In the fabulously imagined world of Marie Arana’s ambitious first novel, cellophane is the protagonist. Inspired by religious faith and diabolical experimentation, it’s an unstable blend of distortion and transparency, art and science. It’s also a gorgeous pollutant, an aphrodisiac, a window into that sacred space where souls and stories appear, and a chemical substance that skews perceptions and upsets the historical balance of class, race, and even the cosmos.
Don Victor Sobrevilla Paniagua, a visionary Peruvian engineer whose life is filled from childhood with signs and portents as well as a consuming passion for paper—which his unconventional Tia Esther calls "portable life"—leaves his birthplace of Trujillo on the Peruvian coast and travels deep into the rain forest where, at the height of the Depression, he builds Floralinda, a gleaming state-of-the-art paper factory, perched in splendid isolation on the banks of the Amazon. He also builds a modest church for his family priest and a sumptuous hacienda where he settles his wife, the energetic and resourceful Mariana, his three high-strung married children, their problematic spouses, five grandchildren and their tutor, an array of servants, and on the grounds, a workforce of 300 peons and their families. All is well, and extremely profitable, until 1952 when Don Victor discovers the recipe for cellophane, an exquisite, fragile, and dangerously transparent substance.
Suddenly, the world he knows turns inside out. His adored little white dog Basadre coughs himself to death; the wild little son of the cook turns azurite blue and dies; his once-decorous aristocratic family is beset with a hilarious, transformational, and ultimately lethal plague of truth-telling and lust. Family secrets are blurted out and aristocratic bloodlines reveal their impurities, while Don Victor, whom the natives call the "shapechanger," consults feverishly with both his curandero (shaman) and his priest, who is himself compelled to confess his own erotic secret. As revolution rocks Lima, Monsanto scoops up valuable land, and the new dictator sends soldiers down the Amazon to destroy Don Victor’s coca crop; while the priest performs an exorcism on a mad daughter-in-law and a war party of garishly painted Jivaro tribesmen glides through the forest at night in pursuit of their own revenge, the devastating legacy of imperialism and of technology’s assault on the balance of nature bring war, spiritual torment, and the violent implosion of Don Victor’s kingdom.
Critics have compared Arana’s first novel (she’s the author of American Chica, a finalist for the National Book Award in 2002 and the PEN-Memoir Award) to the work of García Márquez, Isabelle Allende, and Mario Vargas Llosa. Her ability to balance satire and farce with political and scientific intelligence, not to mention a depth of feeling, is stunning. Her characters, some based on her own family, are marvelously complex, her language by turns lush and spare, and her wit rapier-sharp. With a plot as seductive, tangled, and extravagant as Don Victor’s Floralinda and the rain forest itself, Arana’s Cellophane is a brilliantly realized novel and a marvelous read.
Reviewed by Abby Pollak