Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Sympathy for Devils: Murmuring Bees

Review: Sofía Segovia  (Author), Simon Bruni  (Translator). The Murmur of Bees. Seattle: Amazon Publishing, 2019. Isbn 9781542040501 (Print book)

Michael Sedano

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed reading Simon Bruni’s translation of Sofia Segovia’s The Murmur of Bees, and skimming it in Spanish. I enjoyed the literature, the writing, the storytelling, the book as a whole. But ¡trucha! The Murmur of Bees serves up subversive propaganda promoting exploitation, greed, and generational peonage, and that POV's something not to enjoy, so watch out for beguilement masquerading as storytelling. It does it in a nice way, of course, so when the guy dies at the end, we're sorry to see him go.

I enjoyed a Zoom book group discussion recently, with the Book Club of the Stanford Chicana Chicano Alumni Association. These are bright people—Stanford graduates, que no? They’re going to ask, “Where’d that come from, that capitalist/worker stuff, that wasn’t in our discussion!” They didn’t much discuss what one person pointed as “classism” and "colorism" in the novel. 

A pernicious element of propaganda is gente fail to count subversive stuff when there’s magic, danger, evil, goodness, and natural forces in a textured plot with strong characters and outstanding writing. That’s Murmur of Bees in a nutshell. 

Blurbers, social media reviewers, and my Stanford-alum colleagues, follow the publisher’s line about an abandoned child with seer’s ability. It’s Mexico. Abandoned property belongs to the Master. In this case, generous, loving Landowners take the child, Simonopio, as their haijado. Simonopio—a magic child born covered with bees--older-brothers the scion of los Morales. Revolution looms threatening ownership of la hacienda Morales while Sra. Morales struggles to develop haute cultura in tiny backwater Linares in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

The disfigured child communicates with the bees. The bees' oneness with Nature gives the boy prescience, but he's tortured knowing awful outcomes result if X happens, so instead, he does Y, or speechlessly warns his gente, or cannot. 

Readers follow Simonopio's moves, while no one asks if Simonopio isn’t the landowner’s natural child—the Mexican term for “bastard? Of course he is. The rich vato spends all week riding the range, visiting his peons, managing his share of his share-croppers’ productivity. Droit de señor isn’t in the book.

Notice you allowed me to get away with that “his”?

People don’t own people. Peons don’t own the land they work. Only the Master owns. And he’s a Good character in the supporting cast to Simonopio, Espiricueta, and Guillermo. 

The novel’s Good Versus Evil elements stem from least productive family man on the rancho, Espiricueta. He’s not like us nor the other chattel. Espiricueta’s a dark-skinned southerner, a damned ignorant, primitive, indio. That’s the Mexican POV the narrator shares, and not in an unguarded moment. That is how they think, the rich. Our heroes, Los Morales, are gente decente, sensible we learn, for example they don’t walk on the sunny side of the street or someone will ask for a loan. Besides that, “blondes burn, mi’jo.” People aren’t talking, but noticing it, how skin color is important to how we look at the world through the narrator’s eyes.

When that indio villain with the long name becomes a twisted savage so primitive that Nature rises up and has to kill him—and his little boy, too--it’s a triumph for Colonialism in that avenging the Master has importance beyond human ability but only Nature can right so profound a wrong. And make it an indigenous subhuman, all the better, QED.

I’d hate to be a character in Segovia’s story. She invents one, a little girl, just to illustrate how cruel and worthless the bad guy becomes. That begins with Espiricueta killing his wife by sending her to town to buy tobacco where she gets the plague. Social isolation was the rule then, too. 

When Beatriz, the Master’s wife, takes a doll and clothes to the girl, her resentful father beats the clothes off her tiny body to teach her not to accept anything from those people in the big house. After the evil father gets his, the little girl disappears from the story, the Master gives her away to anyone who’ll have her. That’s noted as an aside by the author. It’s fiction. No, it’s propaganda, pay attention.

Again, don’t take this the wrong way. A book group can take a novel study guide rubric to glean a richly enjoyable discussion covering many elements of this mixta of family saga-historical fiction-speculative/magic realism. Murmur of Bees, so skillfully originated in Spanish, is eloquently presented in English by translator Bruni. Bilinguals will enjoy three novels. The book in Spanish. The book in English. And all those in-between connections grown of simultaneity. Does the English language of the translation sing with more complexity and lexical variety than the Spanish composition? How do you say some colloquial thing in one or the other tongue? Those all are interesting, and worthwhile, divagations from what’s happening within this elaborated pathetic fallacy.

The story sets out to render a los de abajo character completely despicable as a validation of the ruling master’s point of view, and the narrator’s. She takes sides. So do you. POV sucks you right along. It’s a Mexican thing to relish a small detail like some gringo inspires Morales to turn from caña to naranja. He makes it big, the gringo went bust 

Significant danger, a faceless agon to magnify our fear, comes from Land Reform. Outside force threatens to seize land to give to peons. There are two types of Peons. Good, gentle, complaisant tipos like Nana and loyal Martin. But the worst are like that evil guy who’s so low even the land he works doesn’t produce. When we get into Espiricueta’s mind, it’s to learn to hate him and see how wrong he is. His resentment is his own fault.

Segovia is not quite matter-of-fact narrating the movidas the nobles historically pulled to divide land on paper only, to keep land from peons. There’s admiration for hombres nobles that when the time arrived, to a man, they signed back their rights. Readers will admire how the writer makes that parallel happen a couple hundred pages after introducing it.

