As with most of the books which I have been reading and reviewing of late, Lisa St Aubin de Teran’s The Hacienda was chosen for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. I have read a couple of the author’s novels in the past, but have never come across any of her non-fiction before. This particular memoir, which begins when de Teran is just seventeen years old, has been described as ‘extraordinary’ and ‘mesmerising’.
In the 1970s, whilst still a teenager, de Teran got married to a Venezuelan man, twenty years older than herself, whom she had a whirlwind romance with in London. She ‘followed her new husband, South American aristocrat and bank robber, Don Jaime Teran, to his hacienda, deep in the Venezuelan Andes.’ On the vast avocado and sugarcane plantation, she and Jaime live their different lives; she is left largely to fend for herself, with little knowledge of the local dialect. Despite this, she became ‘la Dona’, spending her time ‘managing the estate, bearing her first child, handling her increasingly unstable husband, and living for seven years amongst la gente, an illiterate, feudal people’, who are tithed to the estate. She writes of the way in which, despite her improvements of the estate for those who lived there, she was not accepted by the community until she had a child of her own, evidence of bonding ‘physically with the clan I had married into.’
As de Teran finds it, the hacienda ‘was a place without any clear dimensions: a frontierless tract of land steeped in history. When I asked what it was, I was always told it was in the Andes, never anywhere specific, just “en los Andes”, as though this mythical hacienda were the heart, the living core of a great mountain range.’ As the months pass, de Teran feels rather overwhelmed with the many ways in which her life has changed, and the different pace of life she finds: ‘Time, it seemed, had warped on the hacienda and spun its web over all its sons and daughters. It spun its web over me.’
De Teran makes it clear that her expectations of Venezuela were not met when she first arrived in Caracas. She writes: ‘I suppose I was expecting everything to fit the descriptions of a sugar plantation. The big, modern, bustling Americanised city of concrete highrises came as a total shock. Where was the jungle? Where were the snakes?… I felt completely disorientated. I began to imagine the hacienda as a place of concrete bowers wreathed in tropical flowers. I had braced myself to live in the wilds, instead I found myself in a place obsessed by the spending and display of wealth.’
Despite the many elements of interest which can be found within the pages of The Hacienda, I did not find it anywhere near as engaging as I was expecting to. De Teran has included many letters written to her mother throughout, which seem to have been slotted in at random, and which interrupt and take attention away from the threads of story that weave through the whole. I found The Hacienda to be both disjointed and distanced; it felt as though de Teran was constantly keeping things at arm’s length, and distorting scenes. The strengths within the memoir were certainly the expressions of Venezuelan customs, the sometimes colossal cultural differences which de Teran identifies, and the impacts of the country’s violent and tumultuous history. Quite scant information is given about the social and political climate in Venezuela, however; much of the information here is focused solely upon the hacienda, with little consideration of the country as a whole.