Second Place, 2017 International Latino Book Awards
(Best Latino Focused Fiction Book – English)
Finalist, 2018 Latino Books Into Movies Awards (Drama)
In the Belly of the Horse is a gripping story illuminating an historic period in the life of a Peruvian family separated and kept apart by seemingly insurmountable forces during a time of civil conflict. Outraged and fearful that war is surging too close to home, Manuel Perez takes his seven-year-old son Salvador into hiding. Otilia, his wife and mother of the child, stays behind to protect the family property. As the elusive enemy roams the countryside, she waits, distraught, for Manuel to return. This is Peru in the 1990s, a struggling nation with a large disparity in standards of living, where the majority live in squalor and face daily injustices. When Manuel does not return, Otilia rushes out of the house to search for him and their son. While the violent Shining Path guerilla movement incites revolution and brutal government forces respond, Otilia makes her way to a remote mining camp in the Andes Mountains. Rather than reporting the disappearance of her husband and son to the unscrupulous authorities, she works in the camp’s kitchen, keeping a low profile and waiting for danger to pass. Aware that she is facing a grim reality, scared by the unrestrained violence around her, and heartbroken that her appeal to find her loved ones are going unanswered, Otilia agonizes over what to do next. This novel provides some understanding of the situation in which countless people find themselves due to armed conflict within and between the political powers around them, and explores many aspects of the psychology of the victims, the difficulty of finding out the truth, and the actions of various groups working with people from many countries who are enduring the pain of loss and displacement.
“Eliana Tobias’s gripping and poignant historical novel immerses us in the turmoil of Peru’s brutal political conflict and the powerful forces that drive immigration.Through her lived experience in Peru and her uncluttered, elegant prose, she breathes life into her fully realized characters and the chaotic worlds they inhabit. Their courageous, heart-wrenching journey intimately reveals the profound challenges faced by countless people worldwide who are forced into the unknown as they flee their homes and countries due to armed conflict. In the Belly of the Horse reminds us of our most luminous selves, amidst the darkness, and that in the end ‘memories make us.”
—Sylvia Taylor, author of Beckoned by the Sea and The Fisher Queen
Eliana Tobias was born in Santiago, Chile, to immigrant parents who escaped the Holocaust. She graduated from the University of Chile then completed other degrees in early childhood and special education in the United States and Canada. After working in this field in various capacities, including teaching at the National University of Trujillo in Peru, she moved to Vancouver, where she has lived for thirty years and where she discovered her love of writing. Her rich experience of political turmoil, of listening to stories of the Holocaust when Jewish communities in Europe were shattered, of losing family in Chile under military dictatorship, and living in Peru during a time of intense civil conflict, fueled her passion to write about the ways in which people caught in devastation rebuild their lives. Eliana Tobias lives in Vancouver, B.C.
One day Laura announced that she was leaving her nanny job to find different work and that she was planning to rent a house of her own, where she in turn could rent out the spare rooms. So it was that when Otilia needed to find a place to stay, she called on her friend. Laura offered her a small room of her own on the lower floor of the house.
Otilia worked hard, and she always agreed to work overtime for she tried to save as much money as she possibly could. She knew intuitively that one day she would need funds for an urgent cause. She didn’t have much time to spare during the week, but she made it a point to see Michael regularly. She rarely ate out, and never frequented Starbucks; instead she brought her own food and coffee to work. When both she and Laura were home on weekends, they cooked, and they always prepared extra to freeze so they could help themselves during the week. Otilia never let dirty dishes stack up in the sink, but she didn’t let Laura know she wasn’t doing her part since Laura had been so generous by providing her a nice home. Sometimes, at night, she followed the news on television, but she often feel asleep on the couch watching the Latino soap opera that followed.
