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by Marie Arana

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Don Victor Sobrevilla, a lovable, eccentric engineer, always dreamed of founding a paper factory in the heart of the Peruvian rain forest, and at the opening of this miraculous novel his dream has come true—until he discovers the recipe for cellophane. In a life already filled with signs and portents, the family dog suddenly begins to cough strangely. A wild


Don Victor Sobrevilla, a lovable, eccentric engineer, always dreamed of founding a paper factory in the heart of the Peruvian rain forest, and at the opening of this miraculous novel his dream has come true—until he discovers the recipe for cellophane. In a life already filled with signs and portents, the family dog suddenly begins to cough strangely. A wild little boy turns azurite blue. All at once Don Victor is overwhelmed by memories of his erotic past; his prim wife, Doña Mariana, reveals the shocking truth about her origins; the three Sobrevilla children turn their love lives upside down; the family priest blurts out a long-held secret....

A hilarious plague of truth has descended on the once well-behaved Sobrevillas, only the beginning of this brilliantly realized, generous-hearted novel. Marie Arana’s style, originality, and trenchant wit will establish her as one of the most audacious talents in fiction today and Cellophane as one of the most evocative and spirited novels of the year.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Chris Moss
It sometimes seems that writers of Latin American fiction employ wonder and hyperbole in their renderings of everyday reality in the way an artist might pick up a thicker brush or select a more vivid hue of green. But the onrush of awe and turbulence that drives along Arana's impressive novel is born of a frank contemplation of the natural world and of a family out of its usual milieu.
— The Washington Post
The New Yorker
Arana’s inventive first novel draws on some of the same material that animated “American Chica,” her memoir about a dual upbringing in Peru and America. Don Victor Sobrevilla Paniagua is an engineer and a dreamer who ferries his wife and children into the Peruvian jungle to build a paper mill, raising “leviathans out of the earth” and creating a “swarming empire” of iron and steel. Don Victor has “the magic of a shaman” and the wealth of a god, but, once he masters the secret of manufacturing the “fragile, pellucid, mysterious” substance cellophane, Arana unleashes a destructive magic and, with deadpan comic timing, unravels his rain-forest demesne.
Liesl Schillinger
"There's more to this world than it tells us," Arana wrote in her memoir [American Chica]. "I'm haunted by an unseen dimension in which everything has roots, logic, and reasons - a tie to another point in time. I believe this with a child's certainty." In Cellophane, she seems to be trying to exorcise that unseen dimension, casting the figures of her memory behind a scrim of feverish color and watching them perform according to a logic she can control. She has flown above her own history to construct a surreal but orderly pattern: a fiction that's stranger than her truth but shares its bones.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Arana, author of American Chica and editor of Washington Post Book World, revisits her native Peru with a tale as bawdy, raucous and dense as the jungle whose presence encroaches on every page. Arana's first novel depicts a family-and a country-on the fulcrum between the old ways and the new, between feudalism and revolution. At the height of the Great Depression, paper engineer Don Victor Sobrevilla pitches his small empire where the trees are-in the heart of the rain forest-constructing a highly successful paper factory and a vast hacienda, Floralinda, far from the political centers of Trujillo and Lima, linked only to the outside world by the dangerous and unpredictable Amazon. When, in 1952, Don Victor discovers the formula for cellophane, his household is afflicted with a "plague of truth," a compulsion to confess their most shameful histories and most hidden yearnings, to make their stories as transparent as the paper itself. When desires are laid bare, so are the conflicts that the family has kept hidden for so long, resulting in interlocking quests for power. The novel's broadly comic first half makes the story's violent culmination even more harrowing. (June 27) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
On the banks of the Peruvian Amazon in the late 1940s, Don Victor Sobrevilla presides over a paper factory and farm, a small village of his workers, and his sprawling, garrulous family. His regular visits to his shaman elicit alarm from the local priest, but overall life in Floralinda is everything Don Victor dreamed of as a city boy mesmerized by engineering, paper, and the Amazon. His wife, Dona Mariana, ably runs the household and copes with her three grown children's failed marriages and her daughter-in-law's mental illness. Then, Don Victor perfects his recipe for cellophane and turns his factory over to its production. Seemingly overnight, as the mesmerizing beauty and transparency of his invention invades and uncovers their insulated world, the Sobrevillas find themselves taken by irresistible urges to confess past transgressions and passions and to seek more satisfying and authentic relationships. As the family upheaval grows, the dictatorship of Manuel Odria threatens the autonomy and safety of Floralinda itself. Acclaimed Peruvian American author Arana (American Chica) treads the ground between the stark realities of midcentury Peruvian politics and changing social mores and the sensitive and honest portrayal of a family in chaos as adroitly as the giants of the genre, including Gabriel Garc a M rquez and Isabel Allende. A powerful debut with broad international appeal, this is highly recommended for both public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/05.] Jennifer Stidham, Houston Community Coll., Northeast Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A debut novel from Washington Post Book World editor Arana (American Chica, 2001) that blends magical realism with matter-of-fact descriptions of things Amazonian. Like the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo's "Black Stone Lying on a White Stone" and the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garc'a Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Peruvian-American Arana's narrative opens with an intimation of mortality: Its protagonist, the sonorously named Don Victor Sobrevilla Paniagua, foresees his death "in a bustling metropolis, surrounded by doting women." But first he must find an opposite setting, for Don Victor has an obsession with paper. Thus, in 1913, he treks across the Andes to a place that does not appear on any map, the vegetation-choked hamlet of Floralinda, where he founds a papermaking empire. Mad scientist that he is, Don Victor is not satisfied with paper alone, though his obsession endures: He realizes that one can make paper from any plant, and that bit of occult knowledge informs the rest of his life. Still, his larger ambition is to make something else, even greater than the French engineer Gustave Eiffel's iron building downriver: "To erect an iron house in the Amazon had been spectacular. To produce cellophane in quantities would be a miracle." His children-one wild, one bookish, one hauntingly beautiful, all a little odd-tolerate Don Victor's dream, as does his wife, Mariana, at least to some extent. Where they differ, they do so openly, for over much of the narrative, the people of Floralinda are afflicted with a habit of speaking the truth. (The encounter of the village priest with a supposedly possessed and most worldly woman is a stitch.) All that changes, though, when outsidersarrive, one by one: an Australian adventurer, an American mapmaker and eventually the army, after which Don Victor's world changes, slipping "from cellophane to official parchment."A pleasure to read.
From the Publisher
"Memorable fiction…. Arana brings a freshness to the style that is all her own, elegant and lyrical but at the same time sparse, and no doubt enriched by a vocabulary infused with the rhythms of her two languages."—The Miami Herald

