The Farm

Hector Abad

Translated by Anne McLean

Archipelago Books, £14.04

Review by Rosemary Goring

The Farm around which Colombian writer Hector Abad’s substantial novel revolves is called La Oculta. Its name means hidden, or the hideaway, but, as the characters learn over the years, it is not remote or concealed enough to keep them from harm.

La Oculta lies in the Andes and looks, to the outside eye, like an idyll: richly fertile, with cattle, a lake and horses which the narrator, Antonio Angel, loves to ride. Antonio is a musician and teacher who lives in New York. His affection for the farm is profound and instinctual.

As he reflects of his husband Jon, “A person gets used to a body the way one gets used to a farm or a landscape”. Jon is his rib, but so too is La Oculta. Yet despite loving the first place he called home, he fled Colombia many years before and has since returned mainly to visit his mother. It is her unexpected death that prompts the tale to begin.

Antonio, like all his family, has mixed feelings for the place. These must now be assembled into a rational argument for him and his sisters Pilar and Eva either to keep La Oculta or to sell and leave it forever. He is inclined to keep it, and Pilar will consider no alternative. It is Eva who cannot sell fast enough. “Since she’d almost been murdered there,” her brother tells us, “she no longer trusted that land which we’d inherited as our own safe haven.”

What The Farm loses by title, it makes up in Abad’s singing style and confiding, conversational manner. One of Colombia’s most eminent novelists, rooted in the grim politics and social issues of his lifetime, his magical realist forebears now seem distant.

Yet the fiction he writes, in short stories as well as novels, is beguilingly sugared, its barbed wire core

appealingly coated in an upbeat, often droll tone.

Like the middle-aged characters in the novel, Abad’s relationship with his homeland is complicated, haunted by memories of extreme violence. In 1987 his father, who was a doctor and a human rights champion, was murdered by Colombian paramilitaries.

It took 20 years for Abad to write about that, in Oblivion (2006). Now, with this novel, he dives headlong again into that terrifying era, as witnessed by the Angel family.

Diving is the right image, because it is by throwing herself into the lake that Eva escaped the intruders who intended to kill her.

For two or three days after their bullets barely missed her, she had to find her way back to Medellin by her own wits, evading her pursuers while suffering brutal injuries from a fall. Thereafter it is years before she will go back to La Oculta.

Her attackers were part of the mafia mob working in league with the paramilitaries. They kept control of the region, the whirr of their chainsaws the prelude to unspeakable horrors.

The Angels are a target because they have refused to pay protection money and while they are not the wealthy family they once were, having sold the farm off piecemeal over the years, by comparison with their neighbours they are enviably well-off.

The Farm is told by the siblings in turn, although Antonio gets the lion’s share. The youngest, he is also the keeper of the Angel clan’s history, delving back to the mid-19th century when their forebears arrived on foot to stake a claim to a parcel of land in Antioquia and make their fortunes with back-breaking labour.

Since then, it has been the Angel family creed that their only hope of salvation and safety lies in the land. As The Farm unfolds, that certainty is severely tested.

The idealistic pioneer who led the original settlers started out with high hopes. It was his belief that all newcomers should start with roughly the same chance of success.

As he said, “there are not only injustices committed by men; there are also injustices of destiny, as a poet once said... but for now everyone is going to start, if not with exactly the same, then with something that is very similar: land.”

True to his fears, in little over a century’s time, what had begun as an egalitarian project had been distorted by all the human vices, greed, covetousness, sloth and deceit. And by random fate. By the 1980s, this region of Colombia was a snake pit, where silence was the wisest option, as was a metaphorical blindfold, if one wanted to survive.

Abad’s narrators encapsulate Colombia old and new. Pilar, the eldest, married at 17 and has remained happily with her husband all that time, never wishing to leave or have a career.

She is tradition incarnate, her existence revolving around family, and still in thrall to the church – though in reality paying lip-service only. In her fidelity to Colombia, and the farm, and the notion of everlasting union, the old country is kept alive.

Eva, by comparison, is flighty. Academically gifted and beautiful, she has been married thrice, and after her near-death experience at La Oculta, loathes it as she hated the worst of her husbands. Her fly-by-night temperament is in tune with the restlessness of politically aware and anxious modern times.

Antonio fits somewhere in between. Gay, but long-settled, nostalgic for his childhood home yet by now as much a New Yorker as a Colombian, he is the linchpin for the family, a bridge between the ill-matched sisters, and constantly reminding them of the early Angels who made the farm, and at what cost.

Gradually, the intertwined voices of the Angel brood take the reader back and forwards into the recent and distant past.

Through their eyes we see the ways of Colombian society, the minutiae of household politics, the obscenity of government corruption and the continuing fragility of the situation in a country where terror has sunk deep roots.

In Abad’s hands, it is a tale you don’t wish to end. He does not smooth the rough edges, nor sentimentalise his characters.

They are as emotionally calloused and inconsistent as you or I. The Farm is told with love of the memories the country holds, fury at those who ravaged it and sorrow at everything that has been lost. This richly evocative saga is so persuasively alluring, it suggests the greatest of these is love.