Undiscovered, originally written in Spanish, is longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2024. Read an extract from the opening chapter here

Alone in an ethnographic museum in Paris, Gabriela Wiener is confronted with her unusual inheritance. She is visiting an exhibition of pre-Columbian artefacts, the spoils of European colonial plunder, many of them from her home country of Peru. Peering through the glass, she sees sculptures of Indigenous faces that resemble her own - but the man responsible for pillaging them was her own great-great-grandfather, Austrian colonial explorer Charles Wiener. In the wake of her father’s death, Gabriela begins delving into all she has inherited from her paternal line. From the brutal trail of racism and theft Charles was responsible for, to revelations of her father’s infidelity, she traces a legacy of abandonment, jealousy and colonial violence, and questions its impact on her own struggles with desire, love and race in a polyamorous relationship. 

Written by Gabriela Wiener and Julia Sanches

Publication date and time: Published

The strangest thing about being alone here in Paris, in an anthropology museum gallery more or less beneath the Eiffel Tower, is the thought that all these statuettes that look like me were wrenched from my country by a man whose last name I inherited. 

My reflection in the display case mixes with the outlines of these figures with brown skin, eyes like small, bright wounds, and polished bronze noses and cheekbones identical to mine, forming a solemn, naturalist composition. A great-great-grandfather is just a relic in a person’s life, unless the man in question took the not-insignificant sum of four thousand pre-Columbian artifacts to Europe. And his greatest achievement was that he didn’t find Machu Picchu, though he came close. 

The Musée du Quai Branly is in the 7th arrondissement, right in the center of an old quay of the same name. It’s one of those European museums that houses large collections of non-Western art from the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Oceania. In other words, a very pretty museum built on something very ugly. 

It’s like someone thought that painting the ceiling with Aboriginal art and sticking a few palm trees in the corridor would help us feel at home and forget that everything in this place should be thousands of kilometers away from here. Including me. 

I took advantage of a work trip to finally visit the Charles Wiener collection. When I walk into a place like this, I always fight the urge to claim everything in it as my own and demand it all back in the name of the Peruvian state—a feeling that only grows in this gallery, which bears my surname and brims with ancient anthropomorphic and zoomorphic clay forms from various pre-Columbian cultures. I look around for a suggested route, a timeline to ground the objects, but they’re displayed randomly, in isolation, their labels vague or generic. 

Portrait of author Gabriela Wiener

I take several photos of the wall with the words MISSION DE M. WIENER , just like I did when I went to Germany and felt a dubious satisfaction at seeing my family name everywhere I looked. Wiener is one of those surnames derived from a place, like Epstein, Aurbach, and Günzberg. Some Jewish communities adopted the names of their cities or towns for sentimental reasons. Wiener is a demonym that means “from Vienna” in German. Like the sausage. It takes me a second to realize that the “M.” stands for “Monsieur.” 

Even though his mission was just your garden-variety nineteenth-century scientific expedition, at dinner with friends I often joke that my great-great-grandfather was a huaquero of international repute. Huaquero is not a euphemism. It’s how I refer to the looters who to this day remove cultural and artistic properties from archaeological sites. Huaqueros can range from cultured gentlemen to mercenaries, and these ancient treasures can end up in European museums or the sitting rooms of their elegant criollo houses in Lima. The term huaquero, meaning grave robber in Spanish, comes from huaca in Quechua. This is what people in the Andes call their sacred places, most of which are now archaeological sites or ruins. Community leaders and their funerary offerings are buried in catacombs at these sites. Huaqueros systematically invade them in search of tombs and priceless objects, and their incompetence is so great that they leave the sites a complete mess. These violations affect the reliability of subsequent research, making it impossible to reconstruct the past out of traces of identity and cultural memory. Which is why to huaquear is a form of violence. It turns fragments of history into private property that accessorizes and dresses up the ego. Like art thieves, huaqueros are the heroes of Hollywood movies. There is a touch of glamour to their mischief. Wiener himself has gone down in history not only as a scholar but as the “author” of this collection, erasing its real, anonymous provenance with science as his alibi and the financial backing of an imperialist government. Back then you just had to move some dirt around to call it archaeology. 

