undertaking to rival in ambition the one that sets this family saga in motion: Don Victor’s plan to transform his paper empire, tucked deep in the Amazon rainforest, into the Latin world’s first and only producer of that marvel of mid-20th-century science, cellophane.
Most of the novel’s strands are concerned with what happens as a result of — or at least in surprising conjunction with — the introduction of the clear paper into Peru’s jungle. (The others bear, more or less, on how Don Victor came to create his factory and the hacienda, Floralinda, that surrounds it.)
Pre-cellophane Floralinda, which we see only briefly, is a fairy tale-like land, in which the Sobrevillas reign from a palace filled with mind-boggling inventions over the happy and hard-working natives. Except for the factory that churns out brown paper from state of the art American machinery, Floralinda is a timeless place, and news of the political unrest wracking 1950s Peru trickles in only though the letters sent by Don Victor’s aunt Esther.
Why the Sobrevilla’s isolated paradise is mortally imperiled by the introduction of cellophane is never made precisely clear, but the paper takes on strangely mystical — or at least highly symbolic — properties in the book, as much for its transparency (with suggestive echoes of Peru’s preoccupation with skin color), as for its status as a model of modern ingenuity.