Book Review: FRUIT OF THE DRUNKEN TREE, life in Bogota under the shadow of Escobar

Contreras , Ingrid Rojas - Fruit of the Drunken Tree (4)Fruit of the Drunken Tree
Ingrid Rojas Contreras

In Fruit of the Drunken Tree, the Santiagos live in Bogata, Columbia during the time Pablo Escobar rules the country. In a gated community, they feel safe, though the father, Antonio, is mostly gone, working for oil companies in outlying areas. The house is a domain for the women: Alma, the mother, Cassandra, the elder sister, and Chula, the younger sister and narrator. In their gated community, they feel safe from the violence wrought by the drug wars, though they are certainly affected; Chula can’t forget seeing the aftermath of a car bomb on a busy street that killed a young girl around her age.

Alma always has a young girl employed as a cleaner and cook, and instead of looking at qualifications, she selects them based on their circumstances. Alma herself came from an impoverished area and wants to provide an opportunity for girls who were in her position. Perhaps Alma didn’t understand how badly things had deteriorated in the Hills. Girls had few options. They could sign up to be couriers for guerilla groups or attach themselves to one of the paramilitaries. The boys could join the army, join a paramilitary, or turn to drugs.

When Alma hires a new housegirl, Petrona, she does a tarot card reading that says the girl isn’t to be trusted and decrees they’ve been warned, but as Petrona becomes a part of their routine, they either begin to trust her (I hope) or forget to see her at all–except for Chula, who develops an unlikely and unhealthy devotion to her.

Petrona’s mother, a widow unable to work, relies on Petrona, the eldest child in the house, who is still just thirteen or fourteen, to make enough money for the household and take care of her younger siblings. Desperate to keep her brothers from drugs and guns, she makes compromise after compromise.

Even after a state of emergency is declared when presidential candidate Galan is assassinated, and even after kidnappings by paramilitary groups become commonplace, the Santiagos try to live as they always have, ignoring the threats, both internal and external.

Both Chula and Petrona have point of view chapters, and given the situations they encounter, it’s hard to remember how young they are. Reading the book, I felt a sense of dread that was physically oppressive, which I suppose is very apropos given the subject.

In Fruit of the Drunken Tree, depiction of life in Columbia in the late 1980s, early 1990s is compelling, and I learned a lot about daily life not to mention how matters like terrorist attacks and kidnapping in Columbia are handled. Seeing the income inequality in Bogota makes certain character motivations more than understandable. The language, too, was lovely, descriptive, and often heart-wrenching.

What I could not comprehend was the passivity with which Alma dealt with Petrona or the faithfulness Chula exhibited. Also, I’m quite a scrooge sometimes, and I thought that the book had too much of a happy ending given the prior tone of the novel, though I must admit that the “happy ending” also created new problems for the family to unravel.

I definitely think Fruit of the Drunken Tree is worth reading because despite any flaws it provides keen insight into a culture and time with which most Americans are unfamiliar.