What’s curious about cellophane’s place in the pantheon of paper products is that it doesn’t actually conceal anything; rather, it offers a flimsy defense and a reflective shine, and has the effect of making whatever it contains--cigarettes, candy, a bauble, a bouquet of flowers--appear slightly more attractive than it actually is. In Marie Arana’s new novel, the introduction of the crinkly, shimmery wrapping into an industrialized jungle community serves to strip away several layers of civility, revealing ugly fissures of class, religion, and culture that were previously of small import. The clear, colorful cling acts here like battery acid splashed in a supermodel’s face.
It’s 1952, and eccentric engineer Don Victor Sobrevilla is in his second quarter-century of overseeing Floralinda, a thriving paper plant-cum-company town he founded deep in the heart of the Peruvian jungle, far from his native Trujillo. In his employ are indigenous natives, acting as factory workers and domestic help in the massive manor that his many children and grandchildren call home. Long fascinated with paper, Sobrevilla--known among the natives as "the shapechanger"--begins to make cellophane out of hemp while tinkering in his workshop and, mesmerized, decides to dedicate his plant wholly to its manufacture. Almost immediately afterward a dog and the cook’s son succumb to and die from mysterious maladies, and a plague of bald truth-telling descends on the hacienda and its environs, upsetting the atmosphere of peaceful, idyllic tranquility and sending this little corner of the world plunging into chaos and gossip: Unrealized lusts are made manifest, marriages splinter and crumble, rock-solid allegiances are questioned. Into this volatile quagmire wander a Peruvian army general with an oppressive presidential decree, a crusty Australian riverboat captain, a charming American cartographer, the on-the-lam daughter of a headshrinking tribal chieftain, and the shapechanger’s worldly, ancient aunt. As the plagues pile up comically, a priest and a shaman prove hapless to stop them, a kangaroo court is convened, and, eventually, a climax that forensic scientists would relish looms ever larger.
Arana’s graceful writing is simultaneously poetic and detailed throughout Cellophane: purple prosy, romance-novel sappy, historical, and magically mystical without going too far in any one direction. The book’s fablelike tone makes Sobrevilla’s story a joy to read if wealthy people’s problems turn you off but ill prepares you for the denouement. And when Arana--even sporadically--sprinkles profanity in among her delicious, wild-kingdom metaphors and exclamation mark-studded dialogue, the coarseness rings false and forced. For all of Cellophane’s fascinating, flawed characters--Victor’s deluded, loathing daughter-in-law Elsa, a former aristocrat gone mad who eventually turns traitor on her in-laws, chief among them--Arana’s most compelling entity is the one easiest to take for granted until the final page: the relentlessly economical jungle itself.