"Rich in themes, symbolism, conflict and character…. It's also, for those who just want a good tale, a brilliant piece of storytelling that combines magical realism in the tradition of writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez with comedic looks at human foibles and misunderstandings a la Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream."—The Fort Worth Star-Telegram

"Exuberant and virtuosic.... Conflict takes on a teeming array of forms in Cellophane: whites versus natives, religion versus magic, feudalism versus revolution. It’s a vision of the rain forest as a place where every strain of human drama grows as tangled as the encroaching vines—and in depicting this, Arana has wound her themes together with an energetic, subtly controlled wildness."—San Francisco Chronicle Books

"Marie Arana's sumptuous, often erotic and wholly enchanting novel, Cellophane…. owes a debt to the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende…. A superb example of the magic that a gifted storyteller can work with ink and paper."—Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Arana’s writing is both lush and funny…. This is a great book.”—People

"An absolutely spellbinding tale…. Arana's prose is captivating, and she provides some incredibly beguiling moments."—Philadelphia City Paper

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By Marie Arana

Random House

Marie Arana
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0385336640

Chapter One

part one

A Plague of Tongues


Many years later, when the wise men gathered with their pierced faces and carved gourds to purify the streets of Floralinda, they agreed they should have known a run of plagues would curse this town. There had been signs, they muttered, sprinkling the hard earth with river water. There was the coughing dog. The blue-skinned boy.

The little white terrier, Basadre, a normally mild, unexcitable creature, had spun through Don Victor Sobrevilla's house whining and frenzied, chasing his tail in perfect circles. There was a madness to his movements--out of control, yet full of grace--a four-legged tango marked by perfect concatenations of the figure eight.

The children laughed, following the dog through the corridors of the mansion, humming, spinning, somersaulting behind him, crashing against furniture until the air clattered with the sounds of the family silver. It began on the top floor of the house, when Basadre came to the doorway of the schoolroom, issued one last bark--a high, strident little cry--then twirled down the stairs to the second floor with its narrow passageways, cavernous bedrooms, and faded mirrors. The five children, age four to ten, sprang from their chairs, so delighted by the sight of the dancing dog that their teacher, Senorita Marcela, didn't have the heart to stopthem. They followed the animal, shrieking and bumping along walls so that lizards leapt out and scurried under the carpets in terror. By the time they reached the ground floor, they had chased the little dog over the black-and-white tiles of the foyer, in and out of the portrait-hung sala, around the vast mahogany table in the dining room, and stampeded toward the sacred sanctuary of their Aunt Belen's library. The din from Don Victor's grandchildren was so resounding that Boruba, the chief ama of the house, leaned out from the kitchen and with one earsplitting bellow--"Callense!"--dispersed them and sent the ill-fated creature staggering out into the patio, where he sank to the floor and began the terrible business of his coughing. It was a cough such as no one in the Sobrevilla house had ever heard before--dead-dry and brittle, like the rat-tat-tat of a dull hatchet against the trunk of a caoba tree. Basadre coughed and coughed, his white hair matted with sweat, his eyes flat as two desert stones.

