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BOOK REVIEW

Seeking what's lost while failing to see what's found

A Tal of the Dispossessed: A Novel; Laura Restrepo; Translated from the Spanish by Dolores M. Koch; Ecco: 212 pp., $13.95 paper, bilingual

August 19, 2004|Bernadette Murphy | Special to The Times

"A Tale of the Dispossessed" is a slim volume, no more than a novella, yet it suggests the psychic weight of a much larger tale, one rich in the traditions of Latin American literature. Printed in English and Spanish and set in civil war-torn Colombia, the story introduces readers to Three Sevens, a man who's been abandoned in just about every way possible.

He'd been forsaken by his family at birth and raised by a devoted foster mother, Matilde Lina, whom he loves dearly. "The world tastes of her," he says. They'd lived in the rural village of Santa Maria Bailarina (named for its patron, the Dancing Madonna), near the city of Tora, until violence and political unrest forced the entire community out; along the way, his beloved Matilde Lina disappeared.

The book picks up years later, after Three Sevens (he has six toes on one foot, 21 digits in all) has searched fruitlessly for Matilde Lina, wandering adrift in rural communities, carrying on his back a statue of the Dancing Madonna. He seeks sanctuary at a refugee shelter in a remote mountain region, planning to stay but one night before resuming his quest.

The book's narrator, meanwhile, is an unnamed foreign woman who has come to work at the shelter as a volunteer, looking, it seems, for her own way of belonging, for an anchor for her otherwise unmoored life. "I too," she confides to the reader, "belong to this wandering multitude, which drags me through blessings and disappointments with the powerful sway of its ebb and flow." Almost at first sight, the narrator falls in love with Three Sevens, who ends up staying at the shelter, but finds she must compete for his attention with the ghost of the Madonna-like Matilde Lina.

The narrator and Three Sevens begin to spend time in each other's company as he tells her about his childhood and the foster mother he's searching for. (" 'That's enough, Three Sevens,' I tell him then, trying to make light of it. 'The only thing I do not know about your Matilde Lina is whether she preferred to eat her bread with butter or marmalade.' " ) He never asks about the narrator's background, why she's working in the shelter or where she's from. Yet together they form a comfortable pair, their relationship forged in "tying together periods of silence with bits of conversation."

A quiet, understated tale, "Dispossessed" is ultimately a story of searching, of forever striving and often missing the very thing we're searching for because it does not present itself in the form we're expecting. Can Three Sevens -- and, to a lesser degree, the narrator -- abandon his quest for the idealized love he thinks he'll find somewhere out there and see what's being offered right here, in front of him?

Dispossession, author Restrepo shows us, is as much a spiritual state as it is a condition of material paucity, and it breeds a tenacious kind of fixation: Three Sevens cannot rest until he finds out what happened to Matilde Lina, while the narrator cannot rest until she satisfies her attraction to Three Sevens. "Haven't I really come here in search of all that this man embodies?" she asks.

The occupants of the shelter create a shaky kind of refuge, a place where people are joined to each other by what they're missing. Still, it's a community all the same, and within its borders both main characters may recover a sense of belonging. "Nothing bad can happen in a place where people gather around a big pot of soup," the narrator tells us of life there. "Life is stirring here, while death awaits outside."

With poignancy and lyricism, Laura Restrepo ("The Angel of Galilea" and "The Dark Bride") writes of those who have been abandoned by or tragically separated from all they hold dear and who, in the aftermath of such an intense injury, often lose themselves in their efforts to regain that which was lost. The writing is beautiful, as thoughtful and dense as poetry, yet remains completely accessible throughout. In some ways, though, the tale is like an exquisite appetizer: delicious and tempting, but at a scant 101 pages on the English side, just a taste -- so slight it may leave readers hungering for more.

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