Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ memoir plants a supernatural family tree
By Lou Fancher
In her new book The Man Who Could Move Clouds (Doubleday, $30), Bogotá-born writer Ingrid Rojas Contreras introduces a meta-mystery. Co-mingling memoir, magic, neuroscience, mythology, and more, her novel tracks the journey Contreras undertook to her native land to better understand herself and her family’s mestizo history.
The author’s award-winning debut novel Fruit of the Drunken Tree told a story through the alternating perspectives of two young friends as they come of age in the Colombian capital amid kidnappings, car bombings, guerrilla warfare, and assassinations.
In her second book, Contreras wastes no time, introducing herself on the first page in addition to the novel’s other central characters: Nono, her grandfather and curandero—a community healer thought to speak to the dead, predict the future, heal illnesses and injuries, and even move clouds—and Mimi, her mother who inherited the family secret powers after she, like Contreras, suffered a head injury that resulted in amnesia. Therein lies the book’s plot line and dramatic arc, founded in the memory loss that granted her mother power to move clouds at age eight, and left Contreras at age 23 with the capability to see ghosts.
With a fervent urge to recover the mental state she had enjoyed prior to her collision with an open car door while bike riding, and determined to reconstruct the past out of the shards remaining in her mind, Contreras travels with her mother on a mission to disinter Nono’s remains. Her mother is both delightfully-hilarious and horribly-stubborn. A violent narrative of colonialism runs like a bloody undercurrent throughout the narration, and deeply-individual memories and beliefs of curses, blessings, super powers, science, spirits and more weave a tale thick with intrigue and ambiguity. Just when a reader begins to think it’s too thick—which does happen, and the book would benefit from tighter editing—Contreras steps in with dramatic thunderbolts. For example: “Nono often moved clouds for farmers who needed rain, and for Mami, who was his favorite. But it wasn’t always like that. When Mami was born, in fact, he tried to kill her.”
Who would not want to read more? Especially with astonishing descriptions of the symptoms of amnesia that result in one scene in which Contreras gives her own reflection a “noncommittal, arrogant” look of disapproval and judgement—before realizing she is looking at herself. She finds her features miraculous and, moving closer to the image, thinks, “God, my eyebrows are so thick.” Panic soon sets in, and the hardships she describes in the moment and many others usually outperform amnesia’s miracles of rediscovery. The Man is worth reading for these investigations of her condition, if not for the mystery of her family history alone.
Mami, who the family believes can be in two places at one time, is an effective satirical counter-voice to the writer’s, but she is also Contreras’ greatest teacher about living with, and despite, family secrets—and wise about writing. Contreras writes that Mami, in her incantations and healing work, emphasized accuracy, at one point telling her daughter, “You can’t be inexact. A vagueness on your part, and kaput.”
Applied throughout most of the novel, intentionality in the storytelling makes things otherwise unbelievable, believable. It’s not hard to accept that the family becomes so immune to Nono’s announcements about his impending death that they are bored and Mami comes to think, “either die or don’t—but leave me out of it, every year it’s the same with you. I’m going back to sleep.” It’s easy to imagine the family’s extreme beliefs causing a rupture, with Mami’s sister, The Same as Always, joining a charismatic church and the tías and tíos assigning Nono and Mami to damnation in their Christian hell. Floods and car accidents and falling down wells and interring beloved family patriarchs … nothing seems out of bounds or out of place.
Poignantly, Contreras learns to trust less in language. Permanency, she comes to understand, is not achieved by naming things or people or moments in time. Thinking too highly of language, she suggests, is a trap. The Man Who Could Move Clouds places us therefore not fixedly on a position, but in a kaleidoscopic circle that is memory, both lost and recovered. It’s an intriguing space.