Thursday, June 17, 2004

Life Is To Be Enjoyed

Swift As Desire, by Laura Esquivel, Read by Elizabth Peña, Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2001

I first discovered Laura Esquivel through the magically fun film adaptation of her debut novel, Like Water For Chocolate. Even in the rather thinner atmosphere of a motion picture, Esquivel's sensual thoughtfulness and outlook shone through in every lasting enjoyable frame. There is a simple but incredibly important idea that is often overlooked, an idea Esquivel wants us to take seriously: that life is for enjoying.

It is not the enjoyment of the glutton or the libertine that Esquivel wants us to share, and often these characters are as much to be looked down upon as those who are prudes through the severity of their austere outlook on the world. Indeed, it is the gluttonous, libertine swine of Don Pedro who is Swift As Desire's villain, the orchestrator of all that is bad. And it is the aptly named, nearly always happy Júbilo who animates the book and gives it its savor.

The book is a whirl of viewpoints, occasionally following Júbilo in third-person limited, sometimes his wife Lucha in same, and sometimes it is told in the first person as the memories of Lluvia, Júbilo’s daughter as her father lies dying. Together, the three of them piece together the life story of Júbilo, how he meets Lucha when they were teens, and what events destroy their marriage.

I’m not enough of a historian of Latin American fiction to know if Garcia Marquez invented the style of magical realism or if his popularizing of this genre for American audiences has lead to the proliferation of it, but Esquivel is a firm practitioner in this vein. Her debut novel told of the mystical powers of the sensual kitchen. Swift As Desire continues in this direction of the entangling of passion and magic.

Júbilo is different from the moment of his birth. He is able to hear better than anyone, and by hearing better this means he can hear the sound of sand blowing in the wind, he can hear stars and their secrets, and he can hear what words go unsaid when others are speaking. It is his ability and fascination with communication along with the modern developments of the telegraph that prompts him to become the town telegraph operator.

In this popular position, Júbilo is able to help everyone around him in business, in romance, and in family relations, writing the telegraph they want to send instead of the one they come in with. But as in all good stories, the complication comes that the one person he has trouble communicating with is the love of his life, his wife Lucha. And to make matters even more frustrating is the powerful, slithery Don Pedro, who believes that a poor man like Júbilo shouldn’t have such a beautiful wife as Lucha and sets about trying to seduce her.

It is the story of the damage his actions, as well as Lucha’s headstrongness, and Júbilo’s special abilities that we get in Swift As Desire. While not as good as Esquivel’s previous hit novel, Desire is a short and pleasurable read that seeks to uplift the simple life over the fabulous and the wealthy. In part, it is a memoir of Esquivel’s own relationship with her father who was also a telegraph operator.

And perhaps that’s the book’s weakest point. While the book is ostensibly the life of a character like her father, Esquivel’s obvious love of the man paints him as a flawless human being. Even his bout of depression in which he lies in the doorway of a bar begging for a few centavos for tequila, shitting his pants, is viewed indulgently. Júbilo is simply a man to whom no evil can be attributed. And while we may know and love people like this in the real world, they don’t make for compelling lead characters.

This outlook also prevents authors from writing originally about the situations and with their best style. Where the language in Like Water For Chocolate had a sensual sting to it, Swift As Desire lacks a certain bite. This is what happens when a character is one hundred percent admirable: the sex becomes vanilla, there is no danger, just cuddliness.

The PG-rated sex aside, Esquivel could be trying to demonstrate the overall goodness of the simple style of living, the purity of a less striving time. The low heat of her portrayals of passion might just be a taint carried over from trying to gently paint a hagiography of her father. After all, who wants to endure writing about your father really sweating it out with your mother? My own parents’ divorce before I hit puberty spared me those considerations.

The actress Elizabeth Peña does the reading of the book and she is alternately pleasing to the ear and majorly grating. Her voice is husky, but cracks all the time, and she often says declarative sentences with a lilt at the end as though it was a question. The lilt is musical as is her lovely familiarity and rendering of Spanish phrases, names, and intonations. It’s her voice’s veering into loud screeches when she reads a particularly charged argument or maddening fantasy that hurts the ears and makes one wish for a different reader.

All in all, the book moves quickly enough and with enough pleasurable scenes and writing that its shortcomings are no great handicap. Esquivel wants to be enjoyed — that much is clear. She has a motivating idea that life should be enjoyed and her novel reflects that desire. You could ask for more, but you needn’t.


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