The Bitch

Colombian author Pilar Quintana’s first novel to be translated into English (by Lisa Dillman), The Bitch, opens with a dead dog. Damaris takes one of the orphaned puppies – the only bitch in the litter – from this scene of death, our first indication of the merciless world into which the animal has been born. If we were still uncertain, Damaris worries, as she takes the pup home, how her husband Rogelio will react – “He didn’t like dogs and only kept them so they’d bark and protect the property.” She remembers him slicing off the tail of one of their dogs with a machete when a wound became infected. In contrast, Damaris nurtures the puppy, which she calls Chirli, feeding her bread soaked in milk and carrying her around in her bra.

These small details, as with much in the novel, are more significant than they first appear. Damaris, now is her late thirties, has been married since eighteen but unable to have a child. In that time, she and Rogelio have tried various different Indigenous remedies, but nothing has worked. The failure of the most recent attempt has driven a wedge between them:

“One night, on the pretext he was snoring and keeping her awake, Damaris moved to the other room and never came back.”

‘Chirli’, we discover, was the name Damaris had planned to give to her daughter.

If her childless state continues to be a regret for Damaris, it is not her only one. In a matter-of-fact style Quintana reveals the difficulties of Damaris’ childhood, which begin with her conception, her mother falling pregnant to a soldier who quickly abandons her. She, in turn, abandons the child, as she has to work as a live-in maid to earn money, and Damaris is left with a relative, Tio Eliecer. There she befriends the son of a family who have a holiday home nearby, Nicolasito, but he is killed when he is washed out to sea:

“Damaris tried to stop him, explained that it was dangerous, told him that the rocks were slippery and the sea treacherous.”

Still, she blames herself for his death – and is blamed by Tio Eliecer who lashes her every day until the body is found. We also see here the class distinctions which Quintana subtly illustrates, yet leaves unremarked, throughout the novel. Even Nicolasito’s refusal to head Damaris’ warnings hints at a sense of class superiority. After Nicolasito is washed away, Damaris must make her way through the jungle alone to raise the alarm:

“…a jungle that seemed denser and darker than ever. The treetops above her formed a solid canopy, and the roots below snarled together. Her feet sank into the dead leaves carpeting the ground and got buried in the mud…”

This is the first of a number of terrifying jungle journeys which Quintana will describe, the next being when Chirli goes missing and Damaris goes into the jungle to search for her. If anything, the description is even more disturbing – “Things brushed against her, things that were rough, prickly, hairy…” Living on the edge of jungle insinuates a constant threat into Damaris’ life. Not only that, but years later Damaris now finds herself and Rogelio living as caretakers to the house where Nicolasito lived, and where his room has been preserved:

“Senora Elvira had special-ordered his bed and wardrobe from the best carpenter in town and painted it bright colours herself. The curtains and bedding she’d brought from Bogota: a matching set with Jungle Book motifs. They were a little faded now and had a few holes…”

The Jungle Book reference is ironic as no child can survive in the jungle which is a place of death. One reason Damaris and Rogelio become caretakers is that their predecessor is found shot dead in the jungle (suicide? a hunting accident?), his resting place identified by the vultures gathering above.

Damaris’ relationship with Chirli is at the centre of the novel. Like her relationship with Rogelio, it fluctuates, perhaps even more violently. The dog takes to leaving for days at a time (as does Rogelio who works on a boat) and then returning, filthy and often injured. It has pups of its own, but is not a good mother. The story is told on the surface, but the dog reveals the depths of Damaris’ character. Its complexity is such that the ending is both unexpected and inevitable. In the end it is human nature which The Bitch strips naked and displays.

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4 Responses to “The Bitch”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    I can see that the dog is a metaphor, but it sounds a bit confronting for a dog-lover…

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    This sounds heartbreaking, Grant, but sadly all too believable given the setting. I just looked her up and she writes screenplays too. This does sound quite filmic, to the point where I could see it being turned into a film.

    • 1streading Says:

      You’re right – I think this would make a good film. I often find that World Edition books, though far from conventional, are quite narrative driven and could be adapted into other formats.

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