Gabriela Wiener's ‘Undiscovered’ Tackles Spectres of the Past

The author and journalist's latest novel, translated by Julia Sanches, ruminates on race, desire, familial heritage and the reverberations of colonialism

BY Bartolomeo Sala in Books , Opinion | 14 DEC 23

We are used to thinking of history in a linear fashion – as a chain of causes and effects following a certain discernible pattern. When it comes to personal history and narratives of the self, things become blurry and uncertain. Fact and fiction get confused to the point that truth becomes less important than someone’s subjective, and always partial, grasp of it. A lie told enough times becomes a truth, and the consequences reverberate long after it’s been exposed. 

In Undiscovered (Pushkin Press, 2023), her latest book to be published in English, the Peruvian, Madrid-based journalist and author Gabriela Wiener grapples with these questions through the means of autofiction (a mode she describes in the book as ‘the worst crime an author can be accused of today’), showing how something as phantasmic as someone’s family lineage, together with the perverse legacy of colonialism, can determine someone’s personality and sense of self; as well as potentially having a long-lasting effect on someone’s ideas of intimacy and attraction, all the way down to influencing who they choose as romantic partners. 

Wiener grew up dreading school trips to her local anthropology museum as she knew she would be the butt of her classmates’ jokes, who would mock her for resembling the statuettes on show due to her mixed ‘chola’ heritage (a derogatory term commonly used to describe people of indigenous ancestry the author has since appropriated). Later, during her teen years, she had to deal with the trauma of acting as an ‘accomplice’ to her father – renowned Marxist journalist and intellectual Raúl Wiener – who, for more than 30 years, had an affair with a woman with whom he had another child, Wiener’s younger half-sister. Despite these early experiences, she admits finding, much like the rest of her family, some consolation – and a perverse sense of pride – in believing she was a descendent of Charles Wiener, an Austrian-French ethnographer and anthropologist famous for writing Perú and Bolivia (1880) – a foundational, 900-page travelogue documenting his experiences in South America, during which he almost discovered the lost city of Machu Picchu. Now in her mid-40s – and, as an immigrant, still assumed by some to work as a cleaner or a nanny – she is facing a crisis in her polyamorous relationship. 

Undiscovered book cover
Gabriela Wiener, Undiscovered, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: Pushkin Press

Wiener, her husband, Peruvian poet Jaime Rodríguez Zavaleta, and Rocío, a Spanish bookseller, all share the same bed and collectively raise Wiener’s teenage daughter. Relations have recently soured, however, due to Wiener’s infidelities coupled with her fits of jealousy and crippling fear of abandonment. Amidst these problems, she starts to wonder if her peculiar predicament – something that falls outside the boundaries of patriarchal heteronormativity – might be the paradoxical result of her family lineage. Is her desire for Rocío’s body the product of internalised racism; the opposite of her insecurities around her own ‘unruly’ body? Is her penchant for infidelity and jealousy an uneasy heirloom of her philandering father? Are these difficulties to be traced back to her illustrious European relative who abandoned her great-great-grandmother pregnant with his child in Perù to chase fame and academic recognition in France?

The book opens with an image that perfectly articulates the narrator’s ambivalence toward this irreconcilable, painful past. She is standing in the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris surrounded by huacos retratosceramic pieces reproducing individual indigenous faces with painstaking detail – that Charles Wiener pillaged and took to Europe. Here are 4,000 pre-Columbian artefacts bearing her ancestor’s name. Yet, the author and narrator cannot but notice how her face has a striking resemblance to the sculptures on display, observing ‘these figures with brown skin, eyes like small, bright wounds, and polished bronze noses and cheekbones identical to mine’.

Portrait of Gabriela Wiener Daniel Mordzinski
Portrait of Gabriela Wiener. Courtesy: Pushkin Press; photograph: Daniel Mordzinski

The narrative jumps to Wiener having to travel back to Lima after she receives the news that her father, diagnosed with terminal cancer, might not have long to live. She arrives too late and spends the rest of her stay going through her father’s belongings and private emails, as well as leafing through his cherished, dusty copy of Perù and Bolivia. The book then takes the form of an investigation: At one point, Wiener comes to the conclusion that there is a very slim chance the genealogy on which her entire identity and her familial narrative have been erected might be bogus. The birth certificate of her great-grandfather, Carlos Wiener Rodríguez, listed a man named Manuel Wiener (not Charles) as the father. At another, she experiences what it would be to love a body similar to her own by attending a workshop named ‘Decolonizing My Desire’ and having sex with the Colombian woman who runs it. The vignettes Wiener offers, however, do not build on each other but, rather, refract one another by reckoning with the same set of preoccupations from a slightly different angle each time. 

The overall effect is that of a recurring melancholic feedback loop. Wiener deploys humour and sex throughout these pages, so much so that one might feel she is trying to merely provoke, as well as exonerate herself by dancing around the roots of her behaviour without really confronting it. However, far from being a cop out or an academic exercise, this meandering serves a clear purpose: conveying what it feels like to be an oppressed subject. Whatever the relationship between the author and the ethnographer – being a queer, brown, immigrant woman living in a xenophobic, patriarchal world means being continuously haunted by his spectre.


Bartolomeo Sala is a writer based in London, UK.