Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Review: Calligraphy of the Witch

Alicia Gaspar de Alba. NY: St. Martin's Press, 2007.
ISBN: 0-312-36641-8

Michael Sedano

Alicia Gaspar de Alba has done it again, created an incredibly arresting novel, Calligraphy of the Witch. It’s a deeply emotional story with some of the same flavor as Gaspar de Alba’s important 1999 novel, Sor Juana’s Second Dream. In Calligraphy of the Witch, a character from Sor Juana’s convent—the nun’s scribe, in fact—frees a slave from the sadistic Mother Superior and they flee hopefully to freedom they seek in a black colony near Vera Cruz. But Aléndula, the slave, and Concepción Benavídez, the amanuensis, are captured by a Dutch slaver and carried into rape and captivity, up to Boston.

The pirate captain’s surname, de Graaf, is too much for the British tongue, so he’s been christened Seagraves by the Boston merchants. When he sells Concepción as a slave, her given name is irrelevant and the Greenwoods name her Thankful Seagraves, in honor of her freedom to be their slave.

Gaspar de Alba partitions Concepción’s story into manageable parts. An introduction in a daughter’s voice. The brutal voyage from New Spain, her earliest years in Boston, a middle passage when Thankful Seagraves is married to the old man Tobias Webb--Goody Greenwood’s father-- Concepción’s trial and imprisonment as a witch, and the end story. Several passages are typeset in script in the manner of a scribe. Fortunately, the script font is entirely legible, thus adding to the reading experience.

The voyage to New England for the twenty-something Concepción is one rape after another followed by beating and all manner of brutality. Unknown to the dark-skinned de Graaf, he’s impregnated the girl with his blonde genes. That’s what Concepción’s daughter looks like, far more resembling Rebecca Greenwood’s blonde blue-eyedness than the mestiza birth mother’s brown skin and bi-colored eyes.

The merchant Greenwoods have been unable to sire another offspring, so Rebecca starts a devious program to steal the child and raise the girl as her own daughter. This entails turning the child against the mother in truly horrific ways. The culture of the Visible Saints breeds hatred into the child, and when the mother Thankful Seagraves is arrested for witchery, her Popery, the devilish Spanish tongue the mother speaks provide persuasive evidence of guilt. Even more persuasive is the brainswashed daughter has provided the most damning evidence, such as the devil’s own creed embroidered on a cloth the mother lovingly insisted the child memorize:

Hombres necios que acusáis
a la mujer sin razón,
sin ver que sois la ocasión
de lo mismo que culpáis:

si con ansia sin igual
solicitáis su desdén,
¿por qué queréis que obren bien
si las incitáis al mal?

Forced to translate, Concepcíon recognizes how Sor Juana’s satire could turn itself into evidence before the clouded evil of Cotton Mather and his ilk:

Whose is the greater fault
In an errant passion?
She who falls for pleading,
Oh he who, fallen, pleads?
Who is more to blame,
Although both be guilty of transgression,
She who sins for a commission,
Or he who for sin will pay?

Hence with much logic do I unravel
That men’s arrogance wins the battle
For in ways direct or subtle
Men are the sum of world and flesh and devil.

With Concepción’s differences with her world viewed therein as not mere deficits but signs of evil, the reader is not surprised at the tragic consequences that befall the Mexican slave. Yet, the author keeps the reader hanging on every incident and development. Despite foreshadowing the story’s most tragic elements—the novel’s introduction in the estranged daughter’s voice, the seer’s vision that daughter would be stolen by the barren merchant’s wife and turned against mother, Concepción’s education at Sor Juana’s hand plopped in the middle of superstitious Puritans—Gaspar de Alba keeps a reader in thrall through every incident and stomach-turning violation.

Against these fearful pressures, Alicia Gaspar de Alba builds an almost unbearable tension. Will the innocent woman be hanged as were others? Will the daughter discover the truth, and if discovered, accept it? What could possibly save Concepción from the inevitable? So intense does the author build the tension that the reader keeps turning pages repeating the incantation, “it’s only fiction, it’s only a story”.

An excellent story, and, as one would expect, more than a mere historical exercise. There’s a strong contemporaneity in Concepcíon Benavídes’ Thankful Seagraves story that reflects our times or echoes themes of earlier literatura chicana. An uneven struggle for identity caught in the conflict between the weaker Spanish-speaking culture and the dominant English-speaking world creates strength in the parent but a burning desire of the daughter not to be seen as her mother’s child. As the witch hysteria begins to cool, the validity of confessions won through torture takes on a clarity for some that others refuse to accept. An underlying greed and covetousness masked by the guise of righteousness infects the rise and ebb of injustice.

Concepcíon is one of those flies to wanton gods who bounces helplessly from powerful enemy to powerful enemy until the abuse grows too great. Much of the tension in Calligraphy of the Witch grows from the seemingly total helplessness of women and the evil of men. What’s a woman to do? When Greenwood’s lust turns to rape, in a blind rage Thankful Seagraves wraps a rope around her former owner’s neck and throttles him good. The reader’s heart leaps with joy, so completely evil a character Gaspar de Alba has crafted, then sinks in dread. Had she killed him, there could be no possibility of reprieve. But what of hope? When a woman is battered so much that her only recourse seems to be murder, what should she, what can she do?

Among Concepcíon’s practices is writing letters to Sor Juana, Aléndula, and Concepcíon’s mother, only to burn them later, in the woods. This deviltry becomes evidence against her in her witchery trial. But in one such letter, the scribe offers a lesson she hopes her daughter might one day profit from:

“Aléndula once told me that there are always four choices to every decision: the wise choice, the foolish choice, the safe choice, and the choice that someone else makes for you. “

In the end, Hanna Jeremiah Greenwood, née Juana Jerónima Benavídez, is faced with this logic. It is 1704. Her mother has been gone a decade, and Mama Becca has died, too. Hanna Jerónima, la bebita de Concepcíon is a mother of twins whom she’s named in English after herself and her unknown Mexican grandmother. Daughter comes to a point in her life when she can finally shed herself of all that heritage and go on with her English life. She will make one of those four choices, either leaving the reader frustrated, or completely frustrated, either a little joyful or fully relieved. In that welter of emotions will be a bit of sadness accepting that the story did have finally to end.

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1 comment:

Ann Hagman Cardinal said...

Thanks for writing on this work, Michael. I loved this book as it deals with so many important issues, ends with the female protagonist's emotional growth, despite the circumstances, and it is beautifully written.

However I will say it is very dark. You called it an almost unbearable tension, but for me at times, particularly when she was in prison, I felt that the author gave us no hope for Concepcion, and that made it hard to read. But all in all an incredible and intricately beautiful novel.