Unwrapping My Birthday Present: “Like Water for Chocolate” (1989) & “Antigua and My Life Before” (1995)

During a road trip at the end of May that coincided with a wedding we had to attend, a friend and I began discussing novels and literature we had read and eventually works we hadn’t. If I had to really choose a favorite author it would be Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His use of magical realism, the way he can tell a complicated story so effortlessly and beautifully, the way I can smell and hear the smells and sounds he evokes with his words is truly masterful. So my friend, a native Spanish speaker from Madrid, was then surprised that I actually had read very few other Latin American authors, and even more surprising was that the short list included no women (I think it’s clear by now that I tend to read a lot of works by women so this omission was glaring to this friend of mine). My birthday was only a week later, and along with a card came two books, both by female authors from South and Central America. The first book was by a Mexican author whose novel I had heard about, as well as the movie based on it, but had never read; the other by a Chilean author I knew nothing about and whose existence I ignored until opening the gift. My list of summer books to read suddenly took second place to these two novels. The first one I finished in a couple of days, the second took me a couple of weeks, but they were both fully digested by the middle of July.

 

Laura Esquivel – Like Water for Chocolate (Como Agua Para Chocolate) [1989]

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What a novel! I had the hardest time putting it down (to go about my daily life and do my job) from the first couple of pages until the very last sentence. Being a huge Marquez fan all but assured that I would love this novel as well, because it easily and perfectly fits in the canon of works that adhere to the style of magical realism: literature that combines realistic storytelling with the supernatural or the unexplainable. I read the novel in translation, but I trust that was follows applies to the original Spanish as well. The language is accessible, and the writing by Mexican author Laura Esquivel is matter of fact and doesn’t dwell on any moment longer than is needed. Fundamentally this is a love story, sometimes it’s unclear, though, who the love is between. Tita, the protagonist, falls for Pedro, and he loves her back, but because of family traditions the two cannot marry – Tita must spend her life with her domineering mother and be with her until she dies, for that is the job of the youngest daughter and that is just how things are done. Pedro, in order to be close to the love of his life, marries Tita’s older sister Rosaura. I mentioned another love affair, and that is Tita’s relationship to food and cooking, and this is also where most of the magical aspects of the novel come into play. Whatever feeling or emotion Tita is experiencing it gets transferred to her dishes (dishes to which the novel playfully provides recipes at the beginning of each chapter, and also directions on how to prepare each dish). A dish cooked while feeling lustful thoughts for Pedro sends Tita’s oldest sister Gertrudis into a passion fit so arduous it is only quenched by joining a brothel until all her desire and love is fulfilled. This family saga and especially Tita’s longings are so compelling, thanks to Esquivel’s fantastic storytelling, that the pages almost turn themselves, it feels as time does not pass because the narrative is so absorbing: a magic all unto its own. I loved this novel and am so glad that my friend introduced me to it.

 

Marcela Serrano – Antigua and My Life Before (Antigua Vida Mia) [2000]

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This book by Chilean author Marcela Serrano takes a little longer to warm up to, but ultimately it is well worth it. The narrative weaves itself between the stories of two women, best friends, and the tumultuous lives they lead: both due to the political issues that plagued Chile before and after the 80’s, but also due to the very difficult lives these women have and the way life gets in the way of actual living. The writing is more complicated, almost poetic (even in translation) and at times it is difficult to understand what is being expressed. This is due to the very interesting choice of narrator: Josefa, one of the two protagonists, is the narrator of the novel, but sometimes the storytelling is taken over by a collective of female voices, all the women who have come before – a beautiful chorus that obfuscates, though, the overall tale. Josefa is a famous singer-songwriter that has overcome her humble beginnings and personal tragedy and has gained fame and respect, but has also sacrificed personal connections in order to be successful. Violeta, the other protagonist, is the more carefree and political of the two friends, but she has also suffered and her suffering eventually leads to the Guatemalan city in the title, which becomes more of a metaphorical space all women must find and aspire to discover in order to be fulfilled and find true meaning and happiness. As I said, it is not the simplest book to read, but with just a little bit of effort (not too much) and an openness to something a little different, the book can inspire and evoke a lot of thoughts about one’s life and what friendship, connection, success, and ideology really mean.

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