Laura had rented another room to two sisters who’d made their way to California from El Salvador. They had paid a large sum to a coyote, one of many such shady people who were getting rich by smuggling immigrants into America. The girls were in their mid-twenties, and one had left her preschool daughter with their mother back home. They’d come from Tijuana where they had been working at a factory on the assembly line, and when it closed they decided to come north. They were quiet, shy women who kept to themselves. Otilia heard them walking in the early mornings and late afternoons, for her bedroom was directly below theirs. There had been a few Sundays when they all had breakfast together and chatted, but Otilia knew very little about their lives. The sweatshop where they had worked nine hours a day, six days a week, to send a share of their paycheck back to their family, had no doubt shaped them. Not allowed to talk to others while at work, they learned how to remain silent most of the time. A few days before Thanksgiving, when Otilia came home from work, Laura was crying while placing the sisters’ meagre belongings into plastic bags.
“What’s going on?” Otilia asked.
”La migra picked up Lucy and Ana. Lucy just called. They’re being detained and deported. I called Leonora to find out what happened and she told me all of her girls were arrested while they were cleaning a house in Montclair. She’s washed her hands of them and is not taking any responsibility, saying she’d made it clear that the minute someone got into trouble, they were on their own. Can you believe it? She was totally unperturbed, saying she needed to find others to replace them, because she has lots of work.”
“So where exactly are you going?”
Giving a little shrug, Laura said, “I’m going to see them, to take them these few things that belong to them.”
“Where are they?”
“In Richmond. I need to check on visitation times.”
“How come the migra got hold of them?”
“Leonora thinks the boyfriend of one of the others squealed. He was upset and wanted to spite his girlfriend, take revenge.”
“Lucy and Ana were at the wrong place at the wrong time. I called Justo to get some legal advice; he said that if they have money, they can arrange to post bail and be set free until a court date is set.”
Picking up a pair of tennis shoes from the entryway, Laura turned to face Otilia, looking vexed. “I really can’t help them; I can’t post bail for them. I’ve only known them for a short time. Justo asked if I knew whether they had already signed a declaration confessing to being here illegally. If they did, they’ll be dispatched to the border immediately.”
“Did you ask?” Otilia said.
“I didn’t think to do so.”
The sisters didn’t return, and in the New Year Laura was expecting a new occupant, a woman from Poland who’d come to America to go to graduate school.
As Otilia began to accept the misery that had been inflicted on her life, she noticed that, with time, her despair was dissipating. All along there’d been people who’d helped her move on and she slowly learned to embrace life as it was, and she avoiding becoming a hostage to the ghosts of her past. But she wasn’t fully there yet. Every now and then, she still found herself having to make a great effort to carry on, and it was then that she’d put on a mask, turning on her charm to hide the enduring pain she felt. And when thoughts of loneliness and longings for her family emerged with great force, she’d catch herself making plans to return to Peru. It was during those times, when thoughts rumbled in her head, that she would call Michael for advice. With tears running down her face, she’d ask for the hundredth time, “What would you do if your wife had gone missing?” Michael would always offer words of comfort and tell her to be patient, to wait before returning. He felt that things were still too chaotic, and she had no way of anticipating the outcome. His latest advice was, “Hold off until the new government is safely in place.”
Even though so much time had passed, Otilia knew that the political climate was still precarious. Until a new president was elected in Peru, and the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the violence committed in the previous twenty years had been completed, there was no point for Otilia to return home. Why spend the great amount of money necessary to make the trip when she knew that the government continued to wash its hands of the violence inflicted by the military and the guerillas? She would not be able to obtain viable information. However, once the Commission finished its investigations and President Toledo was willing to take responsibility for the events that took place, then Otilia’s would have a better chance to find the answers she was looking for. With little rest time on her hands, Otilia had been able put fears aside, hurtling onwards, making her way in her new world. She now felt at home, helped by a sense of belonging in her church’s activist group. It was with them that she recharged and renewed her commitment to the search. In the beginning, the gatherings had been a way of joining others facing shared injuries, supporting one another in their pain, but once the group determined that they must find ways of getting their voices heard, they became strong advocates for themselves, and others. They put a lot of effort into writing letters to reveal their stories and to ask for help. Over the course of several years, they collected statements, dozens and dozens of them, from people whose lives had been haunted by similar events. There were times when Otilia had stood in front of the Xerox machine making copies for hours, then hauling them in wicker baskets back to her room where she would stuff them into envelopes, ready to be dropped into the mail.
