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Mundo, Demonio y Mujer.

More than a novel, Mundo, demonio y mujer is a long meditation on coming to terms with oneself in a rapidly changing world in which the familiar rules no longer apply. Costa Rican writer Rima de Vallbona incorporates newspaper clippings, snippets of poetry, maxims and passages from scholarly tracts into her story in order to establish the time and atmosphere (the women's movement from the 1970s on) and the ideological framework within which her characters function--or try to.

Vallbona's protagonist is Renata, a middle-aged Central American woman living in Houston. Raised in a traditional family in which women were always subservient to men, Renata defied custom by continuing her education after high school and obtaining a university degree. Something of a rebel even as a child, Renata liked to play in the dirt and commune with nature, activities that horrified her mother. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Renata's repressed, bitter mother cautions her daughter that she will never catch a man if she continues to read books and advises her to protect her virginity at all costs, since no man wants damaged property. The propensity of traditionalist women to impose an unfulfilling, hierarchical, male-dominated system on their own daughters is one of the book's central issues.

Renata's development is further sabotaged by the admonitions of the local priest, who tries to convince her that her perfectly normal sexual drives are the work of the Devil.

Renata's hopes for a satisfying love life are dashed soon after she marries Antonio, an ambitious archeologist. Antonio turns out to be a domineering, violent, womanizing egotist whose abuses drive his wife into a long, desperate, suicidal depression. The crux of the novel deals with how the protagonist finally finds the courage to break out of this destructive relationship and how she learns to love and respect herself again. The narration alternates between first and third person, a device that allows the protagonist to examine herself from within, as in a typical autobiography, and from without, as if she were being observed by an onlooker.

In Houston, where the couple settles, Renata feels like an outsider, but soon realizes that alienation is a state of mind that doesn't depend on one's geographical location: "As a small child... Renata had felt like a foreigner, alienated in her own land... Here or there... it's all the same, the same exile hungering for eternity." Searching for an anchor, she joins a group of Latin women, most of them her colleagues at the university where she teaches. The feminist movement is in full swing, and each of Renata's acquaintances is grappling with the new ideology in a different way: Faustina finds solace in lesbianism; Milagros, Renata's cousin, goes from one affair to the next, sometimes destroying peoples' lives on the way; the usually virtuous Sonia has an affair just to prove herself.

Renata, who is pretty conventional in spite of her rebellious youth, has a hard time letting go of her inherited moral codes. Numerous dream sequences provide a glimpse into the inner workings of Renata's psyche, especially into the paralyzing guilt feelings instilled by her mother and the priest. Even at fifty, Renata is haunted by her mother's warnings. That is why it is so hard for her to leave Antonio and, later on, for her to accept her daughter Gabriela's live-in boyfriend, even though she respects the girl's independence.

Mother-daughter relationships are a key element of the book; it is, in part, by coming to terms with the new parameters that govern Gabriela's conduct with men that Renata finally achieves a sense of liberation.

During the meetings of Renata's women's group, the participants discuss different developments in the feminist movement, as well as music, films, world events, and literature. Sometimes Renata recounts her latest discoveries about Sor Maria Marcela, an eighteenth-century nun she has been studying. Although the group provides some support, internal bickering and a few acts of real maliciousness eventually make Renata aware that she cannot depend on others, but must seek liberation within herself.

Renata's story is certainly one with which many women--both Latin Americans and others--will identify. At its best, Vallbona's writing is moving and poetic. Renata's letter to Antonio, in which she describes the hopes she had for her marriage and the despair she feels over her husband's boldness, is one of the most poignant parts of the book. However, Vallbona is sometimes annoyingly repetitive. Some passages give the impression that the writer has thrown together immense quantities of raw autobiographical material without taking the time to mold it. Among the least successful elements are the women's conversations, which are often stilted, contrived, and poorly integrated into the rest of the book. Yet, the emotional thrust of Renata's story is enough to carry the reader over the rough spots, from the first page to the last.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Organization of American States
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:World, Demon and Woman
Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Yo soy la Rumba.
Next Article:The encounter.

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