Don Victor emerged from his workshop, waving his arms and shouting that he couldn't work with all the racket. "Que barbaridad!" he cried. "Here I am putting the last touch of solder on the machine that will bring this misery of a lizard town to glory, and I have to listen to the endless hacking of a demon mutt?" He held a goosenecked pincer in one hand, a ball of wire in the other, and it was clear that he had been in his workshop far too long, for he had that frazzled look--thin hair sprouting skyward, cravat all askew.

Dona Mariana swept downstairs when she heard her husband shouting on the patio. "I'm coming, querido! Coming!" Her long silvery hair streamed along her shoulders, as it always did during the hour of the siesta, and her dress was unhooked from underarm to hip. Struggling to tuck her ample bosom into place, she secured one or two hooks and called to Pedro the gardener to move the poor animal out of the sun and into a cool place under the potted cherimoya tree. Pedro had grown to love Basadre and wanted to make him more comfortable, but try as he might, he couldn't lift the poor animal; it was as if Basadre had attached himself to the floor, sent roots into the tilework.

They all came after that: four generations of family members, one by one, registering their concern with varying degrees of dismay. The villagers, in clusters of two and three, came winding up the long path and peered over the brick barricade that had been erected to keep dangerous reptiles from slithering in when the mighty Ucayali overflowed its banks. A barricade without a dog was pointless, and the people of Floralinda knew it. Dogs were invaluable in the jungle. Don Victor had purchased the terrier on a visit to Pucallpa twelve years before and named him after Jorge Basadre, Peru's minister of roads, who had built the highway from Lima to Pucallpa. Just as Basadre, the man, had felt the call to open the Amazon to the world, Basadre, the dog, felt the call to keep it from spilling into his master's house. He could sense a poisonous reptile before a human could, unearth nests of destructive soldier ants, smell wildmen as they moved swiftly along the rim of trees, waiting to raid the cornfields. The villagers filed past the sick animal, clucking their tongues. Basadre was small, but he had been fierce.

Graciela was the first of Don Victor's children to come out to the patio, lavishing the creature with all the attention she would have given her own son or daughter. She had pleaded with Boruba to bring the honey pot from the kitchen, crush the manzanilla flowers, fashion a little nozzle out of a thick rubber leaf, from which she might drip tea onto the tongue of the heaving dog.

Graciela had grown into a magnificent woman, thirty-four years old, with grainy, dark circles that ringed her eyes and gave her a melancholy air that made young men sigh. La Bella Morada, the men at Chincho's bar called her--beautiful purple one--and then they'd hitch their trousers at the thought. She had been a lively child, and those embers still brightened her eyes, her walk, her rare moments of vivacity. There was no one in all of Floralinda who could sing and dance like Graciela. She had lived up to the promise of being a graceful child. When she donned the gold flamenco shoes her Tio Alejandro had sent from Trujillo, and when she stamped her long, thin feet the way she had been taught by the old gypsy Maruca, she could bring the whole Sobrevilla household streaming down the caoba stair, eager to see her move.

Graciela lived in the mansion with only her two small children, Pablo and Silvia. La Bella's husband had disappeared suddenly, angrily, five years before, vanishing into the Alto Amazonas like a cobra out of the hot sun. For a while, Nestor Sotomarino had been sighted nearby, in the company of renegade sailors. Some said he had become a rebel guerrillero; others said he was getting rich on coca leaf; but the last he had been seen was by the men down at Chincho's bar, marching off alone with no more than a week's supply of food on his back.

Graciela was the delicately wired antenna of the Sobrevillas. It was she who tasted the sweetness of things to come, felt the ill winds, saw ghosts in the night air. It was she who, on the second day of Basadre's ordeal, tenderly held his dry snout in her hands and realized the cough was no ordinary affliction. It was too otherworldly. Her father had been right to use the word demon. There was some witchery at work.

