THE MAN WHO COULD MOVE THE CLOUDS: A Memoir, by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
In 2012, Ingrid Rojas Contreras traveled to her mother’s hometown of Ocaña, Colombia, to exhume the body of her grandfather Nono at the request of a spirit who, according to family members, appeared in dreams. While researching her ancestors there, she picked up a book so old it disintegrated in her hands, leaving only dust. “It’s as if I had seen history fade away,” she despaired, thinking back to her failed search for family documents. His mother laughs at him. “Who do you think we are,” she scoffed, “the kind of people to be on the public record?”
So to complete “The Man Who Could Move the Clouds” — his first memoir, after his debut novel, “Fruit of the Drunken Tree,” in 2018 — Rojas Contreras relies instead on oral history, ultimately embracing his messy, unverifiable and disjointed nature. The story jumps in time, from 1984 to 2007 to 1993 during the colonial era. The family members are introduced as adults, later appear as teenagers, and then as corpses. Spirits lurk around every corner. There are spectral treasure hunts, violent men, alcoholic ghosts and shape-shifting witches; paramilitaries set fire to a family farm, bombings become commonplace and an uncle is kidnapped by guerrillas four times. These are the kind of stories in which Gabriel García Márquez would have rubbed his hands.
The book begins with a strange parallelism: Rojas Contreras and his mother, Sojaila, both suffered accidents that left them temporarily amnesiac. As a child in Ocaña, Sojaila fell into an empty well and nearly bled. Forty-three years later, Rojas Contreras crashes into an opening car door while riding his bike in Chicago. The event welcomes him into a line of ghost whisperers and shamans – an uncle who can harbor the spirits of the dead inside his body, an aunt who “told fortunes by reading the embers on the end of her cigar and Sojaila herself, who dreams she “has practiced making things happen with her mind”.
All of these supernatural gifts were passed down through the titular man at the center of the book: Nono, the author’s maternal grandfather, whose full name was Rafael Contreras Alfonso. Like a curandero, or shaman, he was revered in eastern Colombia for his ability to communicate with the spectral world. He was also a shrewd entrepreneur and fabulist who, though illiterate and shunned by the Catholic Church, carved out a life for himself as a soothsayer and healing sick neighbors. At his funeral, the townspeople stuffed his coffin with scraps of paper asking for miracles.
As she recovers from her head injury, Rojas Contreras reconnects with her family’s past, weaving their stories with a personal narrative, unraveling the legacies of violence, machismo and colonialism. She finds another form of amnesia in the miscegenation, or racial miscegenation, which gradually wiped out the indigenous culture of Latin America: “ancestral memory hidden for centuries from the occupying powers — and in the secret becoming something new, something bifurcated”. As Rojas Contreras relearns her heritage, she is filled with childlike wonder, a new understanding of lineage and remembrance.
Perhaps because of this trance, the sections of the memoirs that expand beyond the personal into discussions of colonialism and Colombian history may seem thin. Some reflections are vague, airy, even bordering on cringe. “We were a brown, mixed-race people,” gushed Rojas Contreras in language worthy of a Goya advertisement. “European men had arrived on the continent and had raped indigenous women, and that was our origin: neither indigenous nor Spanish, but a wound. Others are wrong about simple facts. She claims that in the caste systems of colonial Americas, “the whitest a person of color could be was a castizo, the child of a mestizo and a Spaniard”. But according to 18th-century casta paintings illustrating racial hierarchies in the Spanish colonies, the child of a castizo (someone with an indigenous grandparent) and a white Spaniard is considered a Spaniard.
For a book that reveals such profound collective truths, these are quibbles. Where “Fruit of the Drunken Tree” romanticized the author’s real-life experience of being kidnapped as a child, with the non-fiction work “The Man Who Could Move the Clouds”, Rojas Contreras imposed on the public a collective identity of clairvoyants and spiritualists. – starting with Nono – whom she pieced together from the disintegrated fragments of her own family past. In doing so, she has written a spellbinding and genre-defying ancestral story.
THE MAN WHO COULD MOVE THE CLOUDS: A Memoir, by Ingrid Rojas Contreras | 306 pages | Doubleday | $30
Miguel Salazar is a researcher at the Revue du livre.