On Convents, Castles and Prisons

Ramón Sepúlveda

In this novel, thanks to the ongoing, internal dialogue between the main character, Sonsoles, and Sister Theresa of Avila –one of the most influential thinkers of the Catholic Church, who lived during the 16th century– Camila Reimers allows us to follow her in a search that traverses the entire lifetime of the protagonist. It comprises five essential blocks: the novitiate years, her pairing with a communist militant, her years of meditation and exploration, her short, middle-class marriage, and the significant visit to Avila.

These blocks are not necessarily used by the author to organize the novel; rather, she structures the plot among seven sites called Moradas or Abodes, which are environments populated by/filled with doors leading to rooms that aim to surprise the reader, something the author manages to do thoroughly.

Before long, we find a tender, innocent story of love, after Sonsoles tests her feet outside the convent. It is the era of the naïve years of pre-Allende Chile, and the tragic/ill-fated days of Pinochet that would end by fracturing that innocence.

Sonsoles meets René in her years as a student of Medicine at the University of Concepción. René, a communist militant, manages to give another meaning to Sonsoles’ vocation through volunteer work in Lota and their conversations on Marxism. Situated in the late sixties, the author illustrates with extraordinary accuracy the experiences of students of the era and what was known as “consciousness raising”. Sonsoles surrenders to Rene’s charms and his experience working with coal miners and their poor families.

The story is not linear nor always chronological, because, as we said, it is based on conversations with Saint Theresa, who answers in old Spanish, although a language not without a certain closeness, a certain camaraderie and intimacy typical of a conversation with a friend or classmate. Each segment represents a story that in turn magically dovetails with the rest, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that come to form a not always joyful/cheerful whole.

The protagonist recounts memories that are told unhurriedly, yet inject a sense of inexorable imminence, a feeling that something is about to happen, aside from certain expected revelations, something is going to happen, and soon. During the first Abodes, Sonsoles states: “What I do know is that upon travelling through several of those rooms I began to suspect the identity of the older woman in the photographs.”

Camila Reimers does not shy away from (prefer this sentence) the erotic, be it in intimate, forbidden contexts or unspoiled, pristine environments where it is capable of seducing and charming, nor does she fear delving into historical details, such as the Inquisition or, more recently, the debacle of Chile following the coup.

There are critical inferences to the practices of the cloister or church attendance, Theresa says: “most of the time she doesn’t listen when I say that a sacred place is wherever you set foot and that it is unnecessary to shut oneself away.”

The author achieves an essential intimacy with the reader –aside from the topics she addresses– through economical, straightforward delivery, dialogues that are nearly always monologues, and a current or flow of consciousness. There are no lines, hyphens or spaces, no periods between speaker and interlocutor. Everything in the first person, even voices other than the protagonist’s.

I could not avoid associating the following text:
“I once had a girl, or should I say she once had me.
She showed me her room, isn’t it good Norwegian wood.
She asked to stay and she told me to sit anywhere,
so I looked around and I noticed there wasn’t a chair.
I sat on the rug.”

“I waited for you, he said, and I believed him. His bed on the floor was covered in coloured cushions. I sat down on one without breaking away from those huge black eyes that had changed my world.”
Let us say, briefly, that unlike Sonsoles, Lennon spent the night alone sleeping in the bathtub.

And like the Beatles and their trip to India as guests of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1968, they depart for India to learn Transcendental Meditation; Sonsoles leaves for Mumbai in search of answers, to meditate, but basically following Guru-B, the enigmatic, attractive teacher of the huge black eyes, whom she had met during a retreat in Santiago de Chile.

Guru-B taught her the “immutable secrets of Tantra through the centuries: Desire is what moves the world” and had learned to “use desire to understand life”. This message, added to certain licenses that the guru took as the teacher, are vital to understanding one of the Abodes.

Once again Lennon and McCartney appear, although this is no longer something new, because the novel and the music of the Beatles are contemporary as well. In an important, revealing message from Guru-B to Sonsoles, he says: “Nothing you see is truth but rather a projected lie, sex is only the beginning, not the end. But if you miss the beginning, how will you reach the end?”
“Let me take you down, cause I’m going to strawberry fields,
nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about.
Strawberry fields forever!”

Upon returning to Chile she adopts the life of a professional, filled with all the trials and tribulations of being a mother of young children: running to swimming and ballet classes for the children, dealing with the nanny and the horrendous hospital hours.

In addition to the lucid narration of dalliances of existential, human and conscious nature, as well as of religious vocation, in passing the author alludes to –without exacerbating the perhaps insurmountable division and the shattering of a nation. In referring to Chile’s great crisis as a backdrop, perhaps incidentally but with wisdom, mastery and little subterfuge, yet giving substance to Sonsoles’ search, this quest and the blue castle are the leitmotif of the novel and personified once again in another love, this time an affable, successful older doctor, a right-wing figure who in those ill-starred days of Chile ends up being a great ally and defender of Pinochet. This period distances her from meditation and her calling. This is the only part of the book in which the word Prison, from the title, is represented.

The allusion to Convents is evident in the novitiate days and in the communication with Sister Theresa, and Castles (including the aforementioned blue castle), which appear throughout the novel, are figurative or real and would be the metaphysical location of The Seven Abodes, a key aspect in the structure of the novel.

In one of Sonsoles’ earlier monologues, between one relationship and the other, when the will to follow her quest was faltering, she says:

“I wanted to search for God and the nuns took me away from Him, I wanted to help the poor and ended up singing ‘The International’. I wanted to understand the soul of the human being but Guru-B drove me away from my own self.”

Suffice it to say that neither the battle nor the search are over yet.

In this novel, as stated before, more than the goal it is the journey, the quest that takes the reader by the hand. This expedition compels the reader to follow the path, we know that there is no easy answer to existential or spiritual questions. We remain glued to the page [limited/constrained to reading] not in hopes of finding the answers but rather attentive to the exceptional endeavours of the protagonist. This is a novel that fearlessly, honestly shows us the path of a restless woman, a bold woman, a noble woman. The emphasis is on the concept of WOMAN, throughout her entire lifetime.

I could not avoid comparisons with the writing of Paolo Coehlo, although the protagonist seemed much more earthly to me, closer to any of us. Beautiful spiritual journeys, stunning visions, but equally important are the needs of physical intimacy and morning cuddles from an unshaven face. It made me think of a story by a familiar Chilean writer who celebrated the end of a vegetarian fast by savouring a nicely browned chicken’s foot, and since she could not resist, ended up eating the entire roasted chicken.

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