Caramelo, by Sandra Cisneros, Read by The Author, BBC Audiobooks America, 2002
The poet Sandra Cisneros’ second novel is a big sprawling family affair topping 400 pages replete with footnotes, a historical chronology at the back, and an acknowledgement chapter that reads like something from a nonfiction treatise. Almost none of this survives to make it to the audiobook version, which is obviously a good thing. The footnotes do survive, but their effect, while often illuminating and interesting has a bit of a jarring effect on the novel’s flow.
What’s first striking about the book, once you get past the fact that it’s a long and ambitious novel for a poet, is just exactly how ambitious it is. It tells of the sprawling Reyes family over the course of four generations, chops up the regular flow of time, starting at the end, backing up, cutting to and switching decades, and engages the reader across all the senses with pungent and electrifying evocations.
Now before any of my poet friends get up on their high horses about the above comments regarding ambition, let me say that I’m far more used to a poet’s crack at the long form resembling Cisneros’ first novel, the vignette series The House on Mango Street. The typically shorter form of the poem often becomes more than just habitual for poets and the leap to long chapters, plot arcs, and character development is tricky and complicated. Usually a poet’s sophomore effort will be along the lines of a rehash of their debut, but Cisneros upends that usual pattern and goes straight to epic.
And what a book it is. The narrator and sometimes character of Lala Reyes spins this particular yarn, telling of her parents and her grandparents and the various travels her family have made spanning from Europe to America, from Chicago to the Paris of the New World, Mexico City. And along the way, Cisneros provides us with thumbnail histories of the various Mexican revolutions, wars, and invasions; introduces us to exotic foods, villages, and musicians; and dumps us overnight in jail with one of the first Hispanic stars to make it in America, Señor Wences.
Many novels are not educational in the way Caramelo is, or they are and the effect is a dreadful bogging down in technical minutiae or in following the various factions of governance. Caramelo is as tasty as its name, with historical details like a fringe of icing on a sweet. The geopolitical struggles just a background to the foreground of the Reyes’ family and their struggles.
The first major part of the novel involves the road trip of Lala, her six brothers, their parents, and their aunts and uncles and cousins on their way down to Mexico City from Chicago. The quality of the writing of this trip is so fine, you can easily imagine the stinging heat, the frustrations, the sweat stickiness to carseats, the singing to pass the time, the short breaks for sodas, the constant repetition of roadside sights, the stinging dust of the border crossing. Cisneros has the vignettist's weakness for lists, long, long lists of household items, stuff for sale, things different on different sides of the border.
The story coalesces as the trip settles down to the Reyes brothers’ arrival in Mexico City at their mother’s house. A temporary lull in the action only allows family rivalries to simmer in the Mexican heat before arguments and tempers flash-flare up and explode, propelling the brothers and their families in different directions.
Lala’s family embarks on yet another long, hot car ride, this time to Acapulco. But the tension stays with them, the focal point being the rivalry between the Reyes grandmother and Lala’s mother, Zoila, for Lala’s dad, Innocencio. As the book points out repeatedly, the bond between Mexican men and their mothers is incredible. The grandmother is such a villainously manipulative character that she is referred to in this part as The Awful Grandmother.
This first part of the novel ends with a cliffhanger fight Zoila, Innocencio, and The Awful Grandmother, closing with the line “Then father does something he’s never done in his life. Not before, not since.” When part two picks up, Cisneros demonstrates the true knack for suspense, by starting somewhere else in time, another story, long before Lala was born. We have to wait until half the book is over to find out what happens, and then it’s tossed off in the midst of an argument, just another accusation, another justification. But what prompted the whole fight is still left in the dark, a mystery we are eager to get to the bottom of. It is a mystery that lingers in the book, like the scents Lala picks up in each new place she lives, a mystery Cisneros holds close to her until the book’s end.
Most of the mysteries are explained eventually, it seems. It is much like meeting a new family. There are in-jokes you miss the first few times around, there are things never said, painful unspoken secrets, things alluded to and things spoken around so completely that they are conspicuous by the empty space enclosing them. But like marrying into a big family with all these jokes and secrets, you slowly pick out clues from context, a nugget of truth at a time, a reference dropped here and there, a slander, confessions, a gossiping about what is only said in whispers.
The second part is older family history, going back to when The Awful Grandmother and her husband, The Little Grandfather, were young, back to when they were simply Narciso and Soledad. This part frequently interrupted by criticisms of the ghost of The Awful Grandmother in present day and it sometimes the interruptions are so frequent as to make chapters into almost interviews. At least one chapter has The Awful Grandmother taking over the telling of the story. Here we learn of the role Narciso played in the various Mexican wars and revolutions and how he came to lose three ribs. Cisneros also provides us with a brief historical sketch of Wilson’s invasions of Mexico for the average American who may not know.
