By Patricia Engel
Avid Reader Press: March 2, 2021
$26.00, 208 pages
Some of the best books of the last few years have been immigration stories. Now we can add Patricia Engel’s Infinite Country to the list. At 200 pages, it’s a fast read, but that doesn’t lessen its power. Reading her compelling fourth novel is like facing a boxer with a relentless jab and a sparingly used but lethal right hook.
Infinite Country begins near the ending of the story. Fifteen-year-old Talia is in a correctional facility for adolescent girls in the mountains of Colombia following an act of violence. Engineering the escape of several girls and herself, she must find her way home to Bogota, where her father and a plane ticket to New Jersey await. Who is Talia and how is she able to simply fly to the U.S.?
The bulk of Infinite Country depicts the events leading up to what is actually Talia’s return to America. It’s the story of a young couple, Mauro and Elena, who decide to abandon Bogota for the chance at a better life in the United States. They arrive on six-month visas with their infant daughter Karina, taking their chances in a new world at the turn of the millennium. When they decide to overstay their visa, they become undocumented immigrants.
“They did not consider themselves immigrants,” Engel writes. “They never thought that far ahead and were young enough to believe none of their decisions were permanent. They saw themselves as travelers discovering new frontiers.”
Mauro and Elena face constant challenges, economic and cultural, as they go from one location, living arrangement, and job to another, always searching for a safe place. Few of their setbacks will be surprising to readers, but such experiences never lose their power to break your heart and stir up your righteous indignation.
Early on, living in Houston, Mauro works as a furniture mover. “He resented the idea of becoming what some called illegal, as if just waking up another day in North America made a person a criminal. He missed their city, knowing where they’d sleep each month . . . He even missed Bogota’s chaos, the city’s brittle air in contrast to the strangling boa of Texas heat.”
Before long, their family expands with the births of son Fernando and daughter Talia, named for the actress who played the wife of Rocky Balboa because “Elena always thought the wife much tougher than the boxer.” Thoughts of possibly returning to Colombia are put aside.
Now they are a mixed status family of three undocumented Colombians and two American citizens.
The catalyst for the novel’s core narrative is Mauro’s arrest and deportation. Engel tells us, “Elena knew Mauro wanted a life for his family in the United States, but they never discussed the possibility of that life continuing without him.” When he reaches her from the detention center, he tells her, “You should stay. No matter what happens to me or what I say later. Stay.”
Now a single mother with three young children, Elena eventually makes the difficult decision to send baby Talia back to Colombia to be cared for by her father and Elena’s mother, Perla, so she can continue working to support Karina and Nando.
Engel’s decision to split up the family allows her to show us how each type of immigration and citizenship status affects the holder and their relationships with other family members. Talia grows up Colombian but knows she has dual citizenship and can return to the U.S. anytime. Her father struggles without his wife and other two children.
Engel weaves the stories of Talia, Mauro, and Elena into a tri-color cloth akin to the Colombian flag: Talia is the wide yellow band, while her parents are the blue and red bands.
Late in the book we learn about the experiences of the undocumented Karina, a sensitive but determined young writer, and Nando, who despite being a citizen can never seem to quite fit in.
“Karina and Nando already knew to fear police. To them, regular cops and ICE were one and the same. They understood they were not as free as other people walking on the street and could be flagged for their complexions. Elena had received advice early on from the residents of the Sandy Hill house and made it into the family protocol: See a police officer on the street, find a way to dip into a store or turn onto another corner and out of sight. Police are not your friend. Even the cordial ones. Yes, they are there to help people in danger just like you’re taught in school, she’d tried to explain to her children, but in this country some people think the ones they need protection from are us.”
When 15-year-old fugitive Talia realizes she must return to the United States and her family, Engel describes how Mauro, long separated from them, “wanted to convey to his daughter the price of leaving, though he had difficulty finding the words. What he wanted to say was that something is always lost; even when we are the ones migrating, we end up being occupied. But Talia wasn’t listening, already tiring of her father’s stories. He felt her detaching from him, from their city . . . counting down until she could leave it. What she didn’t know, Mauro thought, was that after the enchantment of life in a new country dwindles, a particular pain awaits. Emigration was a peeling away of the skin. An undoing. You wake each morning and forget where you are, who you are, and when the world outside shows you your reflection, it’s ugly and distorted; you’ve become a scorned, unwanted creature.”
Infinite Country is enriched by the Colombian mythology that Mauro passes on to Talia, stories of jaguars, snakes, and condors that explain how the original people of Colombia came to be and which can still guide them even today.
Infinite Country is also noteworthy for Engel’s beautiful prose, whether describing the mountainous Colombian landscape and the cacophony of Bogota or the essence of being an immigrant, always a stranger in a strange land.
Engel, who teaches in the MFA program at the University of Miami, is the daughter of Colombian immigrants. She knows Colombia and the United States intimately, and it shows in her sensitive but brutally honest depiction of life in both countries. It’s rare to find a novel that should be longer. But at times Infinite Country feels compressed; Engel leaves readers to infer what happened next, when she has hinted at a plot strand that seems well worth exploring, even if it doesn’t cover new ground. But that’s a mere quibble in an absorbing and enlightening story that provides a glimmer of hard-fought hope at the end.
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