Malinche, by Laura Esquivel, is a deceptively simple book. Told almost as a folktale, this novel read like a gloss on the life of Malinche, an interpreter who worked for Hernán Cortés during the conquest of Mexico. If you’re looking for a biography, or a novel that will transport you to sixteenth century Mexico, you won’t find that here. But if you’re looking for a meditation on Aztec beliefs, syncretism, conquest, cultural misunderstanding, and gender, Malinche is the book for you.
Malinche gets a lot of blame for her role in Cortes’s success. Reading the history, one might think that events would have gone very differently if it weren’t for Malinche and the myths about Quetzalcoatl‘s return from the east. In a sense, this book might be read as an apology on her behalf. In Esquivel’s interpretation, Malinalli (La Malinche) suffers abandonment and slavery before ending up with the conquistadors. After learning Spanish, Malinalli strives to interpret not just the words but the meaning, the intent, behind the words. She gives such importance to the power of words that she sees translation as almost a religious duty, one that gods might punish her for failing at.
As events inevitable progress, Malinalli starts to feel regret for her part in the destruction of the Aztec Empire. She wonders if she should have told the truth about what the Spanish were and what they wanted. Malinalli is far from a vengeful character. More than anything else, she strikes me as a person who has risen far above their pay grade.
It’s hard to get a grip on the historical Malinche’s feelings and motivations. As I said, this is not a biography. Malinche is written in what I see as a folk tale style. The language is stripped down, but with rhetorical elements like repetition of phrases and ideas. I suspect that this book is best experienced aloud, rather than by silent reading. Even better, it should be told with the folk song “La Llorona” playing on a loop in the background. The narrative is recursive, too, progressing chronologically forwards before drifting back in time. If I had to create a timeline for this book, it would look like a stretched out spiral.
For me, Malinche was not a satisfying read. I read and enjoyed Like Water for Chocolate, especially the supernatural elements. But it didn’t work for me with this book. It seems to me that there is so much history and culture that Malinalli’s story doesn’t need stylistic or supernatural embellishments. It was hard to me to lose myself in this story. I couldn’t see Mexico when I read it. Even when Malinalli reflects on her life and her beliefs and her fears, there was nothing subtle to ponder over. When Esquivel would state, in so many works, why Cortes did this or why Malinalli did that, it seemed shallow. I suppose parts of this book would appear profound, but to me it was all surface glitter.