Saturday, January 14, 2012

Stones for Ibarra

Stones for Ibarra.  Harriet Doerr, 1978-84.

I expected to love this book, and I did.  But parts were rough going, and I am left a little uneasy.

The first chapter was compelling.  A fortyish American couple, Richard and Sara Everton, leave San Francisco and move to the small village of Ibarra in Mexico to pursue Richard's vision of resurrecting his grandfather's abandoned mine, and to live out the rest of their days there.  They know no one in the village, Richard has no experience running a mine, and they speak only some textbook Spanish.

Early on, the book does a trick it repeats consistently and well - telling you the ending in deadpan prose: Richard will die in 6 years of leukemia, and Sara will leave Ibarra forever a few years later.  Trust me, the author seems to be saying, I hold no secrets from you.  More importantly, these events, momentous in the lives of these frail humans, are not so consequential in the timeless stream of life itself, and are preordained by some Providence.

This seems to be the central thesis of the book, and one that the village people of Ibarra know deeply and instinctively.  There is a cold hard rock of reality, and that is that.  The river flowing over it can flow sadly or joyously, but flow it must; stay a while, and be moved on.

The real trick, of course, is that we forget what we are reminded of repeatedly.  We die, we die, and the daily strife is ultimately meaningless.   Yet we forget, and get involved in the stories and the struggles of the Evertons, and increasingly, of the villagers.  This overarching narrative is of course not new, but pulling it off requires a master illusionist, and Harriet Doerr has done it.

The story is  told in three tenses: the present, the past, and the future.  ("Years later, Sara will remember ...") .  The last two chapters, as Sara rushes to the nearest town on a moonlit night to fetch a doctor for Richard, and as she finally packs up the adobe house in Ibarra, are particularly wrenching.   ("You are right, senora," the Doctor says.  "There is splendor all around us").

After the first couple of chapters, though, the book starts to feel episodic.  Each chapter describes one particular story from the village, or encounter with it.  This is probably because each was initially published as a standalone short story prior to the book, and some sense of continuity seems lost.  This was the rough going part, for me.

But I was also uneasy.  The villagers are described with affection, but come perilously close to being archetypes: the village sexpot, the rigid but ultimately humane priest, the self-destructive drunk, the brothers where one betrays the other.

The stories themselves have a timeless feel.  The blurb on the back makes a comparison with Katherine Ann Porter, and Gina Berriault's story, "The Stone Boy" comes to mind.   (As does R. K. Narayan, for the gentle humor and compassion).   But what made me more uneasy was that the villagers also came a little too close for comfort to noble savages.

So there it is.  Masterful, clean, powerful prose; simple characters economically sketched; brilliant evocations of the inner life of Sara; but in the end the author, as well as the reader, remain outsiders.  Ibarra and its people may be foolish, or wise, or simply may just be; we don't quite know.

Jan 2012