The Murmur of Bees is a long book. That’s good news as the writer/translator get to unravel some good stuff. Chapter Eleven, for example, is the most powerful writing from first word to final period. The story of the underwater singer offers marvelously distracting comic relief, interrupting the book’s most horrid events. Masterful writing treats you in the closing short chapters that bounce off one another, cliff hanging one thread, leading readers to another stress point, pulling back the curtain to impending doom, meanwhile back at the ranch… it’s great cinematic melodrama. 

I just wish Segovia used up a lot less space. The author feels it, too, introducing threads only to pull them out. Sra. Morales has her sewing chapter and a rat-a-tat motif to echo the daily pace of a near-sequestered woman in those Mexican times and flu times. Later in the story, the author picks up that rat-a-tat, but cursorily, like she sees the inspiration lose its interest. The rat-a-tat motif becomes like sewing with an empty bobbin, a lot of movement but nothing sticks, so change to something else.

If this book had been marketed for its times, we’d be calling Murmur of Bees a “book as Contemporary as 500,000 dead!” or something tasteful like that. Segovia lets the Spanish Flu raise its spectre for a few moments of arresting interest before she yields to the demands of her personal stories. Living in plague-time gives the novel immediacy and power beyond its narrative role. It’s not a book about pandemics.

Californians feel dismay reading the story of the enormous success of los Morales and their holdings. This is historical fiction, sure, but it’s no fiction that California’s citrus economy disappeared, outcompeted by rich Mexicans with cheap labor and good fruit. That’s not in the book at all, but it’s in me. My father and his father were orange pickers before WWII, but after, jobs, like the groves, grew scarce. Luckily, there was the arms industry. That’s not in the book, either.

What’s in the book, and you better be careful to take note, is a nearly 400-page purification of a discredited way of making a living off the labors of other: share-cropping, with corruption as a class privilege underpinning the economy. Segovia’s choice of murmuring bees sharing ways of knowing with a broken human, and the author’s choice of depriving Simonopio of speech, tell unsuspecting believers that powerful supernatural forces are out there to support light-skinned land owners and be generous to cooperative peons like the rest of us.

Like I say, don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the heck out of The Murmur of Bees. Segovia’s point of view is not deliberately pernicious, I don’t think it is. It's Mexican, not Chicano, that's for sure. Literary value is no excuse, however, for not letting the other side have a say, nor loading the dice so heavily against dark-skinned people. Readers will get a kick out of seeing how she does it.


jmu said...

Surely you jest when you state that "literary value is no excuse, however, for not letting the other side have a say, nor loading the dice so heavily against dark-skinned people."

Since when has literature had an obligation to be "fair and balanced?" It ain't Fox News, you know. In fact, I don't think I know of ANY great work where it is "fair and balanced." Maybe you know of one, in which case you need to enlighten me, O Sage.

Yes, Espiricueta is a stand-in for those peons in the South of Mexico whose village lands were taken by the conquistadores and who, under the leadership of Emiliano Zapata, maintained that la tierra pertenece a los que la trabajan. Yes, all the perfumados, and the Morales belong to that class, tagged Zapata as El Atila del Sur, and abhorred all they represented. But there is a difference: the Morales are in the North, where the indigenous inhabitants were fewer and, worse, did not engage in empire building as those who populated the southern end of the Altiplano. The peones of the Morales are, therefore, not indigenous, but mostly mestizos (Spanish+Indigenous from the South), mulatos (Spanish+African) and coyotes (Indigeous fro the South+African). They had lived in the peonage condition described in the book for generations and the hacendados were not as ruthless as those in the South.

Espiricueta is the "odd-man out" here. He is unwilling to (1) live according to his socioeconomic station and (2) he believes that his individual needs are more important than those of the community he has joined. Yet, he is a man chained to the dominant patriarchal mores that controlled each and every action of his, from sending his wife to get him tobacco en plena epidemia to punishing his daughter for accepting the noblesse oblige charity of la patrona.

It so happens that the landowners are white and the peons are not in this book. But this story could have been written in la Madre Patria with castellanos as patrones and andaluzes as peasants and nothing would have changed because what happens is all based on power movidas and not skin color. Sure, it is easy to claim that it is all about color but that is lazy. It is, instead, about how those that have power wield it and what they do to keep themselves above others (remember what clause was put into la Reforma Agraria to protect the ranches of the newly powerful?).

The book tells you what eventually did happen in Nuevo Leon: the economy changed from monoculture agriculture based in el campo to industrial output based in the city (Monterrey and later Linares itself). Subsistence farmers were eventually dealt a death blow with NAFTA because the US flooded their market with cheap corn which then permitted US agribusinesses to set up shop and send all their produce north. The farmers' children either went to work in the maquilas or in the industrial farms or crossed the border and joined the US labor force.

If the author had written a story where Espiricueta comes out on top it would be a fantasy because that is not what happened. That, to me, is the value of the book because it stops the mythologizing of los de abajo as, in effect, "noble savages." The narrator also points out in certain sentences that la Dictadura Perfecta nor the subsequent Mexican glasnost made a difference: Mexico is still ruled by la Ley de Herodes: o te chingas o te jodes.

Come to think of it, it is the same here even though we hate to admit it.

Antonio SolisGomez said...

a very thoughtful and thought provoking review