a window on their lives and work
By Carol Polsgrove
In her new historical novel, La Romana Indómita, Costa Rican writer Anacristina Rossi leaves behind her familiar Central American territory and ventures across the sea to ancient Rome. She takes as her protagonist the daughter of Emperor Augustus – Julia, another in Rossi’s line of strong heroines. As a conspiracy takes shape against the emperor who had turned a republic into an autocracy, Julia finds herself caught between sympathy for the conspirators’ goals, allegiance to her sons (designated Augustus’s political heirs), and her love for Augustus.
Talking with me in 2011 when she was still working on the novel, Rossi explained why she was breaking with her familiar landscape. “I think I needed to do a clean break with the history and the country, and go into something that was very foreign to me. It’s a way to prove yourself as a writer – to go into something absolutely foreign and see if you’re able to build up the characters and the atmosphere. But also I’m Italian and my great-grandfather came from that part, from the Lazio, from Rome. Also, I’ve always felt very much at ease in Italy. Though I’m not fluent in the language, I can read it, and I always felt that one part of myself belonged there, which is nothing very special since many Latin Americans feel that way about Italy – much more than about Spain, because the Spanish character is so dour. But the Italians are always joking, very friendly, very open.”
She was at that point doing extensive research with the help of librarians at the University of Costa Rica, where she was teaching. “To go to the library – and the librarians in the University of Costa Rica are wonderful – and say, ‘There is a book that was published in 1922 in France by this man, he’s researching Pythagorean associations in Rome at the time of Augustus.’ ‘Now, we have it, yes!’ They would just phone, very enthusiastic – ‘We’ve placed a copy of that book! We’ve just found one at the University of Kansas, it’s coming!'”
To supplement her research, she drew heavily on her own imagination for Julia’s story, which Rossi presents, almost movie-like, as a series of scenes. She told a writer for the Buenos Aires newspaper Crónica, “There was so little information about her, that really the reconstruction comes more from inside me than what history could say.” Julia is so unknown,” she told Víctor García Esquivel, “that there are few facts about her, for the most part she is accused of being a prostitute and a bad woman,” but that image, Rossi believes, derives from Julia’s father’s effort to destroy her reputation because she opposed the tyranny of his rule.
The reign of Augustus became for Rossi a reflection of what she sees as the loss of citizens’ rights in her own country, Costa Rica. In Costa Rica, she told an interviewer for the Mexican newspaper Zócalo, protestors are taken to court for obstructing the street without permission. “We have lost our rights as citizens.”
She elaborated on the novel’s relevance to Latin America in an interview with Jorge Iván Gardúno for Mexico’s Efekto TV: “Augusto is the archetype of the tyrant who pretends not to be a tyrant, of the autocrat who makes people believe that institutions are functioning when what is governing is he with a gang of cronies, businessmen, and family members. And although the presidents change, that is very true of Latin America today.”