A poet has the gift not only for recording the inner life of the individual but also for recording and shaping the aspirations of a people for liberty and a homeland. Camila lauds her mother, Salome, for speaking out against tyranny; however, throughout the sections of the novel in Salome's voice, Alvarez develops a character who speaks out not only against tyranny but also for personal passion and the power of love, speaking out of the pain of emotional and sexual betrayal that she had previously endured in silence. Salome, although torn between her duty to bring about the birth of la patria on the one hand and her duty and her devotion to her children on the other, finds some resolution of these twin claims when she realizes that state politics and sexual politics are intimately connected. How can a country liberate itself if it enslaves its female residents? How can a homeland be proclaimed if the women lack the freedom and the means to be as free with their emotional and sexual lives as the men? Thus, Salome devotes herself passionately to educating the young ladies who come to the school she creates in her home. And she writes to stir her readers to noble actions despite the repression that Salome, and later Camila, operates under. In fact, Camila, in her role as college professor and guardian of her mother's legacy, has had "All her life . . . to think first of her words' effect on the important roles her father and brothers and uncles and cousins were playing in the world." Thus, "it is a mystery how the heart gets free," just as it is a mystery how the homeland gets free.
On the other hand, poetry is centering and clarifying, and it provides connections to important values. The poet is at her best when she has the power to say "what we all feel and don't have the courage to speak." Finally, it is the language, the words, that create "who we are." The real revolution, as Camila muses, can be won "only by the imagination," only through "the struggle to see and the struggle to love the flawed thing we see—what other struggle is there?" Thus, in the characters of Salome and Camila, Alvarez strongly connects a number of themes and social issues: literacy, language, poetry, seeing, revolution, and la patria. Only in the struggle to see, to create, to find and know the words, and to teach the words—only in this continuing, ongoing struggle—can la patria, a true homeland, ever be created. As the final scene in the novel makes clear, one must make the attempt again and again and again until one gets it right.
The parallel, or second, family theme occurs throughout Alvarez's four novels and addresses the serious and consequential social issue of institutionalized male sexual infidelity. Offered as the "custom of the country," the practice of a man's creating and keeping a second and perhaps even a third family is portrayed and attacked as a practice by men to demonstrate their virility and, perhaps, their economic prowess as well. Such arrangements apparently have been and continue to be widespread in Latin America. Alvarez attacks the practice not only by showing its effects on the women and children involved but also by suggesting a connection between such sexual tyranny and political tyranny. When Salome learns that her husband Pancho (Francisco Henriquez) has created another family while studying medicine in Paris, she is furious and has nothing more to do with him until very near the end of her life when she has sex with him and gives birth to Camila. Alvarez portrays the many consequences of such arrangements, some harsh and long lasting, both economic and psychological, some apparently benign (the presence of many women in a family to take care of children and other domestic duties). In one section narrated from the point of view of Salome, she recalls a time when a fifteen-year-old girl came to her door. She had been thrown out on the street by her family because she was pregnant by a man who refused to acknowledge his...
(The entire section is 1,276 words.)