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Familiar Names, Superior Writing

Book Review / Memoirs

THE HACIENDA, by Lisa St. Aubin de Teran, Little, Brown and Co., $23.95, 352 pages

April 20, 1998|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mas perdida que Eva en el dia de Madre is how my Peruvian friend Augusto used to describe a young friend of ours--more lost than Eve on Mother's Day. This surely was the state Lisa St. Aubin de Teran found herself on the day she arrived at the Hacienda Santa Rite near the village of Mendoza Fria in Amazonian Venezuela.

At the age of 17, Lisa had abandoned her studies for her Oxbridge exams to marry a Latin American 20 years her senior. Speaking little Spanish, she followed the equally taciturn Jaime and his fellow exiles--this was the early '70s and being a Latin exile was relatively easy--on a two-year hejira through Italy. Still not 20, she sailed to Venezuela with her husband and two beagles, landing in Caracas with nothing to wear but the current maxi skirts and high collars of King's Road Edwardian fashion.

On her arrival the next day at the hacienda, the enormous sugar plantation of the Terans' that stretched as far as the eye could see and beyond, she "felt a strange sensation of having come home, of being somewhere I belonged." Yet within hours, Jaime had run off into town, leaving her without food or light or company.

As the days went on, far from learning how to fend for herself, Lisa sank into depression and hunger. It became clear, away from Italy and their friends, that Jaime's silences were symptoms of schizophrenia. "Each time Jaime returned," she writes, "I tackled him on the subject of food, trying every ploy from tact to hysteria. He seemed scarcely to recognize me, he had no idea what I was talking about."

Yet gradually, Lisa does decipher the hacienda. Coromoto, the 8-year-old daughter of the plantation foreman, Antonio Moreno, brings her food from the bodega. A compadre brings a turkey vulture named Napoleon for companionship. Lisa becomes the Florence Nightingale of Santa Rite, although she is incapable of solving the worst and nearest case--Moreno's accidental poisoning of his own son. And finally, after two years of gossip and insults, Lisa gives birth to a daughter, Iseult, and takes over the running of the plantation.

*

St. Aubin de Teran calls "The Hacienda" a memoir, and there is no reason to doubt her. Those familiar with her writing in the 1980s, from her first novels "Keepers of the House" and "The Slow Train to Milan" through the poetic vignettes of "The High Place" and the stories of "The Marble Mountain," will recognize much of the population of "The Hacienda" (many of the names have been left the same in both the fictional version and non), and there is surely nothing wrong with that. That St. Aubin de Teran has been practicing memoir by composing fiction is not a bad thing.

"The Hacienda," in fact, is superior to all her fiction and poetry, and that forgives even the factual discrepancies between this story and her previous memoir, "Off the Rails." Twenty years after her escape from her Venezuelan adventure, St. Aubin de Teran not only gives us a more human picture of her picturesque neighbors, but a more human picture of herself. She is not Conrad's Mrs. Gould, dropped into the South America of "Nostromo," with all the power and mystery that late 19th century English women were trained to cultivate, but a shy, silent schoolgirl of early '70s vintage. The Teran clan, who can trace their inbred ancestors back to Columbus, are not the noble, war-torn Buendia family of "One Hundred Years of Solitude," but a mad, bad bunch of second-raters and thieves.

The resulting portrait is of a Latin society that is poisoning itself as surely as Antonio Moreno poisoned his son. Under Western eyes, the act is less romantic than in a Garcia Marquez novel, and more purely lost and terrifying.

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