Mothers' days

A MESSAGE FROM GOD IN THE ATOMIC AGE by Irene Vilar, trs Gregory Rabassa Granta pounds 9.99

On 1 March 1954, Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebrn walked into the House of Representatives, wrapped herself in her country's flag and opened fire on American congressmen. "I did not come here to kill," she declared. "I came here to die." She was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Forty years later, after a failed suicide attempt, her granddaughter, Irene Vilar, wakes up in a psychiatric hospital. Here she starts a diary to chart the progress of her recovery. But, again and again, she returns to her grandmother's dramatic gesture at the Capitol and is forced to face its consequences. The introverted examination of a woman emerging from suicidal depression widens its remit to include the history of Puerto Rican colonisation, what it means to be ethnically marginalised, and, within that repressive, macho society, what it means to be a woman. Vilar's intensely personal story, at times obscured by a fog of unresolved emotions, encompasses three generations of Puerto Rican women and the political forces that had such a devastating impact on their lives.

In 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted American citizenship. But, despite its foamy seas and mango groves, Puerto Rico is accepted neither as a tourist fantasy nor as a fully-fledged American state. In the other Antilles, "the weak, ephemeral, and frugal [can be] played as exotica, because they are still foreign, not main characters, like Puerto Ricans, in the North American saga of colonialism and its immediate product: immigration to the USA."

Puerto Rico needed a figurehead, and Lolita Lebrn supplied it. From the sidelines, her family chronicled her growing reputation as a martyr. In a society that idealises the "feminine principle" of self-sacrifice, Lebrn is seen as its patron saint. Vilar nonchalantly records that, from her prison cell, her grandmother communicated her visions and sent a pamphlet entitled "A Message from God in the Atomic Age" to President Eisenhower. The response was a transfer to a secure psychiatric unit where she shared a ward with Ezra Pound.

But Vilar's sympathy lies with her mother, Gladys, whom Lebrn abandoned at the age of eight. At 15, she assumed the role of doomed romantic heroine and married a notorious philanderer known as "The Rooster". Vilar's unspoken resentment towards her grandmother surfaces in an analysis of Gladys's behaviour. She tried to "live all the lives her mother had postponed". She was a true Caribena, and her emotions were intense and operatic. Vilar, the "witness daughter", watched as her parents engaged in a retributive contest of one- night stands. Finally, on the 23rd anniversary of her mother's bid for immortality, Gladys leapt from a speeding car. The eight- year-old Irene, sitting in the back, desperately clutched at her dress but was left "with a piece of black lace" in her hands.

Details such as this prove that Vilar is a natural writer, and that her book is more than just therapy. But her vigour dwindles into a woozy, dreamlike mode when she returns to the psychiatric ward, where her anaesthetised voice records the pat diagnoses: "According to the doctor, I don't establish boundaries. When I leave the hospital I'll know how to say no. For her that's being somebody." But Vilar is truly a child of her times - whereas her grandmother staked all on a public commitment to nationalism, she quotes Melanie Klein and displays the self-absorption of a patient in analysis.

Only when detailing the events that brought her to this state does Vilar's story take off. With the death of Gladys, and after 26 years' imprisonment, Lebrn makes her long-awaited entrance. She is led blindfold from her cell to attend her daughter's funeral. Crowds gather, children chant her name, Gladys's death becomes part of a "collective epic" and she another Puerto Rican martyr. Irene is taken under her grandmother's wing and schooled in revolutionary politics. But memories of her mother, like a "scorpion", sting repeatedly.

Lebrn found her voice in a prison cell; Vilar finds hers in a hospital bed. Her story - about one woman "who dreamt a nation" and one "who longed for dependence" - ends by celebrating her deafness to their "siren songs". But in terms of dramatic potency, the women's quest for self-destruction and the political dynamic that they brought to it leaves Vilar's account of her survival wanting.

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