JULY 9, 2016
TURN ON TALK RADIO, cruise around the internet, pick up a newspaper — you would think there’s nothing more to Mexico than psycho narcos, dirty government, and illegal immigration. Throw in Donald Trump, and the country’s PR just can’t catch a break. Mexican art? Didn’t that peak with Diego Rivera? And how about Mexican literature?
Ask anyone at the next dinner party you attend to name a prominent Mexican literary novel — it can’t be a work by Carlos Fuentes, and make it clear that Malcolm Lowry’s lugubrious Under the Volcano doesn’t count. Those versed in translations du jour might list Roberto Bolaño (although he was actually Chilean) or Valeria Luiselli (the latter has cred even though she’s half Italian). Now, mention Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. Ah, yes. That will likely get some relieved nods. The book not only sold millions worldwide, but it was also made into a sexy, award-winning movie, ensuring its memorability even for those who have not read it.
But we’re talking about Literature with a capital L, and Like Water for Chocolate contains recipes. We know where novels with recipes go: The WFG (Women’s Fiction Ghetto). Especially a bittersweet story like this one. It’s true. The book is bittersweet. It’s the sweet, I believe, that made it a best seller and a book club favorite. But it’s the bitter, I’m certain, that makes Esquivel a significant writer.
Laura Esquivel can be extremely playful. She delights in life’s small pleasures (warm tortillas, a stolen kiss), and her satire and sense of the absurd are laugh out loud funny — these qualities make her an indulgence to read. But she is also a rough writer who does not play nice with her characters. Her latest novel may be her roughest yet — this is saying a lot since her body of work is liberally doused with episodes of infanticide, rape, and murder. Pierced by the Sun happens to contain all three.
For the book’s protagonist, a Mexico City policewoman named Lupita, the hardships began when she was a young girl. She was raped by her stepfather, and soon after, she started drinking. “Alcohol became her best ally, her passport to freedom. It gave her access to a world where the fear of being seen, of being touched, of being raped again did not exist.” Unfortunately, the drunkenness that “offered her an excellent alternative to being herself without actually dying” catapulted her into prison after she killed her toddler son in a horrible, tragic accident.
Years later, having served her sentence, Lupita is a recovering alcoholic working for the Iztapalapa district police force. When the delegado of her district is very publicly assassinated, she is the only one to see the face of a man who might be the killer. But how did he do it? The delegado’s throat was slashed, no one was standing close to him when it happened, and there is no weapon. There is only Lupita’s gut instinct as she remembers the man waving to the delegado at the exact instant of the attack. Aggravating the anguish of holding the dying delegado in her arms, Lupita wets her pants — a humiliation captured by TV news cameras.
Judging from all of Esquivel’s books, she respects body fluids, she reveres the four elements, and she finds particular satisfaction in bringing them together to explore greater cosmic unities. The night of murder, as Lupita washes her pants, stained with her urine and the delegado’s blood, she thinks, “This combination of fluids would travel through the drain in unison and the water would contain the memory of them both.” This saddens her because she “didn’t want to remain in the water’s memory under such conditions.”
This sort of musing is common for Lupita. She is rooted in domestic traditions and the Earth’s balance. The connection between the two is another recurring motif for Esquivel, and it’s used in a very literal way when the delegado is killed. Two hours earlier, Lupita noticed a deep crease on his collar. Holding him as he dies, she observes that the wrinkle is gone. She knows he hasn’t had time to go home and change his clothes, and she is sure this wrinkle situation is important. It is doubtful that anyone else would have made this observation, but for Lupita, it was “as if removing wrinkles were her way of setting the world straight […] Ironing was an act of annihilation.”
Each chapter heading in the book offers a description of Lupita, and many of them play with her deep-seated enjoyment of stereotypically feminine activities: “Lupita Liked to Iron,” “Lupita Liked to Knit and Embroider,” and “Lupita Liked to Dance.” But Esquivel makes it clear that there are many sides to womanhood, because Lupita also “Liked to Protect” and “Liked to Deduce.” The most appealing aspect of this device is how Esquivel gives all of Lupita’s activities equal value, using each one to explore a different facet of an enormously complex woman.
