Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 191 pages; 2021.
If anything positive is to come out of the Covid-19 global pandemic it is that Australian citizens, locked out of their own country (or even their home state) thanks to border closures, might gain a better appreciation of what it is to have freedom of movement.
Perhaps they might even develop greater empathy and compassion for migrants and refugees struggling to find a new homeland in which to make a better life for themselves.
This was front and centre of my mind when reading Infinite Country, a timely novel about immigration, by Patricia Engel, because so much of it charts the despair, frustration and anxiety of families separated by borders.
In this case, the family is from Colombia. Young married couple Mauro and Elena and their infant daughter Karina flee the violence in Bogotá to make a fresh start in the United States.
But over the course of the next 15 or so years, things don’t always go according to plan, and their hopes and dreams are stifled by racism, exploitation and, when their temporary visas run out, fear of arrest and deportation. This fear later spreads to their US-born children who are “undocumented illegals”.
On the run
The story opens with a killer first line:
It was her idea to tie up the nun.
This is where we meet Talia, a 15-year-old Colombian, making her escape from a correctional facility for adolescent girls high up in the mountains. Talia has been sent to the facility for committing a horrendously violent, but spontaneous, act that may or may not have been warranted.
But now she’s on a mission to get back to her father’s apartment in Bogotá so that she can pick up the plane ticket that is waiting for her — that ticket will get her to the US, where her mother and two older siblings live.
Talia’s frantic road adventure, hitchhiking across the country while avoiding the authorities, is interleaved with her parent’s love story, including their journey to the US to begin afresh long before Talia was born.
These two narrative threads come together when we discover that US-born Talia was sent back to Colombia as baby to be raised by her grandmother. This decision, based on economics, means the family now straddles two countries — and two different worlds — and because of legal issues there is no freedom to move between them.
Exposing the myths
Infinite Country is excellent at exposing the myth of the US as a golden land of opportunity and as a place of safety.
What was it about this country that kept everyone hostage to its fantasy? The previous month, on its own soil, an American man went to his job at a plant and gunned down fourteen coworkers, and last spring alone there were four different school shootings. A nation at war with itself, yet people still spoke of it as some kind of paradise.
As the family struggles to find work and accommodation, moving from one unsecure job to another, from one lot of overcrowded accommodation to another (at one stage they live in their car, in another they share a single room above a pizza shop with a Pakistani couple), their situation never seems to improve.
Both Elena and Mauro are exploited as cheap labour, unable to afford a decent place to live and constantly on guard for potential deportation. Social and economic mobility is non-existent. Even educational opportunities are limited.
And the option to go back is not an option at all.
Going home was never an option for these women. When Elena brought up the possibility of packing up, taking the children to Colombia […], Norma [a fellow immigrant] warned: ‘This is a chance you won’t get again. Every woman who has ever gone back for the sake of keeping her family together regrets it. You are already here. So are your children. It is better to invest in this new life, because if you return to the old one, in the future your children may never forgive you.’
Despite this, Elena is torn. She would love to go back to see her hardworking mother, to raise her daughter, and is “never sure if she’d made the right decision in staying”. She is plagued by guilt.
Eventually, she’d understand that in matters of migration, even accidental, no option is more moral than another. There is only the path you make. Any other would be just as wrong or right.
The price of migration
And, as much as immigrating is seen as a chance at a better life, it comes at a cost. This is how Mauro wants to convey it to his daughter Talia just as she’s about to board the plane to be reunited with her mother after 15 years:
What he wanted to say was that something is always lost; even when we are the ones migrating, we end up being occupied. […] What she didn’t know, Mauro thought, was that after the enchantment of life in a new country dwindles, a particular pain awaits. Emigration was a peeling away of the skin. An undoing. You wake each morning and forget where you are, who you are, and when the world outside shows you your reflection, it’s ugly and distorted; you’ve become a scorned and unwanted creature.
Infinite Country is eloquently written and brims with humanity, compassion and cold, hard truths — it’s completely free of sentiment and yet it is powerful and moving.
I ate it up in a single day. And I love that it ends on a hopeful note.
If you liked this, you might also like:
‘The Book of Unknown Americans’ by Cristina Henriquez: A story about two immigrant families from Latin America facing racism, victimisation and poverty as they try to forge new lives in the US.
‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera: This occasionally violent novella focuses on a young Mexican woman who illegally enters the US to search for the brother who had gone there to “settle some business” for an underworld figure.
‘The Tortilla Curtain’ by T.C. Boyle: A compelling story that showcases the stark difference between the haves, in this case a rich American family living on a gated estate in California, and the have nots, a young Mexican couple hiding out in a nearby canyon having crossed the border illegally.