In the Belly of the Horse by Eliana Tobias

In the her “Acknowledgements” section at the back of In the Belly of the Horse (2017, Inanna Publications), Ms. Tobias thanks “the anonymous South American taxi driver for sharing his memories which became the catalyst and inspiration for my story.” While she does not elaborate on this statement, it is easy to see after reading this story that the taxi driver could have been the inspiration for Salvador’s Uncle Tomas. He is Salvador’s only hope for survival after the young boy finds himself an orphan after his father takes him away from their village for he believes that the guerillas are coming to ransack their town. They leave Otilia his mother to wonder if they are ever coming back, despite her husband Manuel’s assurances (she hides in the basement of their home the night the village is attacked).

Rising abruptly, she made her way down the ladder to a small crawl space behind the kitchen. The coal storage bin was the perfect spot to take cover while waiting for danger to pass. She felt for the flashlight they kept on a ledge, then sat on the stool facing the black cast-iron furnace.… Only once did she go back upstairs in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. When she descended again she decided to try a different tactic to clear her mind from the unnerving worries. She started to count her inhales and exhales as she took in deep breaths, but the smell of coal-ash made her cough and she began to fret again. With her head throbbing, and hardly able to breathe, she lay on the damp ground, counting the hours for dawn to arrive. She wished she’d insisted that all three of them remain together at all times. Sleep didn’t come and neither did her husband and child. Where were they now?

We now follow two intriguing storylines: that of the “orphaned” Salvador as he lives on the streets until he finds his uncle Tomas, and the “widowed” Otilia who believes both are lost to her forever, but never gives up hope. In the Belly of the Horse is set in the years of the Fujimori dictatorship when the country lived in a state of turmoil, fearing both the Shining Path guerrillas and the government troops that were just as evil as the guerillas themselves.

She’d had a lovely family and it had been torn apart; all she felt like doing was crying. By the time she’d see Salvador again, her son would have turned into a stranger. Could her husband have been targeted by the guerillas? Is that why he hadn’t returned?

Wide-ranging, the stories evolve over many years, and we are introduced to various true-to-life characters that are for the most part kind to both Salvador and Otilia, such Lucia, who helps Salvador survive on the streets until he locates his Uncle Tomas, and Michael, an American working in Peru who helps Otilia settle in California so she can continue her search for her husband and son from the safety of the USA. They spend years searching for one another while struggling to exist and make a living in both Peru and the US.

In the Belly of the Horse (so named for the unconventional hiding place Salvador’s father makes for him on for his first night on the run) is a novel very much in the same vein as Finishing the Road by David Cozac. Both have for their locales Latin America and it’s never-ending conflicts with dictatorships, one after the other, each one worse than the former, and the impoverished citizens that get caught in the crushing wheels of violence, either being forced to join the fight or being mercilessly executed for resisting. I enjoyed reading this novel, which felt more like a true story rather than historical fiction. While it deals with all-too-true circumstances, the mood of In the Belly of the Horse is never so dark as to be depressing. I found it to be informative about Peru’s recent history and sympathizing with all of Ms. Tobias’ well-conceived characters. Recommended reading for those interested in social issues such as the plight of the victims of revolutions, cover-ups by ruling dictatorships and the search for missing loved ones.

Eliana Tobias was born in Santiago, Chile, to immigrant parents who escaped the Holocaust. She graduated from the University of Chile then completed other degrees in early childhood and special education in the United States and Canada. Eliana Tobias lives in Vancouver, B.C.

In the Belly of the Horse by Eliana Tobias
Inanna Publications

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