Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Table of contents
Patricia Engel Sings the Migrant Song
It might be fairly difficult to truly understand for those of us living in first-world countries where most social services, benefits and safety nets are taken for granted, but the search for a better life is a very real and essential goal many people are willing to make monumental sacrifices for. In Patricia Engel‘s Infinite Country, we meet one such family whose history is shaped by their dreams for the future.
I feel I ought to mention, before adding anything else, this is indeed a fictional novel, but it very much draws on the author’s personal experiences and her first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to live as a Colombian immigrant in the United States of America.
In any case, the story begins by first introducing us to Talia, stowed away at a correctional facility for adolescent girls somewhere in the mountains of Colombia. While her stay there may or may not be justified, the only thing which matters to her is returning to her father in Bogota, where a plane ticked to the United States awaits her, with the promise of reunification.
From there, we rewind through time to see how this one family managed to become fragmented enough to live in two different countries in spite of their wishes to the contrary. We get to meet Talia’s parents, Maura and Elena, from the time they were teenagers and fell in love with each other at the marketplace as a civil war raged around them.
We witness the risks they took and efforts they made to leave Bogota along with their firstborn, Karina, in search of a better life in the United States. We are shown how they managed to settle there, what their life was like, and how it led to the birth of two new children, Nando and Talia. Most importantly, we see the choices which led to Mauro’s deportation, and the burden the family was forced to bear because of it.
A Story of Exile in Infinite Country
Though I do not live in the United States, it seems to me the topic of immigration has always been a fairly touchy one. On one hand, the country relies fairly heavily on their immigrant contingent to perform necessary low-skill labour, but on the other, many people are reluctant to let outsiders in for any number of personal or philosophical reasons (naturally ignoring the history of their own ancestors).
No matter which side of the discussion one might belong to, there is a fact uniting all non-immigrants: they do not truly know what the immigrant experience is like, nor can they truly assess what people go through in their home countries, and what they have to cope with in order to achieve their simple dream of living a peaceful life.
For this reason specifically, I believe books such as Infinite Country are extremely topical and important right now to spread some awareness about an aspect of the human condition many people thankfully don’t need to experience themselves. In large part, the story of this book is a story about a family living in exile, ironically enough, no matter where they are.
Having a good deal of experience with the topic herself, Patricia Engel poignantly captures the types of feelings and thoughts which accompany exile, showing how complex the phenomenon can be and how profound of an impact it can have on a person’s psyche.
Most importantly, I believe, the greatest accomplishment of this book is the humanization of immigrants, reminding rather starkly those who have forgotten that they are also people just like us. Engel demonstrates convincingly the kind of absurd suffering and tragedy we are capable of engendering when we create arbitrary divisions between us, and if there was a single lesson to get out of the book, it would be this one.
Into the Colombian Heart
A novel remains, in the end, a novel, and Patricia Engel certainly doesn’t spend her time dryly describing one step of immigration after the next. On the contrary, all the observations and insight we receive are given us through the life stories of the various members of the family, with us primarily following Talia’s narrative as well as flashbacks to her parents’ youthful days.
The segments which take us into the past are absolutely stunning and captivating from start to finish, opening a grand window into Colombian culture and the countless undocumented aspects of it. We are even treated to bits and pieces of folklore which are, in one way or another, linked with the larger narrative at hand.
Though it probably wouldn’t be expected at first glance, the plot moves along rather quickly, mirroring a certain reality of the immigrant life: nearly-incessant turbulent motion. It feels like characters barely have time to process what happens to them when they’re hit with some new problems which can’t wait to be solved… another truth I’m certain Patricia Engel draws from personal experience.
Additionally, various universal topics are also brought to the fore in hopes of pushing the reader to think with their own head. Namely, Engel questions the real meaning of home, and how different people define it in their own ways. What does it really mean to leave home? What price do we pay for living in a strangers’ land? How much do borders define us?
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While some aspects of the story do carry inspiring connotations and hopeful suggestions, I feel I must mention how hefty the book can feel at times for themes it explores. Happiness isn’t freely dispensed nor guaranteed for anyone, and the author takes a realistic approach, showing how it can bless some with minimal effort, and avoid others who dedicate their lives to its search.
The Final Verdict
Infinite Country by Patricia Engel is a gripping, thought-provoking, current and necessary novel about the immigrant experience from the Pan-American perspective. Touching on the good, bad and the ugly of it all, Patricia Engel certainly has a lot of food for thought to share with us through a fictional story filled with its own charms and moments of excitement.
If you’re looking for a solid work of Hispanic literary fiction focusing on the various fates which befall a splintered family of immigrants, then I highly recommend you give the book a shot.
Patricia Engel is a Columbian-American writer who first made waves when she published Vida, which had the distinction of becoming a PEN/Hemingway Fiction Award Finalist, as well as winning the Columbian national prize in literature.
Her novel The Veins of the Ocean won the 2017 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and most recently, in 2019, she was awarded the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in Fiction.