Her older sister, Belen, too, knew that the dog's malady signaled something amiss. Being a person ruled by the head, Belen listened carefully and concluded that it was more complicated than a pulmonary spasm. She put down the book she was reading and began to scour her library shelves for something that would explain the phenomenon. She stood on her toes, stretched a long neck toward her wall of books, and wrinkled her freckled nose. But she couldn't find it. She remembered, however, in lightning concordance between learning and tenderness, a scene from Alexandre Dumas's La Dame aux Camellias, in which the heroine's cough is soothed by poetry. Snatching a volume of sonnets by Dante, Belen strode resolutely to the patio, knelt before the animal, and began reading aloud.

"I greet you in Love's name, hoping you will escape that pain so great even the farthest stars flinch, that even the sky drains itself of planet, moon, cloud, as if the end of the world marched on us, as if what I'm about to say were the words that set ablaze each soul, each fear, like a field of dried-out grain!"

The dog gasped and held his breath, leading her to conclude what she'd always suspected, that words could fix everything--she had only to read to the end of the volume to cure their beloved Basadre. But by the third line of the stanza, he was hacking again, with a frenzy that brought tears to her eyes.

If her sister, Graciela, had inherited her mother's heart with something more--a healthy regard for the supernatural--Belen had inherited her father's head with something less--a staunch rejection of jungle sorcery. No matter how often Don Victor told Belen about the witchman, the stone, and her triumphant entry into the world, she refused to think of it as anything but a coincidence. Had she borne children of her own she might have allowed that reproduction was in itself miraculous and that there was scant difference between the roles that a prayer or a stone might play in it. But at the age of thirty-six, she was childless and logical. She regarded rain forest cures as primitive, unenlightened. She disapproved heartily of her father's visits to his feathered shamans. She kept journals, sewn from her father's paper, in which she wrote lists upon lists of random information: the botanical name of each new plant she encountered; amusing aphorisms; foreign words gleaned from books, and their definitions; the title of every novel she had read and its most memorable character.

Her library was a model of organization, every volume in place according to subject and nationality of the author. Her father had built the room twenty years before, when she was only sixteen, worried that his bookish daughter would be lured by his old aunt's standing invitation to come live in Trujillo. He oversaw its construction with infinite care, ordering shelves cut from dense mahogany, seeing that the urucu was applied evenly and burnished to a deep red glow. At first, there hadn't been much to shelve, but Don Victor made sure every bagmaker in Pucallpa and every printer in Iquitos knew that he expected books as part of the payment. "Literature!" he'd shout from the dock, as their barges drifted off into black water. "You bring it, you hear me? Bring me Cervantes! Ricardo Palma! El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega! Don't bring me dogshit. I'll charge you more if you do!"

First came the printed matter no one wanted to read--census reports from the military, discarded lesson books, socialist pamphlets about working conditions in Arequipa. But eventually, the collection grew to a laudable diversity: manuals on the navigable waters of the Amazon, dictionaries translating Spanish into a dozen languages, Turgenev's letters, Blake's poetry reinterpreted by Neruda, Jose Marti's recollections of Manhattan, all of Chekhov's plays. Within twenty years, the room housed thousands of volumes. Belen had read them all--some, a number of times--and although she had not chosen to avail herself of the Trujillo invitation, her great-aunt, Tia Esther, had been her library's most beneficent donor, sending books through Tio Alejandro's regular shipments from the coast. And so it was that Tia Esther, from so far away, began to furnish Belen's imagination. If it wasn't with weekly letters written in a bold hand, relaying the news of the day in her bustling city, it was in books, bought at estate auctions by the cartons, inscribed with tender dedications to her grandniece.

There was no question: Books were Belen's faith, her foil against the wilderness. She loved drawing each one from its shelf, handling its spine, dusting away the mites that had been brought to her library from God knew where. She loved that split-second transcendence when reading would carry her off to a realm in which truth reigned, mysteries were explained, and paths unfurled before her--shining and absolute. Reading had made her serious and learned. No, she could not believe a witchman and his stones could make a difference between life and death. Looking down now at Basadre in his misery, Belen wished she could have faith in myths and magic. Hard evidence told her the dog would die.

Elsa, Jaime's wife and the mother of his three children, was next to visit the ailing animal. In mid-morning, after Jaime had departed on one of his weekly trips upriver, she came down, an ivory mantilla hugging her shoulders and a scowl twisting her face. She stood in the frame of the house's carved portals, a good distance from the hacking dog, and yelled, "Stop it, you flea-ridden beast! You're driving me crazy!" But crazy she already was, and the whole household knew it.

