One condition of life is that we all must hide. Even a “good” marriage demands that we keep certain discontents and dreams locked away. Or so it has generally been assumed by the novel and its practitioners. But what happens in an era of self-declaration, when silence may be viewed as an outgrowth of oppression? What might it mean for the art of the novel if women were to fully know themselves and refuse to constrict their expressions of desire?
Oakland writer Carolina De Robertis’s fourth novel, Cantoras, in many ways offers a response to those questions. Set in Uruguay and beginning in 1977, several years after the country’s fall to a dictatorship, the book takes women’s ecstatic, insuppressible love for one another as its subject. At the center of the narrative is Flaca, a butcher who is the leader of a makeshift group of five female friends. Her lover Anita—soon to be known as La Venus—is “the good girl, the good wife,” an archetype of feminine beauty too often cast as others’ muse. The youngest member of the group is impressionable Paz, and its moral and political authority is Romina. Then there is Malena, whose uptightness and silence make her the narrative’s sustaining source of mystery.
A cantora, we learn, is a woman who sings with a pleasure born of desire for other women—“A woman like us,” Malena cryptically explains. When we meet her and the other characters, they have temporarily fled the city of Montevideo, which has become “a place to shrink into yourself and mind your own business, to be careful, to keep your curtains drawn, to keep your mouth shut with strangers because any one of them could report you to the government and then you could disappear.” Their escape to the remote and stunning seascape of Cabo Polonio is also a retreat from “the horrors of normalcy, the cage of not-being,” from men who “flicked from praise to rage with dizzying speed if they didn’t get what they were looking for or did get it but still felt shitty inside, because that’s all it was, wasn’t it, this male preying and prowling, an attempt to relieve their own shitty feelings, a project with no damn end.” Soon, Polonio becomes the women’s sanctuary, where “the pushed-down could burst upward with volcanic strength” and sex serves as a revolutionary act, a source of boundless joy and self-expansion.
If De Robertis too frequently strikes this last note—the cries of women’s lovemaking are “the sounds of the world tearing open, into a wider form than it could ever have had before,” while life before Polonio was one of “no room for freedom. A smaller and smaller world. And now this. This blasting open, this ragged breathing. This enormous self”—it could be argued that the cantoras’ euphoric songs of self-enlargement constitute an alternative chorus, meant not to relay hidden subjects but to buck the literary and social values of reluctance, implication, and inevitable dissatisfaction and concealment.
One effect of this (and of the cantoras’ general clarity of mind and ease of communication with respect to their desires, as well as their intense sexual satisfaction) is a paucity of internal conflict and subtext in the narrative. Suggestiveness is not a necessary condition in Polonio, whose freedoms and gratifications can make the setting appear more mythical than realist. Yet one senses that this, too, is intentional—an argument against a patriarchal, more “reasonable” or “realistic” view of life and the diminishments women ought to expect.
In a similar way, the novel’s frank, unrestrained treatment of female sexuality throws into shocking relief the extent to which women’s desire has traditionally been represented through denial and indirection in literature. It is as if indirection itself has to be obliterated in order for Cantoras to sing on its own terms. And this obliteration becomes the defining feature of the novel’s unabashed, jubilant song.
Here is Paz, coming into her own as a lover of women and in her own way speaking for all the women in the novel:
“She was at home between the legs of women. Alive there. As if she were the sole member of some occult, forgotten sect, a persecuted devotee with no church in which to pray, the women’s bodies were the church, the site of consecration. Or was it desecration? What was this rite in which she plunged into women until they begged for mercy or wept with savage joy? Some of the women—not all of them—reciprocated, but nowhere was the pleasure more intense than in the giving. Strange rite. Lone believer. Cosmically alone, except when she reminded herself of Flaca and the others, her Polonio tribe, the five of them a circle of the possible.”
• By Carolina De Robertis
• Alfred A. Knopf, 336 pages, $26.95