Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate

Esquivel 1Today’s letter is E, for Laura Esquivel. This Mexican writer is most well-known for her first novel, Like Water for Chocolate (1989). It was made into a film in 1994, but what I didn’t know until I did a little research on Esquivel was that the novel was written before the film. Everyone had told Esquivel, who was a nursery school teacher as well as doing a little screen-writing, that her idea for the film would never be made as it would be too expensive, what with the period Mexican army costumes, the giant dovecot at the end of the ranch’s roof, the extraordinary fires and ghostly visions, the flowing mountains of food, and so on. The novel is packed with magical realist events, all caused by the combination of powerful emotions and marvellous food. So, Esquivel, who was married to the film director Alfonso Arau, wrote her idea as a novel anyway, with the idea for a film still at the back of her mind. When it was a success (it was Mexico’s best-selling novel for three years running), the moneymen and producers came back and said ‘this really would make a great film’. So her husband made the film, it was beautiful and the most successful foreign film in the USA, and then their marriage broke up, apparently over the profits. That’s a pretty sad ending, to a lovely film and a terrific book that celebrate love, over and over again.

Esquivel 3So the story is about love, and about food. It’s set sometime around the end of the nineteenth century, in rural Mexico near the American border, on a large and prosperous ranch run by Mama Elena De La Garza. Tita is the youngest of her three daughters, condemned by evil Mama Elena never to be allowed to marry because her destiny is take care of her mother until she dies. Tita is also a marvellous cook, and often the reader must think, why don’t you just poison the old witch?, because if ever there was a wicked mother in a fairy story, Mama Elena is that character. Tita’s life is complicated when she and the local young gentleman Pedro fall in love. Mama Elena won’t hear of letting Tita marry, because of the slave youngest daughter tradition, so she calmly offers her eldest daughter Rosaura to Pedro instead. Pedro is not happy about this, but on the advice of his father he marries Rosaura so he can be near Tita. Tita’s grief and tears flow into the wedding cake that she and Nacha, the family cook, are making. This has the explosive result of uncontrollable vomiting by all the wedding guests. Similarly extravagant results follow whenever Tita is feeling passionate or emotional, and each of the twelve chapters of the book is structured around a recipe for that month.

Esquivel 5The recipes are more than just a way to link the events of the story, and keep the narrative going, they are part of the story. When Tita is born, her mother is chopping onions and Tita can feel them so strongly inside the womb that she is born on a wave of tears. When Tita is feeling desperate with love for her lost lover Pedro, who is also dangerously close to her, living in the same house, she makes quail in rose petal sauce for dinner. Her mother won’t eat it, it tastes too salty. Pedro loves it, Rosaura feels sick after three bites. But when Gertrudis, the middle daughter, and Mama Elena’s child from a secret love affair, eats her dish of quail, she is overcome with a lust so strong that she runs from the room for the shower. The heat from her body sets the shower room on fire and she has to run naked into the fields to cool down. She is swept up by a rebel army captain, and carried away on horseback, for an energetic career working in brothels, and then in the army as a successful general. At this point in the story, the reader puts the book down gently in awe and admiration at the sumptuousness of Esquivel’s imagination.

Esquivel 2Tita doesn’t see anything unusual in the visions she has or the peculiar results of her emotional struggles when people eat her meals. Time goes on, she escapes from Mama Elena’s ranch, but nearly dies with the effort and her misery, and refuses to speak for six months until she realises that she is not speaking because she chooses not to. With this realisation, that she has free will and can do what she wants, her slavery ends. But the nasty daughter-slave tradition is to be carried on, in Esperanza, the daughter of Rosaura and Pedro. Tita is furiously angry at this, and Rosaura’s death, after a three-day screaming argument between the sisters over poor Esperanza’s fate, is a very odd one indeed.

I love the cookery in this novel. I like reading recipes that tell stories and have history wrapped around them. I also really like recipes with ingredients that I don’t know, or can’t even pronounce. The recipes in this novel are like Mrs Beeton’s, in that they involve improbable quantities, like the wedding cake that uses 17 eggs and the juice and grated peel of one lime. Tita’s stuffed chillies with walnut sauce needs a sack of nuts and 8 pomegranates. My fingernails ache just thinking about all the effort of peeling and chopping.

Next to recipes for food, I like stories that give you medicinal remedies, and the ingredients for cool drinks. When Mama Elena finally dies, the malice of her ghost lights a spilling oil lamp and sets Pedro on fire. Tita heals his burns with thinly grated potato and egg whites beaten in oil. She stops any scarring with a poultice of the bark of an unpronounceable tree. How can anyone not enjoy reading about magical remedies like that? Almost real, subtly unreal. For something to happen, Esquivel just says that it happens, and we swallow the fantasy completely. This novel is a delicious and beautiful meal for the senses.

