Last month’s Spanish-Language Literature Month was dominated on my site by Mexican writers, but I still have time for a return trip for Women in Translation Month. Today’s choice is a bit of a random pick, the only book in Spanish (written by a woman) I could find on the shelves of the uni bookshop, but it’s a novel many of you will have heard of. Whether it’s any good or not is, of course, another question altogether…
Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) is the story of Tita de la Garza, as narrated decades later by her great-niece. Tita is born unexpectedly in the kitchen of her family’s ranch, so it’s almost inevitable that she will grow up with a love of cooking. However, her chances of one day using these skills with a family of her own are slim, as her mother, Mamá Elena, reminds her when Tita’s suitor Pedro is planning to ask for the daughter’s hand in marriage:
Mamá Elena le lanzó una mirada que para Tita encarraba todos los años de repressión que habían flotado sobre la familia y dijo:
– Pues más vale que le informes que si es para pedir tu mano, no lo haga. Perdería su tempo y me haría perder el mío. Sabes muy bien que por ser la más chica de las mujeres a ti te corresponde cuidarme hasta el día de mi muerte.
pp.15/6 (Debolsillo, 2013)
Mamá Elena threw her a look which for Tita summed up all the years of repression which had weighed on the family and said, “Then it’s probably better to tell him that if it’s to ask for your hand, he needn’t bother. It would be a waste of his time, and he’d be wasting mine. You know full well that being the youngest woman in the family it’s up to you to care for me until the day I die.”
*** (my translation)
With her mother in total control of her life, not only does Tita have to give up on the idea of marriage to Pedro, she must also suffer the indignity of seeing him marry her sister Rosaura, even if he’s doing it to remain in the presence of his true love.
While Mamá Elena might think the danger averted, Tita’s love won’t be suppressed so easily. Pedro is merely looking for an opportunity to be with her, and the matriarch of the family must show constant vigilance to keep the two apart. Besides, Tita has a secret weapon her mother knows nothing about, and against which she is defenceless – when people say that Tita can produce miracles in the kitchen, little do they know how right they are…
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this doesn’t really sound like my kind of book, and (unfortunately) you’d be right. I did think that the set-up was interesting, but the further I got into Como agua para chocolate, the more I found myself wondering what people saw in the novel. It’s a rather wooden story, and while it’s a pleasant enough read in its way, it dragged a lot for a short book – if I had to sum it up briefly, ‘Mills & Boon with magical realism’ is probably the most appropriate way to do it 😉
The novel has a structure of twelve chapters, each representing one month (I’m not quite sure why as the story doesn’t stick to this timeframe) with the title of each one a recipe which Tita will use in the chapter. Against this backdrop of a twelve-course banquet, there is an inter-familial struggle with Tita on one side and Mamá Elena (and later Rosaura) on the other. There is the odd man around from time to time, but this is very much a book where women take the leading roles. With the father gone, Mamá Elena is in control, and the ranch becomes a battlefield of family loyalties and emotions.
The mater familias is probably the highlight of Como agua para chocolate. A truly formidable, nasty character, she clings to the absurd, cruel family tradition, and she intends to make sure that everyone else will adhere to it too. A true pantomime baddie, you can almost hear the boos and hisses every time she enters the stage. It’s not just her daughters who are cowed by her presence – she even manages to repel rebel bandits who come to the ranch…
It would take something special to stand up to her, and that’s where Tita’s cooking comes in. She pours her heart and soul into the meals she creates, and those who eat them are able to sense that. The tears shed after losing Pedro make their way into the cake for Rosaura’s wedding – with alarming results – , but it’s not all bad. Her love is later poured into a dish of quails with rose petals, driving her other sister Getrudis to such extremes of rapture that she flees her home in embarrassing circumstances, with news only arriving back at the ranch months later of where she ended up (I won’t spoil the secret!).
Tita develops over the course of the book from a timid young girl into a sensual woman determined to break free of her mother’s control (in a time, long ago, when the parent’s word was absolute). The more Mamá Elena forbids it, the more Pedro is drawn to her, meaning the mother has to resort to sending him away, under the guise of caring for Rosaura’s fragile health, to get him away from Tita:
Creo que lo más conveniente sería que en cuanto tenga más fuerzas se vaia junto con su esposo y su hijito a vivir a San Antonio, Texas, con mi primo. Ahí tendrá mejor attenció médica. (p.74)
I think the most convenient thing would be, as soon as she gets a little stronger, to send her along with her husband and little boy to live in San Antonio, Texas, with my cousin. She’ll receive better medical care there. ***
Will that douse Pedro’s desire? It’s doubtful – and what if he’s not the only man in town with the beautiful Tita in his sights?
Still, despite the magical effects of Tita’s cooking, the ghosts, the fiery encounters (and a surprisingly effective and affecting finale), I’d have to say that Como agua para chocolate is not a great book. Esquivel loves to dump information into the narrative, and there’s plenty of clichéd writing with cliffhangers to each chapter, heaving bosoms and gazes meeting across the room. In addition, Pedro never really struck me as a worthy partner for Tita, so it was hard to sympathise with the lovers’ plight. Worst of all, though are the constant, never-ending paragraphs about cooking – if I wanted recipes, I’d read a cook-book…
While it wasn’t for me, sadly, I’m sure there’ll be people out there who will appreciate this book. Considering that it’s sold millions (and been made into a film), it would be surprising if it didn’t have its fans, but I suspect that this is yet another example of an average book getting the success that bypasses far better works. There are many far more talented writers than Esquivel out there – and speaking of which…
#WITMonth Bonus Shot – Number 4
Welcome to the fourth of my #WITMonth Bonus Shot features, in which I suggest some further reading ideas connected to the post (and country) of the day – links, where applicable, are to my reviews 🙂
As you can tell, I wasn’t overly impressed with my introduction to Esquivel’s work, but there are plenty of other female Mexican writers whose work I have enjoyed. Perhaps the best-known of the current crop is Valeria Lusielli, whose three works in English so far (Sidewalks, Faces in the Crowd and The Story of my Teeth) have been very well received. Last month, I tried books by two other new(ish!) writers, and while Guadalupe Nettel’s The Body Where I Was Born didn’t quite do it for me, I did enjoy Laia Jufresa’s novel Umami.
There are, of course, many great writers from earlier generations too, but the only one I’ve encountered so far is Carmen Boullosa, in the form of the excellent Texas – The Great Theft (Deep Vellum have just released another of her books, Before, for anyone interested, with Heavens on Earth due for release at the end of the year). Another name which keeps cropping up is Elena Poniatowska, but sadly I haven’t tried any of her books thus far. If anyone else has, let us know what you think – and don’t hesitate to suggest more of Mexico’s female writers 🙂