We in the North Atlantic tend not to think much about Uruguay. It is a small country, maybe the size of Washington state, nuzzled between Argentina and Brazil. When we do think of it, it is a place of liberalism, a Hispanophone New Zealand, with legal marijuana, same-sex marriage and a president who lived in his own home, because he found the presidential residence too boisterous.
Yet Uruguay was a dictatorship fairly recently, from 1973 to 1985. It is the legacy of that dictatorship Carolina de Robertis probes in her novel Cantoras, focusing on one particular social group to which she herself belongs.
“Cantora” is Spanish for female singer. During Uruguay’s dictatorship, the word acquired a hidden meaning: a lesbian. De Robertis, lesbian herself, has chosen five queer women of this period as her protagonists. The author has talked in interviews about how there are vanishingly few queer voices from the era, and that she hoped to give them a voice in this novel.
Like many marginalized peoples during periods of great oppression, de Robertis’ five attempt to flee the patriarchal world of the dictatorship by scrounging up money to buy a hut on the beaches of Cabo Polonio, a desolate yet cozy place on Uruguay’s eastern coast. It is through the tempests of their lives that they flee to this hut, to live and to love free from the constraints of men and military rule. Their lives are vividly rendered, going through such experiences, including sojourns to Argentina and Brazil. There is deep tragedy, and deep longing, but also great joy, for the oppressed will always find occasion for joy even in the worst of times.
As a straight man, I may not be de Robertis’ target audience. But I keep coming back to her books (this is her third novel I’ve read) for two reasons. The first is her characterization, which I’ve discussed. The second is her prose, which is perhaps the most spellbinding I have had the pleasure of reading. As a writer, a reader and a lover of the English language, I cannot quite put into words the effect her prose has on me, but it is enrapturing.
Cantoras as a novel is both very specific and profoundly universal. It is specifically about the humanity and the plight of lesbians in Uruguay during the dictatorship. It is universally about how people triumph in the face of adversity. It is an astounding novel, and I hope everyone who comes across this review will take the time to read it. It’s well worth it.