Esquivel 4Lurking behind the fantastical kitchen episodes, we have a considerable amount of Mexican history. Soldiers and rebels trot to and fro across the fields, and villages are perpetually being attacked by one army or another: we never really know what the war is about, or between whom. People die unexpectedly from stray bullets, but the cooking has to go on. When General Gertrudis brings her soldiers back to the ranch to visit, they eat almost all the food and animals, and the maids have to serve all the meals in shifts, one beginning as soon as the earlier one has ended. The sheer effort of feeding the men constructs the routine of the house.

When Tita and the other women aren’t cooking, they are sewing. When Rosaura is married, a silk sheet is prepared with a hole in the middle, surrounded by beautiful embroidery, so that the marriage can be consummated without immodesty. All her daughter’s nappies are snow white and embroidered in silk around the edges. Tita crochets a vast woollen bedspread for years and years, as a way of absorbing her misery about Pedro, night after night. When she leaves the ranch, it is almost the size of the house, trailing behind her in the carriage like a comfort blanket when she is taken away to safety by the doctor.

‘Like water for chocolate’ is actually an abbreviation: it should really be ‘like hot water for chocolate’, and means the boiling water to make hot chocolate. This is an idiom in Mexican (apparently) that signifies the moment of passion and emotion when you are just about to explode, with joy, or rage, or grief. That upwelling surge from the heart is the power behind the magical cooking in the novel.



Now posting on Vulpes Libris: North Korean magical realism

princess-BariI’ve posted a review of Hwang Sok-yong’s novel Princess Bari over on Vulpes Libris: magical realism, forest survival, spirit voices, starvation, reflexology, snakehead extortion, refugee survival, the long arm of the law circumvented by smiling faces and deft disappearances, the floating, shifting population of London’s migrant communities and the silent snowy Chinese hillsides where Bari is taught to forage, and where she loses the last of her family. An absorbing and thoughtful novel of sadnesses and perpetual hope.

Outrageous bullying for the good of the family in G B Stern’s The Matriarch

the edition I have, with the rich and passionate painting by Mark Gertler
the edition I have, the cover using this rich and passionate painting by Mark Gertler

There is something particularly enjoyable about a female villain in fiction, written for readers who expect women to be pure, perfect, and positive. I did a podcast miniseries in 2012 on jaw-droppingly awful, truly appalling female characters, all behaving badly. It was immense fun to research and write, because these characters are so vile that when I’m reading them, they make me (metaphorically) rise up and shout in outrage. In G B Stern’s The Matriarch (1924) we are cowering before the most unstoppably interfering Jewish mother I’ve ever read.

The Matriarch is the first in a loosely connected series of superb novels about the Rakonitzes’ family life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in London, Paris, and Vienna, and anywhere where there was life and liveliness and the Uncles could do business and their adored elder sister Anastasia could entertain. Anastasia Rakonitz is the Matriarch, the mother of about six children, grandmother of about 15, and aunt and great-aunt to around twenty other hapless descendants. This tentacled family network criss-crosses Europe with gaiety, colour, jewels and splendid carpets, torrents of conversation, lavish parties, much fussing and organising, and above it all, the loud and peremptory voice of Anastasia Rakonitz proclaiming ‘Me you can teach nothing’. This is quite true: nobody can teach her anything, unless it’s recipes or medicinal remedies, and even then her own will always be better.

Stern 3All this would be perfectly fine, marvellously entertaining, as a rich taste of the high life as lived in the great European capitals before the First World War, if it were not for Anastasia’s habit, strongly connected with her facility for being unteachable, of bullying. She adores her brothers and sons and her nephews and her sons-in-law: the women of her family are crushed beneath her will. They have to get up and cook, the men can lie in bed to await their breakfasts. The daughters-in-law and girl cousins are ignored and scolded and enslaved by the Matriarch, while the men can avoid arguments and always have their advice asked. The birth of a grandson or great-nephew will always get more attention than the illness of a daughter or daughter-in-law. Women are to be bought and sold like jewels, these maidens of Israel, but that is all they are for: to make new family alliances for Anastasia to take under her control, and to produce boy babies at regular intervals.

Stern 2The Rakonitzes carry on like this as if the world will never change, and then there is a crash: the Uncles lose all their money in a fraudulent ruby mine, and the family have to move from their Kensington houses to shabbier parts of London, like Hammersmith and Bayswater. The family is also changed: all but one of the men of the family kill themselves, die of a stroke, or disappear, leaving a tribe of wailing Jewish mothers to struggle to feed and clothe the orphans. A short way into this struggle for recovery, the family are hit again by the First World War, and modern ways of living. Anastasia is getting older, and madder, and more and more uncontrollable. The family is turning into a nightmare, and the grandchildren who are growing up are showing, very clearly, their hereditary strengths and weaknesses. The boys are more or less useless: good at avoiding trouble and responsibility. The girls are hard workers and full of determination, and the strongest of them all is Toni, Antoinette Rakonitz, who is the Matriarch’s eldest grand-daughter, and the heir to her dominance over the family.

