Thursday, October 02, 2014

Book review: Here's to you, Jesúsa!

Here's to you, Jesúsa!, Elena Poniatowska's semi-fictional novel about the life of a Mexican peasant woman in the early 20th century, reads like the transcription of a long, rambling monologue.

In the foreword to the novel, Poniatowska explains that the main character of the book, Jesúsa Palancares, is based on a campesina named Josefina Bórquez whom the author befriended while living in Mexico City.

The novel is a recounting of Jesúsa's life. It begins with dim memories of her mother's burial, and continues through her childhood as she tags along behind her roustabout father, a foot soldier for the rebellion in the unsuccessful Mexican revolution. From there, the story progresses through the period of Jesúsa's marriage to an abusive cavalry officer, her widowhood, and her hard-bitten existence as a servant for the Mexican upper classes. It's a story of hardship, brutality, and poverty with only the briefest glimpses of love, laughter, and happiness.

Sounds like a downer, doesn't it? But really, it is not. The virtue of the novel is in its portrayal of Jesúsa's astounding resolution. Jesúsa is a suspicious, unforgiving woman, prone to believe the very worst about people. (And who could blame her?) And, yet, behind the unconquerable defenses of her pessimism and irascibility is a woman who yearns for a justice that can only be delivered by God. 

The book conforms to a uniquely Latin American tradition in literature, the testimonio.  It's not a form I had previously encountered, but Wendy Gimbel of the New York Times describes it as "basically a survival story, [that establishes] credibility by means of language that is direct, never ambiguous."

Consider this passage from the opening chapter:
This is my third time back on Earth, but I've never suffered as much as I have now. I was a queen in my last reincarnation, I know, because I saw my train during a revelation. I was standing in a beauty shop and there were these huge, long mirrors that went from floor to ceiling and I saw my dress and the train. It stretched back really far, and way back there almost at the end, at the tip, there was a triangle of marbled black and yellow tiger stripes. My clothing was all white, like a bridal gown, except for that forked piece of tiger skin, tike the very tip of the devil's tail. Columbine and Pierrot peered into the mirror on either side of me, both dressed in white with those black polka dots they always wear.
    I told them about my revelation at the Obra Espiritual and they said that the royal white clothing was what I was supposed to wear at my final judgment hour, and that the Lord had allowed me to see what I'd been like one of the three times that I came to Earth.
    —That spot on the train of your dress is all you have left to whiten, and if you don't, it will devour your innocence.
    I was wearing a queen's dress with wide sleeves covered with trim. Pierrot and Columbine were my servants but they didn't attend to me as they should have; they spent the whole time fooling around with each other. Queens are always alone. I also told them at the temple that I'd seen a large valley full of spotted cows:
    —It's the herd that the Lord has entrusted to you and you must return them to Him cleansed.
    I have a lot of things going on right now and I don't know when I'm going to get my herd together to remove their stains, if it'll be in this lifetime or in the next, when I evolve again ...
Direct and unambiguous language, just as Gimbel suggests.

The passage also reveals the narrator's deep-seated wisdom. It's a wisdom earned from a lifetime of hardship and from a secret hope and belief that there is more to existence than the bleakness of grinding poverty.

When at first I finished the novel, I wasn't particularly sympathetic to its protagonist. Nor was I all that enamored of the book. But now that I've digested it a bit more, I can see why Here's to you, Jesúsa! is revered among Mexican literary circles. It's a window into a world that is too often ignored and an homage to the Mexican spirit --a spirit that continues to endure even through the country's present-day torments.

Here's to you, indeed, Jesúsa!

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