Elsa was a parched bird of a woman, as arid as the dunes of Chan Chan. She had come to live with them after her marriage to Jaime in Trujillo, where he had been sent to attend school. She arrived in Floralinda with a pedigree that proved totally useless in the jungle. Elsa was a Marquez y Marquez, the daughter of the powerful sugar baron whose vast cane fields rimmed the Pacific, between Trujillo and Chiclayo. The Marquezes had built palaces along Peru's rugged shoreline, dug an empire into the desert, filled their shelves with treasures from ancient graves. To meet the growing appetite for sugar in America, the family had sent their agents into the highlands to lend money to the poor freely, but months later they would return to collect what was owed them: in trucks, with whips and shackles, forcing debtors into the cane fields. Elsa had been raised wanting nothing. She wore clothes her father had imported from Paris. She boasted about her education from a French tutor who had been brought all the way from St. Cyr. She was imperious, frigid, self-absorbed. No one in Floralinda could imagine why Jaime had fallen in love with her.

She hadn't always been that way. When Jaime had first met her, she was a clever young woman with a pretty face, a lovely figure, and a socialite's taste for frivolity. The face and figure didn't change. But Elsa's condition had erupted shortly after her arrival in the jungle: a psychosis so acute that Jaime awoke one night to find her shaking uncontrollably. Having been raised along the Ucayali, he assumed she was experiencing an attack of Taki Onqoy, an invasion of microscopic worms that travel the bloodstream, lodge in the brain, and cause convulsions. It was a curse--well known--that jungle Indians inflicted on trespassers.


Excerpted from Cellophane by Marie Arana Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Marie Arana is the editor of the Washington Post Book World. Born in Peru of a Peruvian father and an American mother, she is the author of American Chica, a finalist for the PEN—Memoir Award and the National Book Award, and a collection of columns, The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work. Marie Arana lives in Washington, D.C., and Lima, Peru.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Cellophane 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel is really such an escape. The cast of characters is rich, comic and interesting. Arana grounds her work to the seething jungle of the Amazon. A really classical piece.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Throughout the ages, telling the truth has always been held in high esteem. From the opening books of the Bible which give us the Commandment against bearing false witness, to elementary school history books that extol the virtue of honesty by repeatedly emphasizing that George Washington never told a lie, we have been continually led to believe that the truth shall set us free. But can always being truthful be too much of a good thing? This philosophical question is put to the test with amazing consequences when a plague of truth strikes a Peruvian family in Marie Arana¿s first novel, ¿Cellophane.¿ Set in the dense rainforest of South America¿s third largest country, Arana uses Peru¿s allure as a mystical, magical, inaccessible region where only the most adventurous dare to traverse, as the home base of a patriarchal family led by Don Victor Sobrevilla, an eccentric engineer whose quest for concocting the perfect recipe for cellophane puts into motion a string of events that exposes secrets long kept hidden behind closed lips. ¿Not since (Don Victor) set foot on the riverbank and christened the land Floralinda had he sensed that he was on the verge of something significant, that he was¿as the witchman who birthed his daughters had told him¿being summoned into the universe. Beware of wanting too much, the witchman had quickly added, for greed always ends in privation.¿ As Don Victor prepares to enjoy the realization of his dream, life for his family members and close associates becomes convoluted in a vortex of shameful family histories, past and current erotic transgressions, and the destabilization of the only form of community government in the region, making everyone¿s life as flimsy and transparent as the pieces of cellophane that litter their hacienda¿s terrain. Skillfully weaving modern science, folk medicine and religious faith, Arana captures the nuances of life on the Ucayali riverbank, which due to its location in the Amazon rainforest, makes it a part of the world that time and technology often overlook. It¿s the perfect setting for a tale that begins with the family dog barking strangely and a wild little boy who turns blue and dies with a heart as black as stone, to literal affairs of the priesthood, and culminating with loves and lust best kept secret but in the end cannot be contained by man. Arana, editor of The Washington Post Book World, sympathetically demonstrates her knowledge the of region, an area she knows well as she was born in Peru of a Peruvian father and an American mother, and lived in the country for the first 10 years of her life. Her native language¿Spanish¿comes in handy as Spanish words and phrases, along with cultural beliefs and reverence to familial hierarchies and religious observances and obligations, set a firm foundation for the book¿s protagonist to return to or ignore, depending upon circumstance. Does the truth truly set one free? While ¿Cellophane¿ is an original and spirited work of fiction, readers are going to find it hard not to question this central issue of virtue in their own lives, and contemplate whether the secrets they hold in their hearts and tongues are best left alone.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book was a complete pleasure to read. Never did i think a book could take your mind to such an odd world. This book is a must read, a pleasure.. every page is mystical.. Its been a long time comming.