Any author who has been both nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature and exiled from his country because of the strength of his criticisms against the nation’s longstanding dictatorship deserves to be taken note of. Rómulo Gallegos in his acclaimed novel, Doña Barbara, hailed as a classic of Latin American literature, is one such author, almost forgotten by English speaking readers since his initial popularity in the 1930’s. In the University of Chicago’s recent reprint, Gallegos receives the credit due to him as a Nobel Prize nominee, the first democratically elected President of Venezuela, and forerunner of magical realism, with Larry McMurty writing in his foreword to the novel, “There are echoes of Gallegos in García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and Fuentes.” In Doña Barbara, Gallegos weaves together the story of the Venezuelan llano, or prairie, and the lives of the plainsmen, the ranchers and cowboys, thieves and villains, that all operate around Doña Barbara, the witch.
The novel revolves around the llano, and its significance to two feuding cousins with vast ranching estates. Doña Barbara, a treacherously beautiful rancher has steadily expanded her estate over the years through her calculating manipulation and seduction of men, furthering her reputation as a witch with her nightly conversations with her “Partner,” the devil. These corrupt dealings committed by Barbara and the mismanagement of land, wealth, and justice by government officials in the novel represent many of Gallegos’ criticisms against the Venezuelan dictatorship. When her cousin, Santos Luzardo, returns from his many years in the city to reclaim his land and ranch, a struggle ensues that jeopardizes the fate of the llano. The struggle is one of violence and seduction, as McMurty perfectly describes it, Gallegos’ llano is “steamy, tumescent, lust driven.” Furthermore, the llano is spilling over with all sorts of unimaginable occupants characteristic of early magical realism, like the prehistoric one-eyed alligator and various villains like the Turk and his harem, the Toad, the Wizard, and a cowboy assassin…
The llano is the quintessential backdrop for this mixture of magic and reality, allowing for a seamless understanding of the sensuality and danger inherent in the plain and the work of the ranchers. It seems an environment made for the smoky haze between these two worlds, and the feud between the two cousins. Gallegos captures in minute detail the contrasting nature of the Plain:
The Plain is at once lovely and fearful. It holds, side by side, beautiful life and hideous death. The latter lurks everywhere, but no one fears it. The Plain frightens, but the fear which the Plain inspires is not the terror which chills the heart; it is hot, like the wind sweeping over the immeasurable solitude, like the fever lying in the marshes. The Plain crazes; and the madness of the man living in the wide lawless land leads him to remain a Plainsman forever. (90)
It is his characterization of Doña Barbara, however, that establishes Gallegos as a master. He details her upbringing as a young girl, abused by the men around her, nearly sold as a sex slave, and ultimately the death of the only man to show her any kindness in her youth. Her hatred and sexual manipulation comes to a halt, however, when she meets her cousin Santos and finds in his gentle, noble demeanor a man worthy of her respect. Gallegos allows for a full and crucial understanding of Barbara’s convoluted feeling towards Santos:
Up to then, all her lovers, victims of her greed or instruments of her cruelty, had been hers as the steers marked with her brand were hers. Now when she saw herself repeatedly rebuffed by this man who neither feared nor desired her, she felt that she wanted to belong to him, although it had to be as one of his cattle, with the Altamira sign burned on their sides; and she felt this with the same overmastering force which had driven her to ruining the men she loathed. (220)
Rómulo Gallegos in his intimate understanding of the wild, unyielding llano, the Venezuelan people, and the tragic figure of Doña Barbara, created a masterpiece of Latin American Literature, establishing an important and inspiring foundation in magical realism.