***  

I wander the aisles of the Wiener collection among display cases crowded white with ceramics. One catches my eye because it is empty. The label reads: MOMIE D’ENFANT, but there’s no trace of a mummy inside. Something about this blank space is jarring. The fact that it’s a tomb. The tomb of an unidentified child. The fact that it’s empty. The fact that this tomb, which has been opened, reopened, and desecrated a thousand times, is part of an exhibit that tells the tale of one civilization’s triumph over another. Does denying a child their eternal slumber tell such a tale? I wonder if the museum took the mummy out to restore it the way paintings are restored, then left the case empty as a nod to the avant-garde. Or if the blank space is a permanent indictment of the mummy’s disappearance, like the time a Vermeer was stolen from a museum in Boston and its empty frame left on the wall so it wouldn’t be forgotten. I consider the theft, the move, the repatriation. Maybe if I wasn’t from a continent of forced disappearances, where people are not only exhumed but buried in secret, the invisible body behind the glass wouldn’t speak to me. But something inside me keeps pushing ahead. Maybe it’s because the label says that the missing mummy was from Chancay, on the central coast of Peru, from the department of Lima where I was born. My head wanders between imaginary graves—small, shallow holes in unreality. I thrust in my shovel and clear out the dust. This time my Incan profile mixes with nothing and for a few seconds my ghostly reflection is the only thing in the glass. My shadow is trapped in the case, embalmed and exposed. Blurring the line between reality and photomontage, it stands in for the mummy, restores it, offering up a new stage on which to interpret death: my shadow, bathed and perfumed, organs scooped out, ageless, like a see-through piñata filled with myrrh—nothing the wild dogs of the desert could eat up or destroy. 

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Does denying a child their eternal slumber tell such a tale? I wonder if the museum took the mummy out to restore it the way paintings are restored, then left the case empty as a nod to the avant-garde.

Museums are not cemeteries, though they look a lot alike. The Wiener exhibit says nothing about how the missing child died, whether by human sacrifice, murder, or natural causes. There is no mention of when or where. What’s clear is that this place isn’t a huaca, nor is it the top of a volcano where offerings are made to Gods and men, so that the crops are blessed and the rainfall is as constant and heavy as it is in myths, like a shower of baby teeth and the ruby-red seeds of juicy pomegranates that flush through the cycles of life. Mummies don’t keep as well here as they do in snow. 

Archaeologists say that children found in the high-altitude volcanoes of South America’s southern tip look as if they’re asleep in their icy graves. They’re so well preserved that at first glance they give the impression they might suddenly come to from a centuries-long slumber and immediately start talking. 

They’re also never alone. Together, the Children of Llullaillaco were buried in the Andes: six-year-old Lightning Girl, six-year-old Llullaillaco Boy, and fifteen-year-old Llullaillaco Maiden. Together, they were exhumed. 

In the not-so-distant past, right here, in this European capital, children were buried beside one another in graveyards—like siblings, or as if a plague had wiped them all out at once and they’d moved into a miniature ghost city within the greater city of the dead, where they could play together if they woke up in the middle of the night. Whenever I visit a cemetery, I like to take a stroll through the kids’ area, sighing and gasping as I read the messages their families left for them in mausoleums and picture their fragile lives and deaths, most of them from minor illnesses. As I stand before this absent mummy, I wonder if our fear of children dying comes from this ancient fragility, if maybe we’ve forgotten our custom of sacrificing them, the routineness of losing them. I’ve never seen the tomb of a contemporary child. Who in their right mind would take their kid’s corpse to a cemetery? You’d have to be mad. What kind of person would bury a child, whether dead or alive? 

This child with no tomb, on the other hand, this tomb with no child, has neither siblings nor playmates. Not only that, he is also missing. Had he been here, I could imagine someone, maybe even me, giving in to the urge to grab the Momie d’Enfant—the baby huaqueada by Wiener—wrapped in a cloth patterned with bicephalous snakes and timeworn ocean waves, and making a run for the quay. Leaving behind the museum and racing toward the tower with no concrete plan except to get as far away from this place as possible, while firing a couple of shots in the air. 

Portrait of translator Julia Sanches