(As a interesting cultural difference, after Wilson’s invasion, Mexicans begin naming their family dogs after the President, not as a sign of respect. In America, it is unusual to name a pet after someone you despise, but for the Mexicans it is a point of national pride, a way of saying, “Woodrow Wilson, he, too, is a dog.”)
The book’s third section tells how after the death of The Little Grandfather The Awful Grandmother comes up north to live with Inocencio in Chicago. It demonstrates a generational culture clash with The Awful Grandmother complaining about Americans, the weather, the dirtiness of the city, crime, how difficult it is to get good food, her daughter-in-law, the disrespectfulness of American raised Mexican children, and everything else.
This is the portion of the novel where the story really becomes Lala’s in earnest. In the earlier parts of the book, she is more a spectator, a receptacle into which various characters pour their stories, their sorrows, their dreams. In Mexico, she learns of the family’s past, but in America, she is reaching puberty and dreaming of her own future.
But other characters dream of their futures too, and Inocencio, at his mother’s urging, moves the family down to Texas where we meet a different kind of immigrant. Whereas the northern Mexicans were presented as more mobile, more recently arrived, the San Antonio communities include those who can trace their family’s presence in Texas to back before Texas was even Texas.
It is here in San Antonio that The Awful Grandmother dies and begins to haunt Lala. This part of the book is almost entirely realistic and materialistic until we get to Lala's haunting and Caramelo dips toward the magical. It’s a shame that this happens because Lala’s story is interesting and entertaining enough on its own. When the ghost of The Awful Grandmother shows up, Cisneros knack for storytelling falters, and the somewhat vicious character of Lala’s grandmother is replaced with a sorrowful, New Agey spirit.
The ghost says such things as “God is in the act of love. Smell a flower, God is there too.” She wails that she is so sad in the beyond without her son. Yawn. Cisneros has at this stage traded a lively, moving family saga for a shot at the big old stereotypical magical realism of Latin American authors and it fails to register. The immature character of Lala decides that she herself will take on the responsibility of telling The Awful Grandmother’s story and in that way readers will love The Awful Grandmother and help her pass to the wonderful loving great beyond. Double yawn.
The transformation in the midst of her own period of awakening is too trite and forced. It is not believable as the characters have been presented to us that both the narrator and the ghost would have such a change of heart, such a profound alteration of their natures.
Cisneros wisely steers back to where her obvious strengths lie by tying up the family saga with its appropriate climactic conclusion. Family sagas are harder to successfully conclude than straightforward stories because with a standard novel, there is typically a plot line that lends itself to the familiar story pyramid. Events conspire toward a climax that reveals how things will conclude. A family saga is ultimately more shapeless, just an amorphous mass of characters striving, loving, fighting, laughing, celebrating.
What better way to bring things to their natural conclusion than with a celebration? Cisneros closes the book with a grand party for Inocencio and Zoila’s thirtieth wedding anniversary. This tack lets Caramelo show off Cisneros’ poetic gifts. The chatter is rendered impressionistically in a section of dialogue snippets from nearly every table, the senses are tickled with lavish spreads of food and drink, life is expressed and embodied in dance. It is a celebration crammed with history, with drama, with love and passion, with lists of food and children and friends and Mexican history and mariachis and relatives and ghosts of relatives and ghosts of emperors and actresses and a young Fidel Castro and everyone who flitted through the book overflowing the dance floor to groove to “Kung-Fu Fighting.”
Cisneros reads the book herself. Normally, I’m against this. Someone once wrote that behind every author is a failed actor — and bad actors make bad readers of books. However, Cisneros is an engaging, dramatic, amusing, theatrical reader. I worried that her babydoll voice would as quickly grate as either of the Tilly sisters, but since so much of her story is of children or from a child’s perspectives it’s an apt fit. If there’s any complaint to be made against the recording it’s that the BBC Audiobook volume is too low. The book is almost inaudible in a car with a window open, and on headphones I had the volume set much higher than any other book I’ve listened to.
But getting past such small beans, Caramelo is a delight because of the character Cisneros brings to it. She hisses out the fights between her grandmother and mother, she trills the Spanish with such lovely caresses of the tongue that it’s transporting, and she even sings beautifully. At fourteen discs, over sixteen hours of talking, it’s good that Cisneros tells a tale both gripping and amusing and tells it with such relish and brio. Caramelo is the work of an expert wordsmith and it’s read by an expert reader.