The Conquistadors came to the land that would become Columbia, conquered, and permanently altered it. Those with dark skins were no longer native peoples but primitives and heathens. The lore of the country also changed, became distorted; stories of the indigenous peoples, the Indians, turned into a mix of the traditional¨collective wisdom, awe and superstition¨and the imported, unreflected prejudice of presumed superiority of race and religion. Laura Restrepo, in her affecting, spry-humoured, The Dark Bride, takes this basic layer of Columbian reality and overlays it with another¨the more recent reality of the foreign-owned companies, such as the oil-extracting concerns which employ Columbians at low wages, causing social dislocation as thousands of men leave remote villages and their families to seek the steady work these companies offer. Suffering the familiar deprivations and longing for affection, these men form makeshift arrangements with local women who benefit, at least temporarily, from the money such labourers make available, but are denied the long-term security of matrimony.
The Dark Bride is about such men and women, the petroleros, oil workers who toil in the isolated camps, and the prostitutes, the las mujeres who await their visits for money, and sometimes, for love. It is about a place, La Catunga, the red-light district inside Tora, a city sustained by the oil industry, and about the social and political ecology of Columbia as a whole in which prejudice and corruption, the old and newer forms of colonialism, continue to stack the odds against those who are poor and of darker skin. It is about love, fidelity, and respect¨imperatives in a place where women, whose stories comprise The Dark Bride, survive by selling their bodies. There's something else at the core of this tale, but we'll get to that soon enough. For now, to understand the character of life in La Catunga, one must hear it described by a veteran petrolero, don Alonso Olmeda, who would frequent the district in its heyday.
"The petrolero worked hard and earned his money. The prostituta worked hard and ended up with the petrolero's money. They say that love for money is a sin, but I say that it's nothing more than the law of economy, because bread doesn't fall from the sky for anyone... in general, love between couples was respected and there were numerous cases of sworn and upheld fidelity, by choice of the couple...I can tell you the names of petroleros who had children in common agreement with prostitutes, without the women leaving the profession. It was a simple world because it wasn't hypocritical. It wasn't hypocritical but that doesn't mean that it was heartless. It may sound ridiculous to you, but there was a certain feeling of chastity in all of that...and a certain elegance. To understand it you had to have seen them, so proudly gathering their skirts when they danced a pasodoble (p134)."
The Dark Bride consists of many interwoven stories¨interviews really¨entrusted to the narrator Restrepo in her guise as a journalist, by those who lived or continue to live in La Catunga. And while each person has his or her own history and distinct sensibility, the recollections and reflections of the people who relate the tale of the alluring youth, Sayonara, the dark bride, are for the most part preconditioned by their position inside the circumscribed world of the oil camps and La Catunga¨its hardships, and the social-economic barriers that both maintain and trap the women (and to a lesser extent, the men) within. A true journalist, Restrepo conveys these points of view without a hint of judgment, but neither does she let us forget¨by the very careful handling of her subjects¨that she's an outsider, that this isn't her world, and that another way of looking at La Catunga and its inhabitants isn't just possible, it's necessary if one is to understand both the simple story of the girl who became the most famous prostitute in the history of La Catunga and its myth-like nuances. How, Restrepo seems to want to ascertain, did this apparently ordinary, if exceptionally beautiful young woman, leave such a mark on this place and those who knew her. Was this small divinity real or largely imagined, collectively willed into being more than she was?
The story of Sayonara, the lithe, sensual Indian girl, is a dark cinderella-type story. Consistent with Latin American literature's penchant for the fantastical, it has a folkloric feel but with little of the sugar coating. Sayonara becomes a prostitute by choice and carries out her professional duties without complaint¨in part because she isn't disturbed by the replayed intimacy with strangers. She may be beautiful but she's not untainted. Her universe is governed by a corrupt government and its parasitic representatives: Every Tuesday the working women were required, "by law", to appear in front of the antivenereal dispensary where corrupt government officials would charge each prostitute an extra fifty centavos¨not for a cure¨but "to say [she's] healthy". One prostitute recounts for Restrepo:
A French investigator who came around in those years made inquiries and threw out some figures that reflected that the prostitutas of Tora paid more to the state in health control and fines than the Tropical Oil Company did in royalties (p65).
The man obsessed with Sayonara from her urchin days, who insists on marrying her in order to save her, becomes, like the Duke in Browning's "Last Duchess", cruel and suffocating, resenting the beauty he fears no other man can resist, and a past he is convinced predisposes Sayonara to infidelity. PayanTs, Sayonara's petrolero prince, the man she loves and to whom she makes the "sacred" promise to be faithful as a wife on "the last Friday of every month of the year," turns out, in typical fashion, to be married. Yet the vow remains unbroken. Sayonara's love for PayanTs is tenacious even when he is entirely out of reach, and eventually, though somewhat equivocally, she gets her man.