Recruitment of new volunteers and constant attention to detail kept them moving forward and, bit by bit, word of their work began to spread. Persistently putting pressure on individuals and organizations that could press their cases, the church group held public forums, documented situations, and ensured that local newspaper articles were written about their cause. They enlisted the help of those with a knack for writing editorials to voice their points of view, until they were able to take their campaign beyond California, inspiring family members of victimized people everywhere to join in their search for redress.
What frustrated her most were the thwarted attempts to obtain information from the Peruvian government, itself. In the 1990s, relations between the U.S. and Peru had become strained, and with amnesty laws shielding the police and military agents from prosecution for human rights violations, it was impossible to dig up the truth. But even now, in this new era of more openness, it seemed that there were still no means of extracting the facts.
All along, Michael, who in his retirement was living nearby, remained Otilia’s staunch supporter, encouraging her on every step of her tumultuous trek. In the early days, he transformed her worries into hope by helping her file a refugee claim, proving she was a desperate civilian caught in the midst of a dirty crusade. He’d help her decipher official letters mired in legalese, and suppressed her desire to back away when the going got tough, until she became a lawful permanent resident. He’d stood by her side some years later, as her witness, attending her naturalization ceremony where she took the Oath of Allegiance to become a citizen.
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In The Belly of the Horse by Eliana Tobias
reviewed by Jon Beasley-Murray
Posthegemony – November 28, 2018
Eliana Tobias’s In the Belly of the Horse chronicles the aftermath of Peru’s civil war of the 1980s and 1990s. It opens with a scene in a small village in the northern highlands, as the Shining Path guerrilla approach and a father seeks to take his seven-year-old son (Salvador) to safety, leaving his wife to look after their property until he can return. But he never comes back, and the novel chronicles the fate of this splintered family over the following fifteen to twenty years.
Salvador and his father are soon separated, and we are left guessing as to the latter’s fate for most of the narrative that follows. The boy, however, makes his way to the nearest large town (Cajamarca) where he falls in with another homeless child, a girl called Lucía who shows him how to make a precarious living on the streets, begging or stealing food and sleeping at night in the local cemetery. Later Salvador manages to track down his uncle (his mother’s brother), who takes him in and arranges for his education when the two of them subsequently move to the national capital, Lima.
Gradually, Salvador finds his feet and even thrives, getting a job as a policeman and meeting and marrying a psychologist (Carmen) who works for the postwar Truth and Reconciliation Commission. At first his uncle warns him against looking too hard for his missing parents. His fear is that the boy will come under suspicion for having too great an interest in the fate of people tainted with association with “terrorism,” as so many were in the highlands even when they were in fact the victims of guerrilla action. But as time goes on, and at the urging of his wife, he becomes increasingly involved in the search for the truth of what happened not only to his own parents, but also to the tens of thousands more who died or were displaced during the conflict.
Meanwhile, in parallel, we also follow the tracks of Salvador’s mother, Otilia, as she first seeks refuge in a remote mining encampment and later migrates to the United States. She, too, cannot put out of her mind her missing family members. And likewise she becomes involved in broader efforts to seek information and gain justice for those affected by state violence and bureaucratic obfuscation, joining a church-based group with representatives from places such as Chile and Guatemala. She even returns to Peru, making affidavits and chasing down what few leads she has to trace her missing husband and son, but to no avail.
Ultimately (and this is a spoiler, but no great surprise to the reader), Salvador and Otilia are reunited, and he meets her in her new home in California, but this is not until almost the very end of the book, which then ends rather abruptly: he returns to Lima, but she stays in the USA, only to visit at Christmas when she convinces her son to lay a stone in his (still) missing father’s name at a monument for the disappeared.