She cries “for all the corn that would never grow because farmers got paid more for their crops if they planted opium poppies.” She cries “with rage over the approval of an energetic reform that opened the doors for foreign investors to take over Mexican oil.” She is a cynic and at the same time she desperately wants to believe there is a politician honest enough to save her country from thugs, electoral fraud, the cartels, and gringo drug addicts. As she slowly begins to discover that the delegado is not the honest someone she thought him to be, she hits the bottle again.
Many readers will not like Lupita. The police captain in charge of the murder investigation thinks her crudeness is refreshing, and while this may be true in a certain sense of the word, she is a mean drunk and a pain in the ass, and she makes poor decisions, over and over again. Even knowing how crummy life has been for her, it’s hard not to find her frustrating. It’s to Esquivel’s credit that she never tries to redeem Lupita. Instead, she grants Lupita’s intimate pain a dignified place to find rest in the universe.
One of the book’s most moving moments comes when Lupita recalls holding her dead son through the night:
As moonlight had entered the room through a window that was right behind her head, Lupita carefully observed how her own shadow drew a half-moon shape on her son’s face. As the night wore on, she had all the time in the world to observe how that shadow changed […] She thought that maybe Galileo Galilei had lost a child in his arms just like her, on a night just as sad as this one, and thus had discovered that only a round shape that comes between the sun and the moon can project a circular shadow, providing irrefutable proof that the earth is round and that it orbits the sun.
In many ways, Pierced by the Sun feels like the final volume in an unofficial trilogy that encompasses three of Mexico’s most transformative struggles. Esquivel’s Malinche fictionalizes the life of Hernán Cortés’s legendary Aztec mistress (considered one of indigenous Mexico’s greatest betrayers) during the Spanish conquest, and Like Water for Chocolate juxtaposes an embattled love story with the revolution of the early 20th century. Focusing on the country’s current war on drugs, Pierced by the Sun gives readers modern Mexico in stark relief.
The more Lupita learns (or the reader learns, which is not always the same thing), the more she discovers that the source behind the delegado’s murder is the battle between two opposing worlds — traditional shamans and corrupt politicians. At stake is a sacred ground containing the remains of a pre-Hispanic pyramid. Lupita uncovers a conspiracy to build a mall on this land for street vendors whose real industry is the drug trade, and whose lucrative underground business provides healthy kickbacks for local public servants.
It would be too much of a spoiler to describe how Lupita makes her discoveries and why she finds herself recovering from near death in the mountain state of Guerrero in a utopian, agrarian community. What matters is that this portion of Pierced by the Sun is the muscle of Esquivel’s beliefs. Along with novels she is the author of a small collection of essays, Between Two Fires: Intimate Writings on Life, Love, Food, and Flavor. The cover makes it look like a pleasant little book of kitchen anecdotes. Once again there are recipes, but this is no cookbook. It is a manifesto, its philosophy best summed up in her essay “At the Hearth”:
The arrival of a new revolution is imminent, and I don’t think this time it will be from the outside in, but the opposite. It will entail the reclaiming of our rituals and ceremonies and the establishment of a new relationship with the land and the planet, with everything sacred.
Mexico, in fact, has a rich and varied literary scene, and Laura Esquivel is arguably its best-known female novelist outside its borders. So three cheers for all those recipes in her first novel, because they brought her to the world’s attention. Whether she is writing about the ancient Aztecs or Mexico City in the 23rd century, Esquivel reclaims cooking, childbirth, romantic love, respect for the rhythm of crops, traditional medicine, and everything else she believes underpins a healthy society. And with each new book she writes, our understanding of (and appreciation for) her homeland expands.
Like its protagonist, Pierced by the Sun is short, dense, odd, tough, gritty, crude, tender, and inexplicably divine. Is it Esquivel’s greatest achievement? Probably not. But it is essential to the bigger picture her work paints. With Lupita, she gives us more than just a complex woman. She gives us Mexico today.
At one point we learn of Lupita, “She had been convinced of her own worthlessness for so many years that she irrevocably placed herself below others, thus obeying an unconscious desire to feel insignificant.”
This could describe the role unfairly parceled out to Mexico on the world stage right now. But Esquivel shows us, through the simple elegance of stories that take place in kitchens, bedrooms, bars, beauty shops, and cornfields, that it’s so much more than that. Better yet, she offers hope — both for Lupita and for the country she so fiercely loves.