In the compulsively readable Infinite Country, author Patricia Engel travels between all manner of borders, figurative and otherwise. The 2011 PEN/Hemingway finalist moves from the intimate—taking inspiration from the lives of family members—to the universal, in the shared history of migration. Many storytellers get tripped up on such a journey, as they end up crafting either what’s deemed too specific a story (and “not relatable enough”) or, in an attempt to represent what is actually a disparate group of people and cultures, they reduce individuals to totems. While Engel’s expediency with detail occasionally prevents parts of the story from taking root, it keeps the novel from stopping in its tracks.
As its title suggests, Infinite Country works to acknowledge the breadth of immigration experiences, though Engel homes in on a family split between the U.S. and Colombia. Only first names are used throughout; the Colombian American author finds more powerful ways than a shared apellido to unite this multigenerational family, even as decades pass, tragedies are endured, and oceans are crossed. Talia is our initial guide to Colombia, though at the moment of her introduction, she’s trying desperately to make her way out of the country. The teen has just escaped a girls’ reform school in a remote town, and is trying to make her way back to Bogotá, where her father, Mauro, and an airplane ticket to the United States await her.
The suspense of the opening chapter is characteristic of Talia’s story, but Engel elevates the plot beyond mere thriller. Even as the clock runs down and Talia finds herself closer than ever to being back at her mother Elena’s side in the U.S.—some 14 years since Talia, a U.S. citizen, was sent to be raised in Colombia by her grandmother Perla—she’s ambivalent about her destination. She’s not sure if she’s leaving or returning home, or if, in some physics-defying manner, she finds herself in both states. For Talia, the idea of home has been presented as “a house or an apartment, the place a person returned to at the end of a long day. The place where one’s family lived even if they left it a long time ago. The place one felt most comfortable.” And yet, “all these notions contradicted her first sense of it”; even if home does mean family, things are still pretty complicated for Talia, whose father and grandmother are in Bogotá, while her mother and her two siblings, Karina and Nando, have been living in New Jersey. In conveying just how commonplace this predicament is, Engel is devastatingly efficient: “[T]his particular family condition was so common it couldn’t possibly be considered trauma.” The author isn’t aiming to diminish Talia’s plight or have her family stand in for countless others—rather, Engel is underscoring the long-reaching effects of colonialism in Latin America.
Ever the fleet storyteller, Engel doesn’t task Talia with illustrating this additional element in the larger narrative. It’s through Mauro—who first traveled across Colombia, then past the equator and over the Atlantic—that Infinite Country taps into the country’s past, venturing almost to the primordial. Mauro’s had to seek opportunities in new towns and cities since he was a child, effectively abandoned by a mother for resembling the husband who’d let her down. He hasn’t had the luxury, the swelling pride, to call any one place home. Having survived paramilitary death squads and lived through the Colombian Conflict, he fears that his disillusionment with his homeland has poisoned his wife, keeping her in the U.S. for years after he was deported.
As Infinite Country speeds through three generations of this multinational family, identifying immigration policy morasses in every area/country code, Engel finds opportunities for commentary. Through Karina, Talia’s big sister, the writer ruminates on the DREAM Act, and how inconsistently that beacon for undocumented people has shone. And although he’s a U.S. citizen like Talia, Nando has been wrestling with his bicultural identity since he was a child, which only drives him to want to protect his sisters from the pains of forced assimilation. There’s just enough characterization to make Karina and Nando more than mere symbols for ideas, but the time spent viewing the family history from their perspectives is limited. In her attempts to cover huge swaths of distance and time, Engel ends up leaving the older siblings on the periphery; their stories primarily feed the stories of Talia and Elena, the family’s saintly matriarch.
Elena endures biblical tragedy and turmoil: She has the Virgen de Guadalupe’s beatific calm, the patience (and fortune) of Job. Engel’s novel acknowledges the deeply entrenched Catholicism of Latin American countries, but it also explores the far older culture of the Muisca, or Chibcha, an indigenous people of Colombia, whose civilization dates back to the year 1200, and whose descendants still live in towns like Cota and Ubaté. Talia learned of the Muisca and Andean myths from Mauro, who tells her that these stories are all part of The Knowledge—a culture and history that was never stamped out by the Spanish invasion. But there’s also no denying the damning legacy of the conquistadores, who murdered and raped and pillaged. Mauro observes that the blood of the invader is mixed with the blood of the indigenous, creating conflict at an almost cellular level. It’s what Mexican poet and author Octavio Paz meditated on in The Labyrinth Of Solitude, which also explores the effects of patriarchal violence.
As Mauro reflects on the Muisca, who once moved freely, Engel muses on the nature of migration. People are all migrating, have always been migrating, she proposes, though historically, individuals’ actions have been labeled and valued differently depending on who they are. Invaders have been reformed as “settlers” (though that is also a loaded term); the genocide of the native peoples of the U.S. was euphemized as “manifest destiny.” Americans (mostly white) who retain their citizenship yet live abroad are dubbed “expats.” But “migrants” has been reserved for those who “left one country to bet on another” out of necessity. Together these labels only maintain an inequitable ethnic and socioeconomic hierarchy.
Infinite Country’s succinctness (200 pages) belies its thematic heft. Engel’s pointed yet evocative prose cuts through decades in one family’s life and centuries of Latin American and indigenous history. Although the author sacrifices some character interiority to tell such an expansive tale, her marriage of pulse-pounding action and poignant moments makes Infinite Country a novel like few others, while capturing the journeys of untold numbers.
Author photo: Elliot and Erick Jimenez