It ought to be difficult, if not impossible, to make the Spanish conquest of Mexico lyrical, but Laura Esquivel comes close in her fifth novel, "Malinche." This is not a good thing either for history or for literature.
Most readers will remember Esquivel for her first novel, "Like Water for Chocolate," the story of how a woman transforms heartbreak into culinary astonishments. That book used recipes and magical realism to explore life in early 20th-century Mexico. In Esquivel's new book, the eponymous heroine encounters her share of heartbreaks, but there's little magical or realist about the process.
Mexican national memory hasn't been kind to La Malinche, the Mexica (Aztec) woman who came into the possession of Herman Cortes as a slave, learned Spanish and as "The Tongue" — Cortes' translator — helped talk Montezuma out of an empire, with ghastly, near-genocidal results. She mediated between the Spaniards and the Mexica people whom Montezuma governed. She also bore Cortes a son, Martin — the first true mestizo Mexican, or at least the most famous one — before the conquistador married her off to a much nicer man named Juan Jaramillo, with whom, according to Esquivel's account, she had a daughter.
As far as I can tell — one of the many shortcomings of Esquivel's book is that it leaves the reader grasping for details — Malinche was one of the names by which Cortes was sometimes known. It means something like captain, so the captain's translating mistress became La Malinche. Esquivel gives her the birth name of Malinalli, which refers to a sacred grass and also seems to have associations with death.
Esquivel deserves credit for attempting the difficult task of imagining herself into the skin and heart of a woman whom history has found it easy to scorn. Some revisionists have argued that La Malinche saved her people from total destruction because she gave Cortes the chance to negotiate (sometimes) with words instead of swords — not that he was afraid to use those.
You can find the review here