“Words were like lightning, swiftly crossing valleys, mountains, seas, bringing needed information as readily to monarchs as to vassals, creating hope or fear, establishing alliances, abolishing enemies, changing the course of events. Words were warriors, be they sacred warriors like the Lord Aguila, or simple mercenaries. As to their divine character, words transformed the empty space in the mouth into the center of Creation, repeating there the same act with which the universe has been made, by uniting the feminine and masculine principles into one.”
Get ready kids, this review is going to be a doozy. I apologize in advance for its ridiculous length.
Ah, Laura Esquivel, we meet again. We have had a long relationship, you and I. We watched Like Water for Chocolate the movie when I was in the tenth grade, and from then on I couldn’t wait to read it. It is a beautiful concept – that all of our emotions are poured into the food we cook, and by some fantastical magic everyone who eats the food we cook feels it as well. I thought, how wonderful this book must be! But, we did not meet again until last summer, when I finally picked up a copy of Like Water for Chocolate the book. And here is where our relationship gets rocky, my friend. I was so so so so disappointed (yes, that is four 3 sos and an italic). The recipes at the beginning of each chapter were clever, but your characters were wooded and unfeeling. This is a book about emotions! Why don’t I care one bit? Because I don’t, because you didn’t make me. I even wrote an extra credit assignment last semester about just how disappointing you were.
The inside book cover announces you as The Princess of Latin American Literature. And I guess if I were a Princess of Latin American Literature and Isabel Allende was my prettier older sister, Pablo Neruda the resident poet and Gabriel García Márquez was our king, it would be a lot to live up to. So, I thought, maybe I have judged too harsly. Maybe your newest addition to the Latin American High Court of Literature Malinche was better.
The first thing I’m going to say is this edition of the book is ABSOLUTELY FREAKIN BEAUTIFUL. If you are going to buy this book DO NOT buy the soft cover, buy the hard back. It is absolutely, 100% worth the extra ten dollars. (I got it for sale at B&N, so go check it out and see if they have it at yours!) The cover features Malinche (aka Malinalli aka Marina) on the front with Hernán Cortés on the back. When you take the dust jacket off, it opens up into a codex, telling the story in the ancient picture writing of Malinche’s culture. You get full credit for this one, Laura Esquivel, that was genius. In fact, I would have liked the story better if it had been a graphic novel, in codex form.
Let’s go over some history. Malinche (aka Malinalli aka Marina) was Hernán Cortés’s translator, later his lover and mother of his child. She was a native woman who spoke Nahuatl and Maya and eventually learned Spanish after she was baptized as Marina in the Christian faith. There is evidence that she also learned many other languages to aid in the conquest of Mexica. She helped Cortés conquer her people, translating for him and even telling him when there had been revolts planned against him. Eventually, people started calling Cortés himself Malinche because they were always together. The figure of La Malinche is one that is ingrained in Mexican culture – she is the violated mother of the Mexican mixed race, in contrast with both the Virgin Mary (specifically the Virgin of Guadalupe) and La Llorona, the mother who murdered her own children and is now doomed to roam the earth mourning their loss. There are many opinions about Malinche, but to call someone a malinche in modern Mexico is to call them a traitor, so it is pretty clear what the majority opinion is. Alternatively, some view her as the savior of the Mexican race, because even though their governments and way of life were defeated, their culture survives in modern Mexico and without the help of Malinche, the history of Native Mexican culture might be a little closer to the devastating loss of Native American culture in the United States.
Now, on to the actual book. Laura Esquivel is good for insights. She writes beautiful passages that offer great insights into the world, putting things into words that I completely understand but never in a million years would have thought of. The quote I chose of this is an example. I also have a favorite quote from Like Water for Chocolate that I still keep around. Where she fails is in the characterization. I cared a little bit more for Malinche than I did for the characters in LWfC but not that much more. I only really started to feel for her and to understand Malinche in the last two chapters.
I thought the novel was successful in that it painted a fair picture of Malinalli. Maybe she was a little too blameless, but we don’t really know a whole lot about her, so I thought it was a fair theory. There is some seriously beautiful language in here. When Malinalli spoke about her gods and compared them to the Spanish god was when the language was the most beautiful. I really loved the comparisons and the beautiful language was really rich. But, one of the biggest gripes I had with the novel aside from the characterization was not the fact that the novel was told nonlinearly, but that it was in a way that was wholly distracting and, in my opinion, not purposeful. It could have been done well, but it was not.
I guess my real problem with this book was that I started reviewing it before I even opened it. I knew what I expected when it came to Esquivel’s work, and I had a problem with the size of the book. When I think about the story of Malinche, I think about an absolutely epic journey that still hasn’t ended. I guess I want something thick, something that shows just how important and controversial Malinche is. I don’t want 180 pages, I want 500. This is a story deserving of many pages and I’m just not sure Esquivel did it justice. And the ending… it was just weird. I really thought a page was missing. Do you ever do that? Form an opinion about a book before you open it that you just can’t shake as you read it?
So, would I recommend it? After all that naysaying, yes, I still would. It is a very flawed book, but it is a fresh look at Malinche that I can appreciate. This is a subject that fascinates me, so I would probably read anything about it, even if I didn’t love it. So, I can recommend it in that sense. And the dust jacket is beautiful.
65% – If you have an interest in this history, then pick it up, but otherwise, skip it.
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