Though the plot of “Cantoras” spans almost 40 years in the lives of these ardently progressive women, it’s strangely removed from global events: There’s no mention of the AIDS crisis, gay icons, revolutions elsewhere. Then again, it follows that young working-class women of that era would have had little access to the world outside Uruguay, so that even a few months in Buenos Aires seems like an epic parting. Perhaps for a related reason, a brush with a real-life Nazi feels shoehorned in, a harrowing story that deserves to be fully realized, not a plot twist.
De Robertis’s prose is most moving when it’s direct and unembellished, but her metaphors can be heavy-handed, as in the overuse of water imagery — emotions, words, hearts, bodies always seem to be drowning, spilling, pouring. Sex is decisively three-note: lovers aching, melting or opening. And then there are the mixed metaphors: “aching flames unleashed, spilled out”; “the water called to them, blanketing the sand with its low roar.” By refusing to let a thing be only itself, De Robertis robs simple objects and gestures of their innate beauty and power. “Cracks … burrowed under layers of plaster.” Scattered kitchen tools are “like refugees.”
And yet, De Robertis captures these remarkable women not as outsiders but as complex, flawed human beings. They’re most affecting in their smallest pleasures and disappointments: the joy of being left alone by men, the urge to summon ugliness like a shield, the wonder of a lasting cantora relationship (“We get no forevers”), the cruelty of other radicals calling “faggotry” a distraction, the gloom of monogamy when a hard-won freedom calls and a lover has also been a protector.
“Cantoras” is bold and unapologetic, a challenge to the notion of “normalcy” and a tribute to the power of love, friendship and political resistance. It’s a revolutionary fable, ideal for this moment, offered with wisdom and care. De Robertis takes us inside a repressive regime during a time of global revolution and social discord much like our own. She reminds us that the young can force social change and urges them to act when they see tyranny taking hold. “The essence of dictatorship,” she writes, is that “no matter where you are or how ordinary you seem, you’re in a cage.”