Dust, dreams and destiny: An Archipelago in a Landlocked Country by Elisa Taber

In “Raising Angel”,  a story in Elisa Taber’s unique and original debut, a boy occupies himself creating a family with figures cut from a newspaper. He sets them into a cardboard box home and imagines conversations occurring within that space. He puts them to bed, lets them fall asleep. All the while his grandmother watches from the corner of the spare cement dwelling they call home.

There is something in young Angel’s play that is eerily similar to the way his tale and those of the other individuals and characters who grace this book are composed, set into action, viewed and reported. It is at once evocative and unnerving.

Described as a lyric ethnography, An Archipelago in Landlocked Country offers a unique three-part journey deep into the heart of Paraguay. The Mennonite colony where the author was born and its neighbouring Indigenous settlement provide the context and inspiration for a filmic travelogue, a collection of short stories, and a novella. Each section is separate and can be read in any desired order, but throughout there is an overriding interdependency that crosses the boundaries between careful observation, mythology and magical imagining to weave a sensual, sensitive portrait of this distant land.

The backdrop is the Gran Chaco, an isolated region of grassland and thorny forest that extends over the Paraguayan-Argentinian border. Home to the Nivaklé peoples for centuries, the area was opened up to outsiders in the early part of the twentieth century. Among the first newcomers were German-speaking Russian Mennonites from Canada who established two colonies, Menno and Fernheim. The author’s birthplace, Neuland, was settled somewhat later, in 1947, by Mennonites fleeing prosecution in the Soviet Union. The community was initially home exclusively to women and children. In 2016, Taber and her mother returned to spend a month in Neuland and the first part of this book, “Asunción to Neuland, via Filadelfia” unfolds as a set of tableaus, descriptions of a series of 30-second films that form a spare documentary of their journey.

This string of visual vignettes has a dreamy feel; passing and static images are captured with descriptions at once detailed and incomplete. Flora, photographs, places and people are observed, recorded and recounted. Short scenes are sketched.

A man in a cheap tuxedo, a waiter, I guess, steers a broom back. A raven mustache and a low hairline. It starts right above his eyebrows. Acne scars on his cheeks and deep wrinkles between his eyes. A face that transitioned straight from adolescence to old age. A transformation like that of the tight-pant-clad blond I mistook for a girlfriend in the dining room until his weathered and bearded face turned to meet mine, smiling oddly.

I prefer to start at the beginning, I confess, so when moving through this book’s sections in the order presented, this opening part serves as a perfect entry into the territory where Taber’s fictional expansion will play out.

“Cayim ô Clim” offers a collection of short stories set in the Nivaklé settlement. Each piece serves as an imagined window into the lives and mythologies of its residents—the young and the old and those caught in between. There is a striking precision to the way Taber’s stories are arranged and a tactile quality to their execution. The landscape is as essential as any circumstance that arises or event that occurs; the atmosphere is evoked in an insistent, poetic prose that seems to physically occupy the textual space. You can feel the wind blowing dust across the pages, grit settling into your pores.

It blows from the south. Dismembers the soil. Creates a thick, brown haze. Bodies that obstruct its path claim it feels like dry hail. A hard substance in the air. Sand gathers to occupy space. The grains are close but separate. They do not dissolve into each other.

Within this harsh environment her characters exhibit a calm resilience, sometimes skewed, with an ability to stretch resources, employ their imaginations, and improvise at work and play. Children and their games, mothers and daughters, curious loners—losses and absences run through their lives, but life goes on. All the while, the author watching, closely, occasionally slipping into their skins.

The third section, “La Paz del Chaco Street” is a novella tinged with magic, deeply rooted in . the overlapping and intersecting histories of the distinct peoples that have met, mingled and made this landlocked corner of the world their own. Central to the story is Agatha, an eccentric third-generation Mennonite woman who, at puberty, feels a growing discomfort around other people. She begins to wander further and further away from home each day. She cannot be contained by societal restrictions and norms; everything begins to disturb her—especially her body:

Her skin seems to tremble while seated at the table. It is not anger towards what those around her say. She does not hear them. But towards her body, once whole, now visibly penetrable where she bleeds. She wants to feel impenetrable.

She cannot jump out of her own skin so instead she alters how her body moves, the thoughts and feelings it betrays. It is odd how the suppression of her desires makes her actions precise. The less she understands what she wants, the more she can will herself to become someone else.

She soon retreats to live in the house that once belonged to her grandmother, a strange dwelling with a tree growing through it, bound to her ancestor though the enigma of her mother who drowned when Agatha was a child. The life she crafts for herself begins to take on mythical qualities, a granddaughter of Neuland creating herself anew, rising against the lives of those around her.

One could say that An Archipelago in Landlocked Country is a literary guidebook that invites you into a place of refuge that is at once exotic and shaped by tradition, two contrasting traditions in fact. Elisa Taber takes this world and tilts it on its axis, opening it up. She is an astute observer, ethnographer and artist, capable of capturing minute and surprising details while maintaining a deep respect for her characters. She demonstrates a personal appreciation for their histories and mythologies, and a gift for crafting wise contemporary fables. Her poetic sensibility and disarmingly precise prose combine to propel this vivid exploration of an existing territory as re-imagined in the present and into the future.

An Archipelago in Landlocked Country by Elisa Taber is published by 11:11 Press.