Tuesday, 26 July 2022

Further Reflections on "Like Water for Chocolate"

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=327749


In Like Water for ChocolateI noted that Christopher Wheeldon had advised his audience to come early and read the programme.  I added that that was good advice but not nearly enough.  Those coming to see  Like Water for Chocolate should watch Judith Mackrell's Insight videos:  Insights: Like Water For Chocolate — Beginnings and Origins Insights: Like Water for Chocolate – Music and Design and  Insights: Like Water for Chocolate – Towards Opening Night.  As a counsel of perfection, I advised readers to read the novel and see the film,   At that stage, I had done neither but now I have done both greatly enhancing my appreciation of the ballet.

Although the story spans several generations from the death of Tita's father at the shock of learning of his wife's infidelity to the wedding of her niece Esperanza to the doctor's son, Alex, most of the action takes place during the Mexican civil war between 1910 and 1920 near the city of Piedras Negras on the US border.  The book is divided into 12 chapters, one for each month of the year.  The months do not seem to bear any particular relationship to the narrative.  Each one starts with a list of ingredients some of which are quite gargantuan,   Most are for food but one is for matches.  Some of the chapters contain instructions but the novel is no cookbook.  I should be amazed if the author expects her readers to make dishes out of those ingredients.

The ballet is much kinder to Mama Elena than the book.  The scene where Tita reads her mother's correspondence shows the murder of her African American lover.  In the novel, there is nothing sympathetic about her at all.   Offering Rosaura to Pedro is an act of pure malevolence which wrecked the lives of two daughters, one son-in-law and possibly one grandson. She thrashed Tita for supposedly lacing the wedding cake with an emetic.  She tried to commit Tita to a psychiatric hospital which would necessarily have deprived her of the services of the daughter whose happiness was supposed to be sacrificed for care.  She showed the worst kind of hypocrisy in the second haunting by accusing her daughter of immorality when she had given birth to Gertrudis out of wedlock.  Tita banished the ghost by reminding Mama Elens of her hypocrisy.  Her last words to the ghost were words of hate,

Laura Esquivel's portrayal of Pedro is hardly kinder.  He is reprimanded for his folly in accepting the hand of a woman he did not love in order to be closer to her sister in the first chapter.  He neglected his bride for months after her wedding night on the pretext that Tita's cake had made her ill.  At several times in the story, he had the chance to carry Tita away much as Gertrudis had been carried away by her revolutionary captain but he missed every opportunity.  He was resentful of the doctor for his interest in Tita even though the latter had saved his skin literally after a carousel that dislodged an oil lamp.   He was moody, spoilt and not very bright.  Tita was right to send him packing several times.   

My favourite sister is Gertrudis who escaped her mother's thrall by dashing naked to her revolutionary liberator.  In the revolution she becomes a general bringing her soldiers to the ranch.  In celebrations at the ranch, she displays an ability to dance that neither of her parents possessed.  There is a discussion as to how she inherited such skills.  When she gave birth to a dark-skinned child Tita rescued her reputation by revealing her parenthood.

While reflecting on the story I remembered that many of Tita's contemporaries in this and many other countries missed the opportunity to marry.  That was not because of family tradition but because so many men had perished in the First World War.   Muriel Spark mentioned the generation of unmarried women in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  That was the fate of one of my aunts who was born at about the same time as Tita. Like Tiita she was an excellent cook and needlewoman.   She stayed at my grandmother's home in Heaton Moor until my grandmother died in 1953.  When the family home was sold she had to work as a housekeeper in Wilmslow until her death some 40 years ago,  I was not aware of a Pedro in her life but how would I have known?

In one of my tweets, I said the book was hilarious.  I was very properly pulled up by mg friend Marion Pettit who pointed out all those ruined lives.   But there were some extremely funny passages in the story.  As I read the book last night I chuckled at the thought of all those guests puking in the stream after eating Tita's wedding cake.  Or the thought of Gertrudis's sergeant trying to make sense of a pudding recipe,  Every tragedian leavens his story with humour.

I read Esquivel's novel in a single sitting.   I could not put it down   It is a long time since I last read a novel so quickly.   I rarely have the time for that. Even more rarely do I invest so much time in researching a ballet.  I did so this time because the work is so good.   The public will get a chance to see the ballet on-screen on 23 Jan2023.  That leaves plenty of time to read the book, see the film and watch Judith Mackrell's Insight vieos.   Their enjoyment will be greatly enhanced if they do.

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