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. This is not a good thing either for history or for literature.
Most readers will remember Esquivel for her debut novel, Like Water for Chocolate, the story of how a woman transforms heartbreak into culinary astonishments, using recipes and magical realism to explore life in early 20th century Mexico. In Malinche, 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 woman who came into the possession of Herman Cortes as a slave, learned Spanish and as Cortes' translator helped talk Montezuma out of an empire, with ghastly, near-genocidal results. She mediated between the Spaniards and the Mexica (Aztec) people whom Montezuma governed. She also bore Cortes a son, Martin, the first true mestizo Mexican.
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 argue that La Malinche saved her people from total destruction because she gave Cortes the chance to negotiate with words instead of swords.
It's unclear whether Esquivel shares this particular revisionist point of view, but then many things in this novel are unclear. We get a few scenes of pillage and massacre, fever dreams that interrupt the story that Esquivel really cares about: one woman's spiritual journey.
The novelist treats her heroine with refreshing sympathy. How can you not feel for a 5-year-old girl whose mother, eager to remarry after the death of her first husband, gives her away to slave-traders? All the young Malinalli has to hold on to are memories of her grandmother, a loving woman rich in the spirituality of Mexica culture. But by the time Malinalli travels with Cortes to Tenochtitlan, Montezuma's capital, her grandmother's indigenous lyricism has given way to self-aggrandizing, almost New Age escapism.
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