“Who has not,
at one point or another,
played with thoughts of his ancestors,
with the prehistory of his flesh and blood?”
Jorge Luis Borges, I, A Jew
Our Father, Who Hath Sinned Against Us
Two centuries ago in Peru, Nicolasa Cisneros gave birth to seven children and raised them fatherless, responding to anyone who asked after her husband that he was travelling. This woman gave her name ‘Cisneros’ to these children. A maternal name that carried down another four generations via her youngest son Luis the Poet, to Fernán to Groucho to Renato, the author.
This work of autofiction opens when the author with his elderly uncle is taken to a cemetery where the tomb of his great-great-grandmother lies, where he is shown proof of her close association with Gregorio Cartagena, a priest, the man who fathered all her children, whom she was never married to, a man who denied his children both his name and a relationship with their father.
Renato Cisneros struggles with the idea of having been denied this name and heritage, having embraced another that he had been proud of, but that now became a source of confusion and a questioning of much that he had assumed.
The upright and irreproachable men I had admired for as long as I could remember, the flesh of my flesh, abruptly became blurred, reduced to timid, vulgar and inconsequential individuals. My former clarity became turbid. Clay became crust. The tight weave became unstitched, revealing its threads.
An Identity Crisis
This novel is his way of exploring all that, of seeing how this new information informs him, how it makes apparent the patterns and threads of a lineage. Although much of the narrative by necessity has been ficitonlised, it reads like a work of creative nonfiction.
The custom of the double life has been repeated in each generation. If this is not a habit, a custom, a trend, I don’t know what it is. An enduring coincidence? A hereditary gene? A vice, an illness, an infection? An echo? How to escape it? Can atavistic viruses be eliminated? Can contagion be avoided? Can this intangible, genetically transmittable part of us ever be decontaminated, or does it become intrinsic from the start and all we can do is bear it? How can we be sure what is ours, our own, and what is passed on if everything comes to us melted down and mixed up at birth? Were the men of my family aware of obeying an established mould? Did they ever set to correct that tradition, or were they simply carried along by it? Am I yet another such man? Will I repeat the story I am writing? Or am I writing it down in order not to repeat it?
The narrative switches between a near present day Lima 2013/14 when he is searching and discussing his thoughts with his aged Uncle Gustavo, and delves into the family relationships of 1830’s Peru through and up to the early to mid 1900’s.
It was his Uncle who opened his eyes to the presence of the twin graves, who had been willing to engage him in an open conversation, as he tried to understand what occurred and how it was affecting him and discussed his right to document family secrets and lies perpetuated. Gustavo had tried to engage his siblings years before, without success.
They had no desire to understand or clear away the dense clouds that shrouded their world. The did not believe that ‘pain, if it brings truth, is always a good thing’.
Cisneros, having learned of the deception of the priest and the circumstance of his great great grandmother, finds correlating patterns down the lineage as he investigates.
Poets and Politicians, Journalists and Diplomats
The story unearths the life of Nicolasa and each of the subsequent grandfathers, moving from Peru to La Havre, to Paris, to Argentina and back to Peru, as these men’s careers rise and fall and move in parallel with Peruvian history and as they cross paths with a number of historical figures and events. The historical and political aspects are light enough not to impose too much on the narrative, while giving context to mobility of the family, both physically and socially.
Two of the grandfathers were renowned poets, whose verses were often performed at family gatherings, though the author knew little of who they really were.
I learned to both love and and to resist the Cisneros clan. Because they said things by halves, because they spent their lives speaking superficially about our dead ancestors at literary soirées that felt like joyful funerals, or rather the same funeral being reprised over the decades.
Ancestor Trouble, Lies Become Truths Become Lies Become Stories
It reminded me in places of a similar journey taken by Maud Newton, in her equally riveting Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation; estranged from her father, she too explores the concept of inter-generational inheritance, something she fears, but wishes to come to terms with. And how lies, even when they are known, can be passed down families to become ‘sort of’ truths, as Daphne du Maurier recounts in her work of autofiction The Glass-Blowers, a story that busts open the myth of her own family heritage and false name.
Although one might think a family history is personal, which it is, You Shall Leave Your Land is universally interesting for the questions it poses to us all, and for the cultural expose of a tumultuous period in Peruvian history as it developed into a Republic, with changes in leadership creating exiles of people overnight.
Blame and Misfortune, A Woman’s Lot
If I have one criticism, it would be the way the women in the story have been depicted, they are made to be responsible and given agency in a way that might raise the eyebrows of some readers. In times gone by, when a woman fell pregnant, there were few options open to them and very little choice.
For example, when Luis Benjamin is given an ultimatum by the mother of his children to legitimize their relationship, he takes the children and disappears and yet when she reverts to the life she had previously, he judges it and views this as an erasure of their bond and time together – whereas it is more likely that without the support of her children’s father, she had little choice but to use her talent and beauty to survive. Clearly there is much imaginative licence used, however, I found myself querying some of those authorial decisions.
Overall, I thought it was an excellent and thought provoking novel, another beautifully translated gem from Charco Press. It can be read as a standalone novel, though it is a prequel – an earlier novel The Distance Between Us is delves into the life of his father, who is barely mentioned in this book.
Renato Cisneros, Author
Renato Cisneros (Lima, 1976) is a well-known journalist, broadcaster and writer in Peru, where he presents current affairs programmes on radio and TV. Having published a number of books of poetry and two novels, in 2015 he stepped back from his career as a broadcaster to fully concentrate on his writing.
The Distance Between Us (a novel about a son embarking on a journey to understand his complex relationship with his father and how it shaped the man he is today) sold over 35,000 copies in Peru and was shortlisted for the Second Mario Vargas Llosa Biannual Award, longlisted for the Prix Médicis (2017) and was the winner of the Prix Transfuge du Meilleur Roman de Littérature Hispanique (2017). The prequel, Dejarás la tierra (You Shall Leave Your Land) is a bestseller in Spain and Latin America and was published in English in January 2023 by Charco Press. Renato Cisneros currently lives in Madrid.