Friday, 10 November 2017

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel our modern western culture we – women and men alike – claim for ourselves the right to be the architects of our individual future… and happiness, but it’s a rather recent achievement even for us. During the greater part of history here too the lives of people were by and large determined by others, notably by fathers, feudal lords, priests, Kings or Queens, and by seldom questioned unwritten rules. Individual happiness mattered very little, romantic love was of no importance in marriage matters. In Mexico of the early twentieth century the protagonist of Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel is supposed to willingly uphold tradition that demands of her as the youngest daughter to put last her own longing for happiness in marriage and to take care of her mother until she dies. Love is stronger than tradition, though, and the girl’s passion for cooking accompanies her on her painful and long way to empowerment.

Laura Esquivel was born in Mexico City, Mexico, in September 1950. After studies of education and drama with a special focus on children’s theatre at a teacher’s training college in Mexico City, she worked as a kindergarten teacher for several years. She made her first literary steps writing plays for her students and for children’s TV in the 1970s and 1980s. Only in 1989, she turned her attention to an adult audience making her debut as a novelist with bestselling Like Water for Chocolate (Como agua para chocolate) that Alfonso Arau, her husband from 1975 through 1995, later adapted for the screen. Other highly successful novels followed, most importantly The Law of Love (La ley del amor: 1995), Swift as Desire (Tan veloz como el deseo: 2001), Malinche (2006), and Pierced by the Sun (A Lupita le gustaba planchar: 2014) that are available in English translation. Her latest published novel is El diario de Tita (2016), the sequel to Like Water for Chocolate. In 2009 the author entered politics. Laura Esquivel lives in Mexico City, Mexico, with her second husband.

In the 1910s, fifteen-year-old Tita lives on a Mexican farm near the USA border with her sisters and their widowed mother whom they deferentially call Mamá Elena. She is Like Water for Chocolate and passes most of her time in the kitchen where she was born precipitately in a flood of onion-chopping tears and then raised for the greater part by the aged family cook Nacha who also initiated her into cooking. Family tradition dooms Tita as the youngest sister to stay unmarried and take care of Mamá Elena until her death. Knowing this doesn’t prevent, though, that she falls in love with the neighbour’s son Pedro who is crazy for her too. The vigilant mother warns Tita against forgetting her duty and beats her cruelly. When Pedro asks Mamá Elena for Tita’s hand despite all, she refuses consent and suggests that he takes her eldest daughter Rosaura instead. Desperate to be near his beloved, Pedro accepts. To teach Tita a lesson, Mamá Elena charges her to help Nacha prepare the wedding, notably the cake, but the heartbroken girl sheds bitter tears that contaminate the batter with grief and make everybody vomit. This earns Tita a particularly fierce beating from Mamá Elena. When Rosaura goes into labour with Pedro’s baby months later, the turmoil of revolution forces Tita of all people to serve her sister as midwife. She also has to take over nursing the baby because Rosaura is too weak, but she loves the boy called Roberto like crazy and it brings Pedro closer to her again until Mamá Elena steps in. She sends Pedro and his family away to San Antonio where Roberto dies. Hearing the news, Tita openly blames her mother which brings her in a broken nose and nearly makes her end in a mental home…

In first person from the perspective of the protagonist’s great-niece Like Water for Chocolate tells the love story of a woman who emancipates herself from her dominant, even tyrannical mother and from cruel tradition that refuses her happiness. At the same time, it’s an allegory of the Mexican revolution during which the plot is set. Tita represents the first powerless, then uprising Mexican people and Mamá Elena stands for the ruling class that tenaciously clings to power and outdated traditions. Each of the twelve chapters bears as title the name of a month of the year making full circle from January to December and opens with a recipe linked to its central event and Tita’s feelings about it. The dishes have the power to pass on the cook’s emotions to the eaters, a narrative feature that clearly identifies the novel as a work of magical realism. Moreover, its title is an idiomatic expression used in Spanish to convey that someone is very angry, while it doesn’t rule out being read as sexual allusion too. After all, it needs nearly boiling water to make hot chocolate. Written in simple language with strong images and clever symbolism, it’s a very pleasurable read.

For me Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel has been an engaging short novel thanks to the allegorical side of what at first sight seems just a love story full of passion and magic mixed with elements of a cookbook. I reckon that an adventurous cook – which I’m not – might find pleasure in trying out the recipes except the one for making matches. They certainly are an essential part of the narration and add flavour to it, but I could have done well without them or at least without many of the details concerning the preparation of the dishes. Otherwise, I was rather pleased with the story that reminded me a lot of the fairy-tales that I read as a child although it may really have been inspired or even influenced by old Mayan or Aztec legends that I don’t know. It’s certainly a novel that is worth reading and therefore I gladly recommend it.

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1 comment:

  1. Hm. I guess I never read the book but only saw the movie. I will have to remedy that.


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