Malinche

Are you one of those people who keeps reading books even though they don’t like them? I am. I had a feeling I’d hate Laura Esquivel’s Malinche by about page 8. By  about page 30, I knew I hated it. But I kept reading anyway.  (After reading Eva’s recent post on abandoned books, I’m going to seriously have to rethink this tendency.)

For those of you who aren’t familiar with conquistador history, Malintzin/Malinalli was an indigenous slave who was given to Hernán Cortés when the Spaniards landed in Mexico; she eventually became his interpreter.  Malinche, as she is more commonly known, has been a controversial figure in history. Some revere her, some pity her, and some consider her a traitor to her people.

Now, it doesn’t really bother me that much when people take some artistic license with historical events. When I saw The Patriot, I was fine with the way the American Revolution was portrayed, so long as I could keep seeing Heath Ledger. So long as the filmmaker/writer is not injecting fiction into a documentary or actual history book, I can accept that stuff’s going to get changed to make it more appealing to the masses.

But come on, Laura Esquivel.

Malinche tells the story of the “passionate love affair” between Malinalli and Cortés. Malinalli gets sold into slavery at age 5, continuing to get shifted around to different owners until her adolescence, when she’s given to the Spaniards. She starts out by working for one of Cortés’s men, and as her gift with languages becomes clear, she moves up in status to become the Spaniards’ interpreter. By then she has caught Cortés’s eye, and the two develop a secret attraction to one another; [trigger warning] taking advantage of the situation one day when he sees her bathing alone in a lake, Cortés rapes Malinalli, then reassigns her to be his woman.

This is one of the many major disconnects in the story. She falls in love with him, though they have a tempestuous “relationship” (I say “relationship” because it is clear throughout the book that she is still his slave, and he is still the one with all the power). After bearing witness to his thirst for power and the brutal slaughter of thousands of people, Malinalli is left trying to reconcile her love for this man and her horror at his actions, as well as the role she has played in helping him. There is no believable love story here; it’s all about rape, abuse, control, and victimization.

Then, on top of the questionable “love story,” the writing is just bad. None of the characters and situations are believable. Take, for instance, this section of the book when Malinalli is 4-5 years old and discovers her grandmother is blind:

“I can’t see your face, but I know that you are beautiful; I can’t see your outside, but I can describe your soul…I can see all the things that I believe in. I can see why we are here and where we will go when our games in.”

Malinalli began to weep silently.

“Why are you crying?” the grandmother said.

“I’m crying because I can see that you do not need your eyes to look or to be happy,” she answered. “And I’m crying because I don’t want you to go.”

A grandmother would poetically talk to her 4-year-old granddaughter about souls? A 4-year-old would poetically respond by saying “I can see that you do not need your eyes to look or to be happy?” Really? Give me a break.

The way Esquivel jumps around with the plot also detracts from its credibility. Toward the end of the novel, Cortés and Malinalli have a huge fight, which ends with Cortés reassigning/marrying her off to one of his men:

[trigger warning] On the night of the wedding, Jaramillo, by then drunk and full of desire, penetrated her again and again. He drank from her breasts, kissed her skin, submerged himself in her, emptied all his being in Malinalli, and fell asleep…The only one who was awake was Malinalli. The desire to set herself on fire kept her alert…She felt humiliated, sad, alone, and she could not figure how to let the frustration from her being, how to cast her grief to the wind, how to change her decision to be present in this world.

Pretty cut and dried description of someone who feels suicidal, depressed, and betrayed, no? But two whole pages (and one pregnancy) later, she’s in a loving marriage, and she still thinks Cortés loves her (in his own way). It’s enraging.

The only thing about this book that I love is the cover (on the hardcover edition, at least): Malinalli is painted on the front, and Cortés is painted on the back; if you take off the cover and unfold it, the inside opens up into a poster of a hand-drawn codex explaining all the major events of Malinalli’s life in illustrated form. Seriously, you’d get a better story out of staring at that codex than you would by reading the book.

3 comments

  1. Criss

    I bought this book a LOOOONG time ago, and still haven’t gotten around to reading it.

    I’m fuzzy on the history, I’ve just been told snippets of her story from professors, but from what I understand Malinalli was sold as a slave at an early age and sold from one tribe/group to the other, that’s how she learned the languages and legends of the Aztecs, and why she was so instrumental to Cortez’s conquest (she knew how to tell the Spaniards how to play the Aztecs). Because of the way she was treated and sold as a child, she had deep hate and resentment for “her people” (since they could so easily sell her as a slave), so she had no trouble betraying them that way.

    If that was indeed her childhood, then I can see how the woman would have been easily tricked/deluded into thinking she was “in love” with Cortez even though it was clearly an abusive relationship — but, then again, it should be the author’s job to make the reader see and believe that.

    (And I agree that there’s only so much precociousness you can give a child — 4-year-olds are still learning how to master irregular verbs.)

    I wonder if the original Spanish version has better writing (if the problem was in the translation)? Or did you read the original Spanish?

    I’m intrigued to read the book now… but it’s sat on my shelf for so long, seems silly to pick it up now, when I just read a negative review. :P

    • Melissa

      Hi Criss! I also wondered if something got lost in translation (I read the English version). Parts of it sounded good, but then there was a lot that sounded repetitive and just off.

  2. Pingback: Central American Authors « Diversify Your Reading

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