Overall, mother and son are together in this book for only about twenty-five of its 260 pages. Indeed, the family group (parents plus child) has already broken up by page three. And there is little attempt to reconstruct memories of when it had been whole. So what is lost is somehow intangible; we are led to feel very keenly that something is missing, but it is never quite clear what that something may have been. When Salvador and Otilia are together once more at last, their relationship is charged with uncertainty and distance. There is, after all, no going back, even if either of them were able to recall what they might be going back to. They are not the same people that they once were. If anything, what most unites them is this shared sense of loss that should notionally disappear once they have found each other. So perhaps the only way for them to maintain that connection is by denying, in part, that they have really been found. In other words, they paradoxically need to hold on to their loss in order to overcome it.
Indeed, distance and misconnection predominate throughout the novel. Almost every relationship that the two characters establish in the interim, while they await their predestined re-encounter, is somehow incomplete or unsatisfactory. On Salvador’s part, for instance, he is never really close to his uncle, while Lucía remains remote and unapproachable right until she comes to her own untimely end. Even his marriage is characterized by strikingly stilted conversation, as he and his wife swap talking points more often than they exchange intimacies: “Salvador knew well how hard it was to seek restorative justice and he worried that Carmen might be pushed to the edge. ‘Stories like theirs must be told,’ she said, smiling weakly” (203). In fact, the prose throughout the novel tends to be wooden, as though to remind us that none of the characters ever feels particularly comfortable with their lot: everyone is portrayed as though they were consistently on edge, awkward and unsettled.
In short, this book is not an easy read. It has few pretensions to literariness or lyricism. Even the title, which promises to carry some kind of metaphorical or allegorical import, turns out to have a surprisingly literal meaning: as a child, Salvador was briefly hidden by his father inside the belly of an eviscerated horse. But perhaps all this points to one of the book’s (inadvertent) virtues: its portrayal of violence and alienation as mundane and even banal, devoid of any deeper meaning, but no less traumatic for all that.
In The Belly of the Horse by Eliana Tobias
reviewed by The Miramichi Reader – December 31, 2017
In the her “Acknowledgements” section at the back of In the Belly of the Horse (2017, Inanna Publications), Ms. Tobias thanks “the anonymous South American taxi driver for sharing his memories which became the catalyst and inspiration for my story.” While she does not elaborate on this statement, it is easy to see after reading this story that the taxi driver could have been the inspiration for Salvador’s Uncle Tomas. He is Salvador’s only hope for survival after the young boy finds himself an orphan after his father takes him away from their village for he believes that the guerillas are coming to ransack their town. They leave Otilia his mother to wonder if they are ever coming back, despite her husband Manuel’s assurances (she hides in the basement of their home the night the village is attacked).
We now follow two intriguing storylines: that of the “orphaned” Salvador as he lives on the streets until he finds his uncle Tomas, and the “widowed” Otilia who believes both are lost to her forever, but never gives up hope. In the Belly of the Horse is set in the years of the Fujimori dictatorship when the country lived in a state of turmoil, fearing both the Shining Path guerrillas and the government troops that were just as evil as the guerillas themselves.
Wide-ranging, the stories evolve over many years, and we are introduced to various true-to-life characters that are for the most part kind to both Salvador and Otilia, such Lucia, who helps Salvador survive on the streets until he locates his Uncle Tomas, and Michael, an American working in Peru who helps Otilia settle in California so she can continue her search for her husband and son from the safety of the USA. They spend years searching for one another while struggling to exist and make a living in both Peru and the US.
In the Belly of the Horse (so named for the unconventional hiding place Salvador’s father makes for him on for his first night on the run) is a novel very much in the same vein as Finishing the Road by David Cozac. Both have for their locales Latin America and it’s never-ending conflicts with dictatorships, one after the other, each one worse than the former, and the impoverished citizens that get caught in the crushing wheels of violence, either being forced to join the fight or being mercilessly executed for resisting. I enjoyed reading this novel, which felt more like a true story rather than historical fiction. While it deals with all-too-true circumstances, the mood of In the Belly of the Horse is never so dark as to be depressing. I found it to be informative about Peru’s recent history and sympathizing with all of Ms. Tobias’ well-conceived characters. Recommended reading for those interested in social issues such as the plight of the victims of revolutions, cover-ups by ruling dictatorships and the search for missing loved ones.