Laura Esquivel and translator Ernesto Mestre-Reed hold their own against a worthy challenge, bringing to life on the pages of a short novel a character at the heart of Mexico’s foundation myth, Malinche.
When Hernan Cortes invades Amerindia, he needs a translator who speaks the Mexica tongue used in the Aztec empire. An India slave named Malinalli comes into Cortes’ possession. A gifted linguist, Malinalli speaks Nahuatl and rapidly learns Español. Adopting Catholicism, she is baptized Marina and comes to be known as Doña Marina, la Malinche, la chingada, the traitor. But her character is not cut and dried. After all, in bearing Cortes’ child, the woman gives birth to the first Mexicano.
Can a child hate its mother? More to Esquivel’s point, can Mexicans hate la Malinche, their mother? Malinche hates her mother. With the child’s father dying suddenly, her mother gives her away to the grandmother to raise. The confused child grows into adulthood, increasingly tormented counting the numerous times she has been discarded, given to a new master.
But Marina leaves her son behind as she accompanies Cortes on his expeditions of conquest. When, after years, she finally returns, her estrangement from her son turns into a nightmare of just rewards for abandonment. The son runs in fear, the mother screams at the son and drags the kicking and screaming boy from arms of the cuidaniño he calls “Mother.”
Much as Esquivel gives to make Malinche both human and sympathetic, she wastes little spite giving Cortes his due. He is a short, distempered beast whose charisma both draws and repels her. Ultimately, she gives in to her long controlled emotions and sees Cortes only with contempt.
How must the older adult Malinalli Marina have felt about her career? As the invader’s tongue, she looks Montezuma in the eye and gives her version of Cortes’ raison d’etre. She can spin it to get herself killed by outraged nobles, or she can convince the king the invader is the god Quetzalcoatl. Straddle the cultural divide and live, Malinalli tells herself in campaign after campaign. She has no other way than to live as a slave, Marina comforts herself.
Was it worth it? At the end of her career, Malinche has been given away yet again, this time to be wife slave to one of Cortes’ lieutenants. It turns into a good marriage, they are an ideal couple. They have children, deluxe housing, land, power. She has her grandmother’s jewelry, corn seed, and religion.
Writing an historical novel brings its own set of unique grammatical challenges. Sadly, Esquivel, or the translator, has given Malinche’s characters an awkward speech that interferes with the advancing of story. For instance, in the crucial confrontation between Malinalli and her mother, even the narrative takes on the floridity of the speeches:
Her dry lips pronounced words whose sound could move stones, and the most hardened hearts. “My daughter, Malinalli, by the great expanse of the seas, by the power of the stars, by the rain that washes and renews all, forgive me. I was guided by desire, blinded by life, attracted to what breathed. I could no longer be married to death. Your father had died, was inert, no word came out of his mouth nor light from his eyes. I could not stay bound to his immobility. I was still a young woman and wanted to live. 150
Despite the floricanto Esquivel’s characters speak, scenes like this one with Malinche’s mother resonate with understanding for the choices some women face in their drive up their own career ladder. Provocative ideas like these make the novel’s 186 pages pass too quickly.
Which is as it should be. And that's Tuesday, August 8, 2006. A day, like any other day, except... quick! Where does that line come from?see you next week.