The story of Malinche is a rather interesting one.
And yet it was also a book I didn’t quite enjoy reading. But somehow managed to finish. I don’t know – was I already too far into the book to give it up? Or am I just reluctant to give up books, unless I really detest it? I didn’t hate reading this book, it had some interesting moments. Partly because it is based on a historical figure. One I hadn’t heard of before, but has such an iconic status.
And she is the almost mythical character of Malinalli, a Nahua slave turned interpreter turned lover of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire.
We meet Malinalli at her birth, her maternal grandmother, a key figure in her childhood, acting as midwife. She is sold into slavery at age five, after her grandmother’s death, and eventually lands up in the Spaniards’ hands. Now baptized and with her aptitude for languages, she becomes the Spaniards’ translator, known as ‘The Tongue’. She quickly catches the eye of Cortes, resulting in their son Martin, one of the first mestizos (person of mixed European and indigenous ancestry). It’s not really a love story though, as he is obviously the one in charge, and pretty much delivers her over to one of his underlings when he’s done with her.
Writing about a historical figure must be tricky. And with Malinalli, controversy is no stranger. She has been blamed for betraying her people by some, yet praised by others for saving many lives. She has been portrayed as a victim, a symbolic mother of Mexico’s people, a woman of authority. Today the term malinchista refers to a disloyal Mexican.
While there are some absorbing details about life in 16th century Mexico, the awkward speech and the odd pace of the book (tedious at parts, rushed at other times) as it shifts between past and present makes for a difficult read. The chunks of spirituality strewn throughout the book resulted in my flipping through the pages, eyes a bit glazed.
Perhaps what is most telling about my experience with this book is that as I was about to return it to the library, I realised that I had another ten-odd pages to go. I thought I’d finished it already!
(On another note, I quite like the cover of this book. Illustration by Brian Cronin)
Laura Esquivel, born in Mexico in 1950, is perhaps best known for her book Like Water For Chocolate (Como agua para chocolate) which has sold over 4.5 million copies. She began writing stories when working as a kindergarten teacher.
Como agua para chocolate (1989) (English: Like Water for Chocolate)
La ley del amor (1995) (English: The Law of Love)
Íntimas suculencias (1998)
Estrellita marinera (1999)
El libro de las emociones (2000)
Tan veloz como el deseo (2001) (English: Swift as Desire)