NEA Literature Fellowships

Carolina De Robertis

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(2012 - Prose)

Excerpt from the novel, The Invisible Mountain

She had been in prison now for eight years, in which time stretched and pushed like air in an accordion, endless and contracted all at once. You learn to live like that, a speck trapped in a current shaped by forces you cannot see, expecting nothing, surprised by nothing, riding the dark unmapped trajectories of each day, shrinking in the face of pressure, barely affected, a speck after all, too small to bear scars or sink or stand in anyone's way, no bother to anyone, no threat to anyone, suspended alone in the shiver of the hour. You attract no attention and the world forgets you're there. You yourself forget it. You shock yourself with moments of existence.

One day, in 1978, a miracle was smuggled in along with her cigarettes. The pack was dropped into her apron pocket, in the laundry room, as usual. Steam pushed from the machines, filling the air, and her forehead dripped with sweat. The guards, equally hot, had stepped into the hall for reprieve. She opened the case and saw a piece of paper folded and tucked between the cigarettes. She pulled it out immediately.

It was a drawing. It was a tree. The trunk was dutifully brown, but the froth of leaves was gold and crimson and violet, all meshed together in the looping strokes of a child's hand. At the bottom of the page there was an autograph: VICTORIA.

Salomé traced the V with her fingers, traced the tree's thick trunk, ran her fingertip along the loops of color. She was wide awake. She could have crawled into the picture, climbed into the leaves, curled there like some mangy forest animal; she felt the press and warmth of all its colors around her body; she longed to eat the picture, sleep in it, trace it back to where it came from, to the hand that -- existing somewhere out there in the world -- had chosen this crayon, that one, that one too.

She crawled in, climbed up, curled there every night.


Two years later, the guards removed the metal gratings from the windows, under orders, and painted the panes to keep the sun from entering. Cells darkened. At night, Salomé lifted Paz onto her shoulders, so she could scratch the black paint with her fingernails. Ktchh, ktchh, a hole formed, and the next day light leaked in, pale, sweet, contraband.

In that thin light, the loops of foliage kept their colors: violet was violet, crimson still crimson, gold a fading but discernable streak of gold. Each slash of color gave her sustenance, fed her every time she looked. There was no more potent antidote to the world's poisons than a curve of crayon. She could drink it, dream it, rock in it. Think about the hand itself, the one that drew, envision its shape and softness.

A new decade had begun: an empty slate of time. Outside there was a city, still, and a wide world beyond it. The first news from outside Uruguay leaked through the nation's borders and the prison's stubborn walls. Far away, in other countries, the sun still rose, and Uruguayan exiles had been speaking. Human rights groups had paid attention. They had done studies. Uruguay had broken a world record: more political prisoners per capita than any other nation. This record was not reported within the country, of course, but outside, across borders and seas, where a sad record-breaker from a tiny country did not reach the headlines but managed, at least, to occupy a bottom corner of some international pages. It was enough to make the junta nervous. They drafted a new constitution, one that would allow night raids on civilian homes, give the military more formal power, and eradicate unions, strikes, and certain political parties. The prison walls tapped and pulsed and whispered. At night, in code, in long percussive dispatches, she learned that they were putting it to a vote.

Why? She asked the stone.

Why allow a vote?

Conjecture drummed into the night.

Because it worked for Pinochet in Chile.

Because of the scrutiny.

To seem legitimate.

To show the world that people backed them.

Because the people were too intimidated, classified, cleansed of dissenters to defeat it.

But they were wrong. The vote came and went and two weeks later the walls rang euphoric. V-O-T-E-W-A-S-N-O.

Salomé pictured montevideanos, walking haunted streets, crouching in their homes, hearing the collective no they'd cast a vote for but not discussed with neighbors or co-workers or family or anyone at all, now trying to understand their world with this new no in it, not just their own but made of many voices, surreptitious, unidentified, shocked at their own resonance.

A crack in the fortress. It gave her hope. Slippery hope that you could glide or skid on.

She turned thirty, in utter privacy. She planned her celebration for weeks. She saved a bowl of water and a dozen smuggled matches. On the night of her birthday, she waited until her cellmates were asleep. The bowl was cold and smooth in her hands. She  placed it, gently, on the cot in front of her. No drop spilled. She lit a match and bent over the bowl. In the flare of light, she saw the surface of the water, a black circle bearing her reflection. She stared at the woman in the water, who stared back, eyes unflinching in their sunken caves of flesh. The match went out; she lit another. The woman in the water was still there. She looked at the gaunt cheeks, thin hair, mouth pursed tightly out of habit, eyes, eyes, eyes. She wanted to know the woman, or at least to see her clearly, this face she never looked at but looked out of all the time, that held the stories in but also told them with its lines. Her face. Thirty, she thought, and it didn't feel possible, didn't feel like a number so much as a presence, a thing that hung around her like a scent. Salomé, she mouthed at the water, and the mouth in the water said it back. The match went out, and with the next one and the next she held the gaze of water-eyes, watched the mouth move in silence, searched and searched for eyes and mouth inside the water, saying and not saying Salomé, Salomé.

(From The Invisible Mountain by Carolina de Robertis. Copyright © by Carolina De Robertis. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House Inc.)

Carolina De Robertis is the author of the novels Perla (Knopf, 2012) and The Invisible Mountain (Knopf, 2010), which was an international bestseller translated into 15 languages, a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year, an O, The Oprah Magazine 2009 Terrific Read, and the recipient of Italy's Rhegium Julii Prize. She is also the translator of various works of Latin American literature, most recently The Neruda Case (Riverhead, 2012), by Roberto Ampuero. De Robertis grew up in a Uruguayan family that immigrated to England, Switzerland, and California. Prior to completing her first book, she worked in women's rights organizations for ten years, on issues ranging from rape to immigration. She lives in Oakland, California, with her wife and son, and is at work on her third novel about migration, sexual frontiers, and the tango's Old Guard in early 20th-century South America.

Photo by Michael Lionstar

Author's Statement

I am immensely grateful for this NEA fellowship, which comes at a pivotal moment in my life. All serious writing requires the devotion of time: unmeasured, unencumbered, voluptuously open time. Right this moment, my third novel is underway, my second novel is two months from publication, and I am pregnant with my second child. One could say that each of these is a "creative project" at a different phase of development, making different demands. I know that, when I give birth, the creation of ample time to write will become even more challenging -- and even more crucial to continuing forward in my work. Thanks to the NEA, I will be able to invest in the childcare I need to create and protect that temporal "room of one's own," without which my third book could not get written.

The gifts of this fellowship are not only financial. They are also psychologically profound. I am incredibly honored to receive this form of very palpable support from the nation in which I live. It gives me the impetus to keep on writing -- which is a nourishment that every writer ultimately needs, no matter how recognized or far along in their career -- and not only to keep on writing, but to strive to do so on behalf of the commons. I do not work alone, nor for myself alone. This fellowship gives me a sense of responsibility as an artist, a call to use my time and words and vision as best I can to forge something that will, I hope, be worth reading, and perhaps, if I am very lucky, give back some infinitesimal drop of what books and art have given to me.