In a compelling stand-alone prequel to his award-winning memoir, Peruvian author and journalist Renato Cisneros once again delves into his family’s past, exploring the rippling effects of family secrets, double-lives, and uncertainty around one’s roots on one family over the course of nearly two centuries.
Those who have read Cisneros’ previous work will notice traces of the stories previously shared by the author. Yet, while his first book mainly revolves around his father’s upbringing, political career, and various romantic liaisons, You Shall Leave Your Land goes further back. Starting with the clandestine relationship between Nicolasa Cisneros and a priest named Gregorio Cartagena in the early 1820s, Cisneros tracks the toll their forbidden relationship had on their children and later generations.
Shifting between his ancestors and the present day (of 2013-14), the author once again goes on a journey to discover his true origins. As with his previous work, you are instantly drawn in by Cisneros’ captivating storytelling. Once again seamlessly translated by Fionn Petch, Cisneros’ reconstruction of his family’s past makes for an absorbing read. Though Cisneros himself is less present this time around, his scattered appearances offer some fascinating mediations on the importance of knowing your families’ origins – even if it means opening up old wounds. His discussions with his Uncle Gustavo raise many questions about the common silence among families when it comes to murkier moments of the past, and the tension that arises from Cisneros’ insistence in discovering the truth is palpable.
The tone is more melancholic, at times anxious, as various Cisneros men struggle to grapple with the fact that their family history is based on a lie. The search for love and security, which is undermined by what seems to be endemic infidelity or abandonment, is one that re-emerges with each new generation. Yet despite the intimate nature of the the stories told, what is remarkable is how Peru’s changing political landscape serves not only as the backdrop for the action, but proves to play an integral role in the forecast of the Cisneros’ lives. More members of his family are revealed to have played a key role in shaping the country, with some Cisneros men working for – and sometimes against – the various dictatorships Peru has endured. Running parallel to this is the importance of poetry among the Cisneros men, with some writing as a way to convey their self-doubt and overwhelming emotion. The poems written by Luis Benjamín have been beautifully translated by Petch with assistance from fellow Charco Press translator, Robin Myers.
Somewhat disappointingly, women again play a largely silent role throughout the novel. It feels unjust that Nicolasa and the other women linked to the Cisneros family are given so little attention – particularly when they are often the ones who bear the brunt of the men’s inherited secrecy and commitment issues.
In spite of this, You Shall Leave Your Land once again showcases Cisneros’ talent (which he has evidently inherited). It is a fascinating piece of autofiction that charts the first roots of a family in an emerging new nation.