THE MAN WHO COULD MOVE CLOUDS: A Memoir, by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
In 2012, Ingrid Rojas Contreras traveled to her mother’s hometown, Ocaña, Colombia, to exhume her grandfather Nono’s body at the request of several spirits who family members said had appeared to them in dreams. Researching her her ancestry her while there, she picked up a book so old that it disintegrated in her hands her, leaving nothing but dust. “It’s like I watched history erase itself,” she despaired, reflecting on her failed hunt for family documents. Her mother her laughed in her face. “Who do you think we are,” she scoffed, “the type of people to be in the public record?”
So to complete “The Man Who Could Move Clouds” — her first memoir, following her debut novel, “Fruit of the Drunken Tree,” in 2018 — Rojas Contreras relies instead on oral history, ultimately embracing its messy, unverifiable and disjointed nature. The narrative jumps in time, from 1984 to 2007 to 1993 to the colonial era. Family members are introduced as adults, appear later as teenagers, then as corpses. Spirits lurk at every corner. There are spectral treasure hunts, abusive men, alcoholic ghosts and shape-shifting witches; paramilitaries set fire to a family farm, bomb blasts become a normal occurrence and an uncle is kidnapped by guerrillas four separate times. These are the kinds of stories that would’ve had Gabriel García Márquez rubbing his hands together.
The book begins with an uncanny parallelism: Rojas Contreras and her mother, Sojaila, both suffered accidents that left them with temporary amnesia. As a child in Ocaña, Sojaila fell down an empty well and almost bled out. Forty-three years later, Rojas Contreras crashes into an opening car door while biking in Chicago. The occurrence welcomes her into a lineage of ghost whisperers and shamans — an uncle who can host the spirits of the dead inside his body, an aunt who “told fortunes by reading the embers at the tip of her cigar” and Sojaila herself, who “ trained herself to move things with her mind.”
All of these supernatural gifts have been passed down by the titular man at the book’s center: Nono, the author’s maternal grandfather, whose full name was Rafael Contreras Alfonso. as a curandero, or shaman, he was revered in eastern Colombia for his ability to communicate with the spectral world. He was also a savvy entrepreneur and fabulist who, despite being illiterate and shunned by the Catholic Church, carved out a life soothsaying and healing ailing neighbors. At his funeral his, townspeople stuffed his coffin with scraps of paper requesting miracles.
As she recovers from her head injury, Rojas Contreras reacquaints herself with her family’s past, weaving their stories with personal narrative, unraveling legacies of violence, machismo and colonialism. She finds another form of amnesia in the mestizaje, or racial mixing, that gradually wiped Indigenous culture out of Latin America: “ancestral memory hidden for centuries from occupying powers — and in secrecy becoming something new, a bifurcated thing.” As Rojas Contreras relearns her heritage her, she is filled with a childlike wonder, a new understanding of lineage and remembrance.
Perhaps as a result of this trance, those sections in the memoir that expand beyond the personal into discussions of colonialism and Colombian history can feel thin. Some reflections are vague, airy, even bordering on cringe. “We were a brown people, mestizo,” Rojas Contreras gushes in language befitting a Goya commercial . “European men had arrived on the continent and violated Indigenous women, and that was our origin: neither Native nor Spanish, but a wound.” Others get simple facts wrong. She asserts that under caste systems in the colonial Americas, “the whitest a person of color could be was castizo, the child of a mestizo and a Spaniard.” But according to 18th-century casta paintings illustrating racial hierarchies in the Spanish colonies, the child of a castizo (someone with one Indigenous grandparent) and a white Spaniard is considered to be a Spaniard.
For a book that reveals such deep collective truths, these are merely quibbles. Where “Fruit of the Drunken Tree” fictionalized the author’s real-life experience of being kidnapped as a child, with the nonfiction work “The Man Who Could Move Clouds,” Rojas Contreras has forced into the public record a collective identity of clairvoyants and spiritualists — beginning with Nono — that she has pieced together from the disintegrating fragments of her own familial past. In the process, she has written a spellbinding and genre-defying ancestral history.
THE MAN WHO COULD MOVE CLOUDS: A Memoir, by Ingrid Rojas Contreras | 306 pp. | Doubleday | $30
Miguel Salazar is a researcher at the Book Review.