The worth of any art is in the details: the little things that no one cares to notice but are vital to the existence and universality of its substance. The allure of a book like ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ is in the way it’s told. It’s very personal in that it almost feels like a conversation with an old friend. There is a quality of familiarity, a sense of knowing the story, the characters, the times and still wanting to know more.
Written by Laura Esquivel, a Mexican writer, ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ has that distinctive strangeness that pervades the works of all Latin-American magical realism writers. It’s hard not to be drawn into the weirdness of it all. To the reader, everything seems odd and peculiar but the characters never even blink an eye. It is constantly challenging the willing suspension of disbelief but that’s what makes books like this special. They’re familiar but they can surprise you.
One of my favourite things about the book is its simplicity of language and how easy it is to read. I did read the English translation of the Spanish text but even still, I don’t believe it was constructed to be tortuous in terms of language. That’s not to say, however, that the ideas it expounds aren’t endearingly complex. It just goes to show, really, how the simplest words can create such dense, evocative worlds.
The moral of the story is simple: food is better than romance. Well, okay, not really. But if you’re looking for alternate analyses, that’s mine. The story is divided into twelve chapters, one for each month of the year, with a recipe that goes with it. The plot revolves around the character of Tita who is deeply in love with a man named Pedro but cannot marry him because of an inane parochial tradition that runs in her family: she, being the youngest daughter of her mother, Elena, is predestined to take care of her mother until her death and for that purpose, matrimony just will not do. Pedro then decides to marry Rosaura, her elder sister, so as to remain as close to Tita as possible because it makes perfect logical sense. If it seems a little far-fetched already, this is where it gets outrageous; Every time she cooks, Tita’s emotions are transmitted into her food, quite literally. For instance, when her tears fall into the wedding cake at her sister’s wedding, everyone who eats it is overcome by an inexorable longing for the person they love. And that’s one of the less elaborate exponents of magical realism in the book.
I don’t often say this about a work of fiction but the story is relegated to an ancillary position. Although it does maintain its pop fiction identity, holding your interest with brisk story-telling, it’s the characters that pummel and drive the story forward. These are intricate multifaceted characters that are continually changing. So often the characters become marionettes swayed by the plot and its necessities but here, the characters are unburdened by the strings of the plot and express themselves with a profound sincerity and a charming fragility.
Conventionally, the book should be branded as Romance. However, I would say it leans more towards bildungsroman. The story showcases Tita’s growth from an obsequious, amenable adolescent to a resilient, recalcitrant, strong-willed woman. At the inception, she is a victim of her circumstances and Pedro is making all the decisions for her with his misplaced fish-eyed sense of reality. Towards the end, circumstances have changed so diametrically that Tita, in one scene, is visibly irked by Pedro’s puerility and stamps her authority as the author of her own choices. I feel that shows how beautifully the character has grown through the course of the story.
The characters are authentic in spite of the strangeness of the world Esquivel constructs. Mama Elena and Rosaura, both seemingly negative characters in the story, are far from being unidimensional. The book doesn’t try to redeem them. Instead it conceals their humanity within their ostensible beliefs and lets the reader appreciate their flaws. It only takes a second’s reflection to sympathise with Rosaura, a girl married to her sister’s lover and consequently deprived of conjugal affection. That’s where the book surpasses its peers: this very deep understanding of the inherent contradictions we possess as human beings. It decimates our perception of good and bad, burying the notion that these clean, contrived categories even exist. That’s where it shines not as a didactic text filled with edifying instruction but a true exploration of the human psyche without prejudice.
The book is brimming with lavish sexual energy both subtle and overt at the same time. The book treats sex in a way I haven’t experienced before. Sex is elevated to a spiritual level, indistinguishable from love and maybe even superior to it. It’s a celebration of the primal, the physical and the human. The sex is hardly ever explicit and never gratuitous but seethes continually throughout the book beneath the veneer of the narration. I think this is the kind of thoughtful explication of our physicality that literature has been missing for a long time. It doesn’t treat sex as something vile and unmentionable nor does it use it luridly as a cheap thrill or selling point. Sex is central to everything in the story, it’s transcendental and beautiful.
Laura Esquivel endows her work with all the essentials of a popular novel—a love triangle, a seemingly irredeemable antagonist, a relatable heroine—but also satiates it with weighty themes. There are strong feminist overtones exemplified in the characters of Mama Elena and Gertrudis, Tita’s other sister; it questions the atavistic practices and traditions imposed generation after generation without provision for reasonable debate; it touches on the theme of inheritance (both genetic and psychological). In spite of all this, the novel is never preachy. In fact, it actively endeavours to blur the lines on moral rectitude and succeeds in making the readers question the provenance of their own moralities.
Personally, my favourite part of the book is the food. Even though I don’t recognize most of the dishes, I’d like to try them all. The food is interspersed through and intertwined wholly with the text. While it’s easy to dismiss, I see the food as a metaphor for itself. The story is told with a slight insouciance but also an undercurrent of melancholy and the food provides the characters and readers with a sort of comfort, relief on a long expedition. It’s like a warm meal at the end of a long tiresome day.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to talk about the one element that exalts this work of art onto a higher plane—magic. The genre of magic realism is relatively new in the world of fiction and is basically a seamless blend of the mundane and commonplace with the fantastic and mystical. The magic is weaved through the story overtly but never interferes with the telling of the story. It does provide a lot in terms of causality but also has a poetic function; it transforms prosaic narration into lyrical and more meaningful storytelling. Whether it’s a group of chickens creating a tornado or conversations with a ghost, all of the magic is made to seem ordinary and usually has some metaphorical or allegorical significance. All this lends to the density of the text without ever making it uninteresting.
In summation, ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ is, in culinary terms, a rare delicacy, as delicious as it is piquant, a synesthetic delight. So for all who enjoy their meals rich and their stories warm, it cannot disappoint.
by Arpit Nayak
Art- Juliana Montoya