Taming the River

Original title: La verticale du fleuve

Author: Arnaud, Clara

Publication Date:

April 2021



Original language and publisher

French | Actes Sud

Territories Handled

Netherlands, North America, Scandinavia


Literary Fiction

Taming the River

Original title: La verticale du fleuve

Author: Arnaud, Clara


The environmental campaigner and Lenchua community member Suyapa is found murdered one morning on her farm. Her brutal death reunites her daughters Marla, Indira and Luisa in the mountain town of El Encanto where they were born and which the eldest two left a decade previously. After Suyapa’s murder, the movement opposing the construction of a hydroelectric plant on the Rio Lindo river fizzles out and a year later the trial of his alleged killers coincides with the beginning of works on the dam. Spearheaded by the ambitious mayor Benito Suarez, who dreams of transforming this cut-off town into a hub for hydroelectric power, this major civil engineering project looks set to change forever the character of this isolated valley of Central America.

At the site, hundreds of workers set to work under the orders of the charismatic Brazilian Guilherm Pessoa and his team of engineers, who are determined to surmount every obstacle to meet the construction deadlines. In this cosmopolitan micro-society that is both fraternal and brutal, a daily drama is played out as men devote themselves body and soul to the vast wall of concrete that will tame the Rio Lindo. The masons, miners, truck drivers and guards are driven not only by money but also by a sense of mission: to wrestle the river into the service of men. The life of Jim the anthropologist, whose job is to act as mediator and keep a lid on social tensions at the site, finds his own life turned upside down by this project, which encroaches brutally not only on the landscape but also on the private lives of the community.

Meanwhile, as the mountains are reshaped and the flow of the river tamed, the sisters emancipate themselves from their mother’s authority. They each assert their freedom to take their own path in life beneath the penetrating gaze of their grandmother, la Abuelita, who is overcome with nostalgia for a vanished world. Luisa pursues her desire for social status and becomes a lawyer in the United States, at the risk of betraying her roots. Indira, a biologist by training, buckles down to documenting the upheavals in the local environment and revives her mother’s coffee plantation. Marla emancipates herself from her violent husband and brings up their young daughter on her own.

In this isolated region blighted by crime, the dam that is gradually erected over the years becomes both a symbol of social struggle and a power struggle between competing visions, an instrument of emancipation and also the plaything of men giving free rein to their demiurge impulses.

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