Stern 4The Matriarch is a marvellous novel. It’s told in extracts of family story and history, endless anecdotes told with breathless excitement at the sheer glamour of it all. The names of ancient relatives dating from the Napoleonic Wars shower down like confetti: forgettable as individuals but contributing to a dense fog of wealth and civilised values. Anastasia the Matriarch is the centre of it all, the spider in the web: full of joyous good humour and not letting anyone forget it. I don’t enjoy large family gatherings myself, so the descriptions of the Rakonitzes’ glory days when every birthday was celebrated by the entire extended family, and every wedding had to be discussed for weeks by every adult family member who could be summoned for this purpose, from Budapest and San Remo, all this fuss and escalating excitement makes me hide in a corner. I’d rather go for a long muddy walk in the rain than sit through loud meals and endless planning constantly interfered with by the Matriarch, but that’s probably because the Rakonitz way of life is not my heritage. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it, I do; I just wouldn’t want to be trapped inside it.

an Italian edition
an Italian edition

The Matriarch presides over these festivals to glorify the Rakonitz inheritance, and becomes more peculiar each year. She has her good times, when she’s a jolly old lady with all her senses, and she has her bad times, when she is a manic fiend, rushing all over town at all hours of the day and night, collecting carpet menders to take to her son’s house at two in the morning, or demanding the return of all her daughter Truda’s household linen because she, Anastasia, had only lent it to Truda when they had to move house four years earlier. Anastasia has a strange kind of intermittent senile dementia that no-one knows how to do anything about, so they hide out of the way while it lasts, and clean up the mess and pay the unexpected bills when it’s over.

Such a character should be pitied rather than loathed, but I do loathe Anastasia. Why is that? She loves her family, she lives only for her family, and she wants to help everyone she meets. For me, that’s the thing: she’s an interfering and officious old bag who will not stop meddling, and will not leave well alone. Because she is rich, or was until the crash, she had monetary power, and assumed that her power bought her love as well. She expects to be told everything first, to be asked first, to be consulted first: if any family news does not reach her immediately she is furious and deeply hurt. To be so demanding and self-important makes her loathsome.

the new edition by Daunt Books
the new edition by Daunt Books

She has favourites, mostly boys, and neglects her other children and grandchildren. Some of the girls are paid attention, but the unmarried women are slaves in her kitchen, condemned for all their lives to be told how to cook, and to be scolded for not cooking as well as the Matriarch. The spoiled children lose their sense of responsibility, and the enslaved ones lose their self-respect. The family rots at its heart, because Anastasia the despot will not think about the health of the family, only about her own glory, and her supreme self-confidence that only she, and of course the Uncles, know what is best. (These are the Uncles who lose all the family money and then conveniently die, safe out of the way of Anastasia’s rampages for ever.)

G B Stern herself: who could resist collecting this card?
G B Stern herself: who could resist collecting this card?

But it’s not all bad. Toni, the Young Matriarch, will save the family. She will repay Isaac Cohen the six hundred pounds that her uncle Blaise died owing, by her own hard work and thrift from the age of 16. Toni will sacrifice an awful lot of her youth and energy to support her own mother, brother, and grandmother, as well as the debt, and Anastasia will know nothing about it. Toni takes on responsibility, when her brother, and her male cousins, are more interested in having a good time. Selfishness is matched against responsibility, and for a long time Toni is wholly admirable. But now and again, she too has her bad times, when she blows her savings to go dancing, or takes a room in the Savoy so she can sleep for one night in luxury without sharing a bathroom. In her pride at supporting her own family, and in acting as the de facto head of the family, Toni begins to adopt some of the Matriarch’s other, not so nice, little ways. She tells cousin Derek’s married mistress that Derek doesn’t really have any money, so Derek’s windfall will be made available to help Toni pay Blaise’s debt. She supports the family before anything else, and before anyone else, and loses a lover because of it. Toni is the Young Matriarch: we can see in her where Anastasia went wrong, and it’s not forgiveable. Anastasia created Toni’s ideas about interference, and bullying, and the needs of the family to the ends of time, and that is why Anastasia is a monster, for ruining Toni’s future.

The Rakonitz novels are The Matriarch (1924, published earlier as Tents of Israel), A Deputy Was King (1926), Mosaic (1930), Shining and Free (1935) and The Young Matriarch (1942). They overlap quite a lot in their reuse of anecdotes and retellings of events in the accumulated family history, so reading them all in sequence in one glorious go is not recommended.