Some great stories start with a misunderstanding. In the late 19th century, the son of a French winemaker on his way to California is forced to stop in Valparaiso in Chile. When an immigration agent asks him to state his identity, he replies “Lons-le-Saunier,” the name of his native town in the Jura département, accidentally inventing a new name. Years later, his son Lazare Lonsonier is taking a bath scented with lemon peel, and reads in the newspaper that Germany has declared war on France. Without a second thought, and despite having never set foot in his ancestors’ land, he decides to go and fight in the trenches. He returns home missing part of his lungs, haunted by the ghost of Helmut, a German soldier he briefly encountered on the front line.
This is the beginning of Heritage, a whirling saga that follows four generations of a family with French origins caught up in the two world wars in Europe, followed by the coup d’état on September 11, 1973, and the start of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship in Chile. As a storyteller with an unbridled imagination, Miguel Bonnefoy hurls his characters into the tornado of history, drawing on the foundational legends and beliefs that conjure up South American magical realism.
Heritage can be read for the pure pleasure of its story, for the airtight narration, the vivacious style, and the fantastical characters with their fabulous and tragic destinies: Margot, Lazare’s daughter, an adventurer with a passion for aviation who flies in the footsteps of French pioneers Maryse Bastié and Adrienne Bolland; or Ilario Da, her revolutionary son, locked up for opposing the military dictatorship. Much like in Black Sugar, which subtly condemned the damage caused by oil mining operations in Venezuela, Miguel Bonnefoy removes himself from the text and uses fables and adventures to highlight violence, torture, resistance against oppression, and the bravery of women held back by history. Whether heroines, fighters in the shadows, or tearful mothers, it is they who hold the key to this muddled, melancholic epic.
Heritage by Miguel Bonnefoy, translated from French by Emily Boyce, Other Press, 2022. 160 pages, 15.99 dollars.