Restrepo plays with other, darker variations on the Cinderella theme. One prostitute's 'prince' is a painter, an albino dwarf, on the run from his wealthy family. Eventually, Don Enrique is removed from the seedy establishment that houses him, leaving his slightly mad, fifteen-year-old alcoholic prostitute girlfriend to pine for him and succumb to venereal disease. In another version, beautiful Claire, with "cheeks of soft sevres porcelain", throws herself in front of a train, because the man whose electoral campaigns she had supported with her body, Mariano Azc▀rraga Caballero y Senora, marries another woman. And then there's the "soldier's widow", a woman in perpetual mourning, who comes to prostitution because her beloved, a handsome, young, half-Indian cadet, dies after being cruelly imprisoned by the woman's own brother, a senior officer who is infuriated by his sister's relationship with the 'inferior' Emiliano Monteverde.
These permutations serve a dual purpose. They are part of the canvas that is Columbia and one of its microcosms, La Catunga. But more importantly, they reinforce the impression that the essence of life in a troubled country like Columbia, more often than not, is tragedy, rendered through an infinite number of variations.
But what does all of this have to do with the unkempt, and half-starving girl, the would-be puta, who ends up on the doorstep of the home of Todos Los Santos, the retired, aging prostitute. For Los Santos "just one look at the wild and disheveled creature standing in front of her, half-challenging and half-imploring, was enough for her to recognize in the girl that singular mixture of helplessness and arrogance that fueled male desire better than any aphrodisiac..."(p12). Like a godmother, Los Santos takes the girl under her wing, houses her, and teaches the aspirant what she needs to know to succeed in the trade. The girl, given the professional moniker, Sayonara, turns into a beauty, becomes the most desired woman in La Catunga, and overturns the long-established conventions of the barrio: before Sayonara, the colombianas and the 'pipatonas', the Indian women, ranked at the bottom of the barrio's offerings, but Sayonara, "the aloof goddess with oblique eyes, [became] more revered than even the legendary Yvonne and Mistinguette, and the only one in the history of the barrio whose window glowed with a violet-colored bulb."
And yet, in Columbia, life itself militates against happiness; it overburdens right from the start. Beauty and irresistible appeal may give a woman enough boost, enabling her to hover above the common lot of others, but they don't do so for long and don't take her far enough to escape the quintessential gravity of Columbian existence. Is Saynora's story truly a departure Restrepo wants to know. And if so what made Sayonara unique enough to change the usual ending.
In fact, Sayonara's story begins with a tragedy, the shocking double suicide of her brother and mother. The aforementioned young cadet, Emiliano Monteverde, inhumanely imprisoned in a hole beneath the ground without clothes or shelter from the elements, eventually slashes his wrists. On receiving news of his death, Dona Matildita, mother of Emiliano and Sayonara, sets herself on fire in front of the army's headquarters. In Ambalema, the capital of Tolima, where these events transpire, Matildita's immolation, acquires the aura of a noble, holy act of martyrdom, "because through her sacrifice she tried to cleanse the evil she had seen in this town" (p148).
Given this broader context, Dona Matildita, is the novel's darkest bride¨not only because she suffers the most, but also because she is literally the darkest: an indfgena, a Guahibo Indian, she is captured by the white colonist, Abelardo Monteverde, while collecting palm fronds along the shores of a river, and made into his woman, bearing him children and running his small roadside restaurant. What is fascinating and telling about the way she is described by those in Ambalema who remember her is the combination of empathy, awe and disdain Matildita evoked while alive. A snippet from a conversation with the town's older residents runs as follows:
"There was a vulgar saying around town, if you'll forgive me for repeating it," ventured Wilfredo,... "and that is that Matildita's food tasted so good because she lit the stove with a flame that she took from her groin."
"That, Wilfredo, is ignorant gossip," says senor Mantilla with annoyance.
"Because she was an indfgena, people think she was a witch and say things like that," says the chastised Wilfredo in self-defense... "They say that Indian women are versed in witchcraft," insists Wildredo, exposing himself to being hushed again, "and I know men that won't eat food they've prepared so that they won't fall prisoner to their fire, which isn't healthy"(p149).
"I know this book will have no soul," writes Restrepo, "as long as I find no trace of the desperation that led Sayonara's mother and brother to take their lives, and, above all, of the hopes that pushed Sayonara herself to continue living after what happened" (p144) . Here we're getting to that which lies at the core of The Dark Bride, and here is where perspective becomes important. Sayonara emerges out of tragedy, overcomes it and the disadvantages of her darker skin She manages to get out of La Catunga with her petrolero prince. The prince is merely a labourer, still married to another woman, and the two young people leave on foot for an uncertain future. Is this a happy ending or merely an ending meant to please those who tell the story? Olguita, another prostitute, tells Restrepo how she sees it:
"...I assure you that Sayonara left with PayanTs and that she has been happy with him...She has been happy for all of us because we deserve it, after so much activity and struggle."
Everyone likes a happy ending, especially those least destined for one themselves. In the end, it makes little difference whether Sayonara was somehow special, blessed or cursed by her Indian blood, the genuine article, or just a sparkling imitation. What matters, for those who sheltered and loved her, was that she wrested, in spite of everything, her share of happiness from life¨departing for that very reason "in the scent of a legend." ˛