Malinche – a hard work read

I’ve been really lucky to be able to get through a few books over the last couple of weeks (Malinche, The Red Tent, The Midnight Zoo), so I’m pleased to say that I’ve got few reviews in the pipeline.

I’m busting to talk about all of them, but I wanted to start with Malinche, by Laura Esquivel because, to be blunt, I wanted very much to get it off my desk.

You see, I have to unhappily confess that I didn’t like it. Not one bit. This, despite my excitement when I first found it and eagerly began reading. I absolutely loved Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate and I think of it often. I’m not a big fan of romance, but Laura’s perchance for magic realism had me completely entranced by the tragic love story of Tita and Pedro.

And, by the blurb of Malinche I was expecting a somewhat similiar experience here:

When Malinalli, a member of the tribe conquered by the Aztec warrior, first meets the conquistador Hernan Cortes and becomes his interpreter, she – like many – believes him to be the reincarnated forefather god of her tribe. Naturally, she assumes she must welcome him, and help him destroy the Aztec empire and free her people. The two fall passionately in love, but Malinalli soon realizes that Cortes’s thirst for conquest is all too human, and that he is willing to destroy anyone, even his own men – even their own love.

Bursting with lyricism and vivid imagery, Malinche finally unveils the truth behind this legendary and tragic love affair.

Now, I’ll first up admit that I don’t know much about Mexican history. I didn’t know the story of Malinche before this novel, and many of the religious references went way above my head.

I did get the sense that this novel was about a time of great upheaval, when individuals, cultures and religions violently collided for both love and money. Cortes and his Spaniards enter as explorers, transform as conquistadors and stay on as owners. Malinche, who’s life had been one of spirit and sorrow even before the arrival of the Spaniards becomes involved and implicated in their mission, as both translator and confidant.

Interestingly, in history, Malinche is seen by many as a traitor to her people, although Esquival’s treatment of this deeply spiritual character was far more generous. I don’t feel we are meant to see her at fault in this tale.

I’ll admit, the deeper meanings of the relationships, regions and religions were a little lost on me and the style of storytelling did not really provide me with enough to grab hold of. But my disappointment in Malinche was about more than just the narrative or subject matter. I was most perturbed by the almost complete lack of love story in this novel, despite it’s synopsis.

This novel was about violence, about pillage and conquest. Malinche was not romanced, she was taken. She was assaulted and possessed as a slave, and only makes fleeting and unbelievable references to love or passion throughout the novel. I saw no romance here, only ownership.

To be fair, Esquival’s ability to construct beautiful, lyrical and visual prose is undeniable and I was never left wanting when it came to the ‘what’ of the story:

“First came the wind. Later, like a flash of lightning, like a silver tongue in the heavens over the Valley of Anahuac, a storm appeared that would wash the blood from the stones. After the sacrifice, the city darkened and thunderous eruptions were heard. Then, a silver serpent appeared in the sky, seen distinctly from many different places.”

It was as to the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the story that I struggled. I’m not adverse to non-linear narrative but I really did feel that there were huge gaps in this novel. Some of this could have been due to translation, but I’m really not convinced that this was the problem in this case. I think it just tried to be a bit too esoteric for its own good and as a result come across as vague and clunky.

I can’t in good conscience recommend this book. If you really enjoy highly spiritualised storytelling then maybe you’ll enjoy this, but overall this novel is very hard work with minimal reward.

I feel really bad about having not really ‘gotten’ this book, so I think to make up for it I might re-read Like Water for Chocolate soon – that’ll make me feel better…

Has anyone else read Malinche? What did you think of it? Am I right off track?

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