As we approach the 25th anniversary of the death of Pablo Escobar, it’s hard to argue that his memory has faded. So adept he was at cultivating a larger-than-life personality that the mythos of his existence is still fodder for today’s pop-culture. If you’re not convinced, look no further than recent films like Tom Cruise’s American Made, or the popular Netflix series Narcos. To see him from the angle of most modern storytellers is to see him deified as a sort of rock-and-roll Robin Hood; a man who became bigger than any political authority, and whose dangerous lifestyle always seemed to come off as effortlessly cool.
Men like Escobar, however, can’t rise to such rarefied heights of infamy without being propped up by a mountain of bodies crushed beneath the soles of their feet. How often do we get the story of those people, the victims of his very existence?
Therein lies the importance of Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s impressive debut novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree. Pablo Escobar isn’t front and center here, but is instead presented as a shadowy figure often heard of, whose influence helps to warp an entire country’s understanding of normalcy to the point that car bombings, kidnappings, and daily instances of rape and torture are accepted as commonplace. How does one grow up in such an environment, and what are the psychological implications of survival? Contreras does her best to answer these questions through the dueling perspectives of Chula Santiago, a child growing up in an affluent neighborhood in Bogotá, and Petrona Sánchez, the teenage peasant from the invasión who finds work as her family’s housemaid and caretaker.
Through Chula, the reader is able to experience the cultural environment of Bogotá with the eyes of a child; her innocence gives us an objective perspective of everyday life, and where she fails to react to the very real dangers surrounding her at any given time, the reader makes up for with their own sense of bewilderment and horror. In an early scene, Chula doesn’t understand her own state of emotional shock from just glimpsing the severed leg of a young girl caught who’d been caught in the blast of a bomb while waiting for her father to buy tickets to the circus, and it is doubtful that she’ll be able to grasp the weight of that moment until she fully reaches adulthood.
Readers, however, understand it immediately, and the effect is two-fold; not only do we mourn for the child lost to a senseless act of terrorism, but we also mourn for Chula, who doesn’t even realize she’s a part of the collateral damage. We’re left to wonder who would carry out such horrifying acts, only to be confronted with that perspective through the experiences of young Petrona.
If Chula’s affluence gives her any insulation to the atrocities going on around her, then Petrona’s poverty leaves her emotionally raw and in a perpetual state of vulnerability. She’s a teenage girl with a tremendous weight on her shoulders; her father is gone, her mother’s health is in shambles, and her older brothers have left to get on with their own lives, leaving her the task of carrying for her youngest brothers and sister by any means necessary. She’s able to get a job working for the Santiagos, but her degree of desperation is too great to overcome, and the promise of easy money by just being a cog in the paramilitary machine is too great to overcome. Petrona makes many terrible decisions, but still the reader never stops hoping for the best, even when we know it is foolish to do so.
Overall, Contreras’s work is ambitious. Though the story is a work of fiction, the events are real, told with the fidelity of someone who has lived through them. The Santiagos’ position of comfort is quickly swept away by the turbulence of Escobar’s downfall, and the reader stays with them through all of it, gripped by a narrative that doesn’t play lightly with themes of loss and betrayal. Even after Chula’s family is able to flee Bogotá and find safe haven in East LA, we know they’ll never really be able to escape the violence of Colombia. The damage has been done, both to Chula and to Petrona, and we grieve for both of them.
If you are one of those who’s been exposed to one too many stories featuring a larger-than-life drug lord echoing the most glorified aspects of Pablo Escobar, Fruit of the Drunken Tree is the remedy you didn’t know you desperately needed. Given enough time, Contreras work should be regarded as one of the most important novels published in recent memory.