A Road-Trip Novel That Punctures Political Myopia

Carol Bensimon’s We All Loved Cowboys features a difficult protagonist whose myopia belies the wide, complex world outside her car window.

A photo of "We All Loved Cowboys" by Carol Bensimon
Viktoriia1208 / Shutterstock / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

The first car scene in Alfonso Cuarón’s road-trip movie Y Tu Mamá También takes place in Mexico City traffic. The protagonists, two privileged teenagers named Julio and Tenoch, kill time by smoking, farting, and joking about girls. The shot is so tight that the audience can barely see out the window. Suddenly, mid-banter, the boys freeze. The camera skates over the hood of the car. “That day,” the narrator informs viewers, “three demonstrations took place across the city. Nevertheless, the traffic jam was caused by Marcelino Escutia, a migrant bricklayer from Michoacán who was hit by a speeding bus.”

The film never returns to poor Marcelino, but Cuarón uses this technique throughout, puncturing the adventures of his characters with brief, razor-sharp descriptions of their political context. Julio and Tenoch are interested in sex, drugs, and beer; the narrator is interested in the interplay of class and race in contemporary Mexico, especially in the rural communities the duo passes through. The contrast turns Y Tu Mamá También into a political movie without a political plot. Politics become a second lens through which Cuarón views his characters, one that forces moviegoers to consider Julio and Tenoch’s lives not only on a personal level, but also on a national one.

In We All Loved Cowboys, translated by Beth Fowler, the Brazilian writer Carol Bensimon performs a dazzling feat of importation. She takes Cuarón’s story-puncturing technique and uses it, to great effect, in a novel told in the first person. There is no omniscient narrator to interrupt. Cora, the protagonist, unwittingly interrupts herself.

Like Y Tu Mamá También, We All Loved Cowboys takes place on a road trip. Cora, who lives in Paris, is home in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where her stepmother is about to give birth. Cora immediately confesses to the reader that she’s not in Brazil to meet her new half-brother. She’s there to see her ex-girlfriend Julia, who is also an expatriate. She and Cora barely keep in touch, but then Julia calls one day from Montreal, saying that she’s planning to spend a month in Brazil. When Julia adds, “Remember that trip we never took?”—a long-daydreamed drive across their home state of Rio Grande do Sul—Cora decides to go home. This, she thinks, is her chance to get Julia back.

Cora has no evidence that Julia wants to date her again, but that doesn’t matter. She filters the world entirely through her own interests and desires. As the two women drive, it soon becomes clear that traveling within Brazil interests Cora not at all. She looks down on the people she encounters and the places she stays. The road trip’s sole purpose is time with Julia; Rio Grande do Sul is nothing but the background of their imagined love story.

American readers rarely encounter novels that treat South American settings as unglamorously as We All Loved Cowboys. Novels written in English often offer exoticized locations like the ominous paradise in Maile Meloy’s cruise-kidnap story, Do Not Become Alarmed, or the verdant, mysterious Amazon in Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. In We All Loved Cowboys, the landscape is precisely the opposite. Bensimon is a dry, snappy writer, more interested in a one-line joke than a lush description. Cora, meanwhile, sees nothing to luxuriate in. Her highest compliment, in a former copper-mining village, is: “Contrary to my expectations, the town wasn’t completely deserted.”

Cora might be more inclined to snobbery than most readers. She’s privileged, overconfident, and deeply self-absorbed. Her “strongest convictions [are] about fashion and style, about gender and the rulebook of life.” When she describes the signs, as she puts it, of her bisexuality, she notes not only that she “stopped the car on a dark road and jumped into the back seat with Marina, then with Luciana, then with Amanda,” but that she “wrote feminist phrases on ripped jeans.” She takes Julia’s stylish Montreal haircut as a positive sign for their relationship, and expresses her attraction to Julia by borrowing her jewelry and clothes.

Cora would be an easy target for satire, but Bensimon refuses; her impulse is not to mock Cora, but to understand her. At the same time, she uses Cora’s blind spots, seemingly, to encourage the reader to think more widely and critically about the political realities that Cora herself doesn’t understand.

Take Cora’s shoes. She wears calf-high Dr. Martens, brand new ones “for which I had paid a small fortune in one of the brand’s stores in Paris.” Early in the novel, a gaucho informs her that her boots were meant for a man. Cora, understandably, is annoyed. “It was too much,” she thinks, “to expect their counter-cultural connotation would penetrate someone who, at best, had seen boots like this protecting the feet of the military police as they shot rubber bullets into the tents of the Landless Workers’ Movement. That’s the problem with fashion: You depend on others.”

The Landless Workers’ Movement is one of the biggest left-wing groups in Latin America, fighting for agrarian reform and democratic access to food production. To the gaucho, land issues would be life-defining: Does he work on a large corporate ranch? Does he—could he ever—own land? To Cora, though, the Landless Workers’ Movement is just a reference, maybe a half-remembered newspaper photo. Bensimon complicates the moment beautifully. The gaucho, who speaks in the voice of patriarchy and homophobia, intrudes on Cora’s world. But Cora, too, is an intruder, unmoved by the land and its troubles and flippant about the military police.

To Cora, the most upsetting part of the encounter with the gaucho isn’t his gender policing, but the fact that after, she’s not sure “exactly what Julia thought of it all.” Cora never knows what Julia thinks, and Bensimon never gives the reader clues, instead staying in Cora’s head. As the trip progresses, this becomes crucial to the novel’s stakes. Julia quickly demonstrates her sexual interest in Cora, but the extent of her romantic interest remains a mystery.

The more Cora agonizes over her future with Julia, the more Bensimon directs the reader’s attention outside the car. The novel’s political observations become sharper and more frequent, serving as a counterpoint to its protagonist’s narrowing focus. However, these observations never jolt Cora out of character. In a particularly excellent moment, Cora distracts herself from nerves about meeting Julia’s brother by condemning a soya field they drive through en route to his house. Looking at the soy plants makes “Monsanto and monoculture instantly spring to mind. No one with a free spirit would believe in things like Monsanto and monoculture.”

Bensimon walks a fine line here. Even a reader vehemently opposed to industrialized agriculture could laugh at the line No one with a free spirit would believe in Monsanto. Still, it’s easy to empathize with the aggravating Cora. She’s in a torturous position: in love with a woman who’s glad to have sex with her but dodging the possibility of more. Cora’s crack about Monsanto reminds the reader that there are far bigger problems in Rio Grande do Sul than unrequited love, but it also serves to spare Cora pain.

In this way, Bensimon rescues We All Loved Cowboys from narrowness. Like Y Tu Mamá También, the novel offers countless opportunities for political curiosity, even though its narrator thinks only of herself. Cora’s asides about the towns she visits are distractions, drawing her attention away from her deepening certainty that she’s about to get her heart broken. At the same time, Cora’s observations remind the reader that Julia isn’t the novel’s only unknown quantity. There’s a wide, complex world outside the car window. Maybe someday Cora will begin to wonder about it. Until then, the reader can wonder for her.