Dial / 371 pages / $24
In Marie Arana's expansive, exuberant first novel, a mid-20th century inventor with a passion for paper builds a factory in the middle of the Peruvian jungle and there develops his own process for making cellophane. That cellophane had been invented by a Swiss engineer nearly half a century earlier, and has been produced and sold by DuPont for more than a quarter-century, does little to dim the thrill of discovery for Don Victor Sobrevilla. The protagonist of Cellophane has the untapped South American market in mind and, more important, he has a childlike capacity for wonder at feats of engineering - most of all at his own, which have earned him the sobriquet "shapechanger."
Cellophane is a product of modern technology and a symbol of modernity itself for some of the characters that so thickly populate Arana's humming beehive of a novel. By manufacturing it in one of the least-modernized places on earth, Don Victor is out to prove his prowess as an engineer and a visionary - "Tapping the jungle's treasures demanded ingenuity. Surviving the jungle's perils was a bold game of chance ... to build there was to best any engineer in Paris."
Having successfully produced prosaic brown paper at his jungle settlement Floralinda for years, he turns his attention to perfecting a recipe and process for making cellophane, in which he sees poetry.
That's when the trouble begins. Comfortably ensconced with Don Victor in the wild Peruvian interior as the storm brews are his devoted wife, Mariana, three children, two of their spouses, and a gaggle of grandchildren. Concurrently with Don Victor's closing in on the secrets to producing a superior cellophane, a number of strange signs and dislocations begin to take hold in Floralinda.
After the local priest, Father Bernardo, spontaneously reminisces at the dinner table about a past love affair, an outbreak of helpless truth-telling infects all of the members of the household: "Truth moved through the Sobrevilla house like a rude guest, striding into rooms where it wasn't wanted, interrupting the flow of conversation, trumping the witchman's medicine, upping the amperage of every exchange." Though the characters rue this development and the disorder it introduces, the truth, true to the maxim, turns out to be a powerful and needed disinfectant.
This is in keeping with the general tenor of this comic-at-heart novel in which great disturbances and even dangers turn out, as a rule, to be the temporary and indeed necessary obstacles to a greater harmony. By the end of the book, the unlikely home that the Sobrevillas have forged by the Amazon is irretrievably changed, their future uncertain. But although their material world has proved vulnerable, all matters of the heart have been set permanently right. The progress of the novel toward this happy conclusion vigorously belies one of the premises of Don Victor's achievements and his very existence:
"Don Victor had sought truth where he could: in a covenant with paper, in its promise of regeneration, in the thunder and hubbub of factory revivals. And that is where he found truth - in tangible things."
The implication is not only that Don Victor is looking for truth in all the wrong places. It is also that, as a sort of less tragic Icarus figure, he goes too far in trying to bring something as quintessentially modern as cellophane to a place where "man was just another animal." But the jungle and Peru itself, the novel continually delights in showing us, have since the coming of the conquistadors been an abiding site of incommensurable cultural encounters. Arana, editor of the Washington Post Book World, spends time living not in the Peruvian rain forest but in Lima, and writes in lively and dense detail about her sometime home country.
Though the Catholic priest tends to the spiritual needs of the household and the hacienda, for example, Don Victor also frequents a witch doctor, traveling deep into the jungle to submit to elaborate ritual cures. Such are the fascinating contradictions of life at Floralinda and in the wild of South America more generally, where descendants of European colonists and indigenous people (themselves a hugely varied population), the factory owner and his workers, the menacing, head-shrinking river tribes and everyone else, strike an only precariously peaceful coexistence.
Their uneasy peace is founded partly on mutual misunderstandings - of language, of customs, of intentions - and these generate the most vibrant and touching episodes in Cellophane, such as when a Spanish-speaking character, armed with an English-Spanish dictionary and a determined optimism, translates an obscene proposition into a love note.
In the world of this novel, misunderstandings and misapprehensions are more likely to ameliorate matters than to muddle them. It's a strikingly lovely form of grace that imbues Arana's book and stands, in the end, more memorable even than the fortunate fall of Don Victor and his cellophane dreams.
Laura Demanski is a writer living in Chicago. She maintains a blog about books and the arts at www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight.