Perhaps the greatest testimony to Rómulo Gallegos is the very rich literary prize named after him in honor of his work and influence. The prize has been awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Roberto Bolaño and other masterful authors whose powerful books are said to be the cornerstones of magical realism and South American literature.
Sadly, we seldom hear Gallegos’ 1929 novel “Doña Barbara” mentioned in the same company as the well-known books that have received the Gallegos prize. In his forward to the 2012 edition, Larry McMurtry writes that the novel “is in its way a paean to the Venezuelan Llano” a vast grassy plain that, in the novel, “is steamy, tumescent, lust driven.”
In “Doña Barbara,” the characters often say that the land does not relent. In fact, its horrible and fated barbarism and its magical and conscious beauty are as intertwined as surely as the destinies of the powerful female rancher Doña Barbara and the college educated and idealistic protagonist Santos Luzardos. When Luzardos returns to the Llano ranch, Altamira, of his distant youth, he finds that it has been depleted and nearly forsaken by incompetent, greedy overseers who couldn’t resist their complicity in Doña’s schemes. Through magic, sex, paid-off judges, and raw power, she has enlarged–at her neighbors’ expense–her adjoining ranch El Miedo (fear) into a sprawling country unto itself that expands outward through manifest destiny.
Readers may well be reminded of Luis Alberto Urrea’s “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” as they immerse their souls in “Doña Barbara,” because both novels view the land in epic proportions, beautifully described and inseparable from the lives of its people. The land is essentially the main character or, at the very least, an infinite circle of hell where the well-drawn, multi-dimensional characters are driven to kill or be killed as fate decrees.
Like two gladiators who have been chained together, Doña Barbara and Santos Luzardos cannot both survive in an enchanting, sadistic world where every action appears pre-ordained even when it isn’t. The novel ends the only way it can, but the story’s characters and readers won’t realize this until they reach the last chapter.