Tales From the Trees
It is impossible — and devastating — not to immediately recall Luis Sepúlveda when tasked with preparing a list of my Spanish-language faves/must-reads on ecology and the environment. Amidst the countless, irreparable losses of the coronavirus pandemic this year was this brilliant Chilean man of letters, who found himself among the first wave of hospitalizations in Spain, in late February, after developing symptoms on his return from a literary festival in Portugal; a constant, tragic reminder of our resignation to talk about books online.
Many of Sepúlveda’s narrators and heroes were not humans, but animals: admirable, veritable ecoactivists, decolonisers denouncing injustices, engaged in the protection of our planet, from the protagonists of bestselling children’s book The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught her to Fly (1996) to the grieving female ocelot hunting men after a white man killed her cubs and injured her partner in The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (1988), based on the time he spent living with the indigenous Shuar people in the Ecuadorean Amazon, reviewed in The New York Times by our friend David Unger.
Following in the footsteps of Rachel Carson we have two Spanish writers, Raquel Martínez-Gómez and Olga Merino-López, who might as well — both of them — be Latin American narrators. Set in an undisclosed southern Spanish mountain town, in La forastera/The Stranger (Alfaguara/Penguin Random House 2020), Merino-López weaves a tale of murder, family secrets, and isolation in the company of dogs and the sounds of nature.
In Cenizas de Ombú (lit. ashes of ombú, a large South American evergreen tree, Phytolacca dioica), Martínez-Gómez addresses environmental phenomena such as the megaminería (an extractive chemical industry that generates serious impacts on the world’s ecosystems, pollutes fresh water reserves, affects the health of millions of people and finances serious human rights violations), urban waste, and the global environmental crisis.
Closer to home, the writings of Martínez-Gómez resonate with the oeuvre of our very own Montreal-based Gloria Macher (Peruvian-Canadian with a pinch of Brazilian), among them Flor de araribá (Verbum 2017), a tale of intrigue, racial and gender discrimination, the horrors of the prison system and corruption in the agro-industry sector set in a remote Brazilian region and experienced first-hand through the eyes of Marcos, a doctor researching the cholera epidemic.