Book Review: You Shall Leave Your Land

leave your land

“what happened in Hu├ínuco two centuries back, when those men and women, who performed actions and took decisions without awareness that they would become our ancestors”

Renato Cisneros comes from a large, wider family with forebears who moved amongst many of the great and the good of their times. As a young man he felt proud of his name, linking him as it did to a past filled with characters celebrated at regular family gatherings. He was therefore perturbed as well as intrigued on discovering that they should all have gone by the name of Cartagena rather than Cisneros. His great-great-grandmother had been the long time lover of a priest, bearing their children out of wedlock and inventing for the offspring a father they never met. The historic affair was rarely mentioned across subsequent generations, a family secret that nevertheless reverberated.

“We all have wounds and that doesn’t mean our lives are nothing but frustration and trauma.”

You Shall Leave Your Land is referred to as a novel rather than biography. It tells the story of those who came to form the author’s paternal lineage from this shadowed beginning. Many of the men featured are serial adulterers, fathering children whose emotional needs are subsequently ignored as carnal appetites are sated elsewhere. The women of the family are referenced but remain mostly two dimensional.

“I can picture now my grandfather bewitched by the young Esperanza, completely outside of himself, forgetting his wife and his children, or perhaps remembering them all too well and for that very reason trying to evade his responsibilities and his role if only for a moment, knowing how unhappy he was in the marriage that Hermelinda Caicedo’s pregnancy had made necessary so many years earlier.”

Much of the tale is set in Peru. The ongoing political changes in this country provide the scaffolding within which the family history is built. As well as trade and diplomacy, there is a legacy of poetic output. It is hard to gauge how impressive this literary strand may have been, especially as a particularly admired bullfighter’s moves are described: ‘that is poetry’.

The author ponders the question of who owns family secrets, and how choices made can affect those living and also still to come. Despite the unsavoury aspects of characters’ lives delved into, the spare prose with which their story is told is rendered beautifully. I did not buy the suggestion that a propensity for infidelity can be inherited. Nevertheless, behaviour detailed here is what happened, offered with thankfully limited moralising.

Money is made and lost throughout the family history. Certain characters travel abroad – some by choice, others forced – to Europe and around South America. There is much name dropping, particularly within the Paris chapters. As this is based on facts the reader may assume the Cisneros enjoyed privileged connections.

An intriguing depiction of generational family dynamics and how, within such an institution, unvarnished truth is so often avoided. An engaging if louche family biography presented with verve and aplomb.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.