Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Spirits of the Ordinary by Kathleen Alcala

A spectacular tapestry of folklore, spirituality, and landscape, this extraordinary first novel vividly blurs fantasy and reality as it details one family's search for identity. In a small village in northern Mexico, the Carabajals have long been practicing their Jewish faith in secret. The father, Julio, spends his days dabbling with alchemy. His wife, Mariana, cannot speak but is clairvoyant. Their son has allied himself with a Catholic woman and is obsessed with his search for gold. Central to the surprising destinies of these characters are the momentous events and the ancient and sacred cliff dwellings of Casas Grandes, high in the mountains. This story of two cultures, of the elusive bonds of love and faith, is dazzling in its originality.
From Goodreads description.

This book is one of a number of novels which followed on in the wake of One Hundred Years of Solitude and the Latin American magic realism boom. This book is not a simple Marquez or Allende wannabe. Unusually it combines Jewish mysticism with the dual belief systems of the indigenous peoples and their Catholic Spanish overlords. 

Kathleen Alcala, although a US citizen, comes from a Mexican family and regularly stayed in the area she writes about as a child. This gives the book great authenticity and the reader has a strong impression of the landscape, towns and culture of the area. In addition Alcala draws on the mix of Judaism and indigenous beliefs held by her mother's family. As the book makes clear, Judaism was still a persecuted religion at this time, practiced behind closed doors and far removed from organised Judaism and so open to dilution. 

There are several forms of belief in the book. One is Julio's strenuous approach, obsessively pursuing the Lord's truths and plans for the world in the texts and alchemical formulae that he hoards in his secret room, shuttered against the eyes of the world. When he tries to apply this approach to the garden, he ends up destroying its life force. Julio's wife, Mariana, dumb since being attacked as a child, is the opposite of her husband, open to receiving the divine through her oneness with nature. And then there is their son, Zacarius, who starts off as obsessive as his father destroying his marriage in his pursuit of gold and silver in the hills of Mexico, but who discovers a mystical understanding of the world and god through his experience of the local indigenous peoples and nature. These belief systems are in turn contrasted with the severity, worldliness and intolerance of Roman Catholicism. 

The book jumps from the story of one character to another, and not just Zacarius and his parents, but also Zacarius' wife Estela and her family, the Zacarius' twin brother and sister, even a visiting photographer gets a chapter or two. Unlike One Hundred Years of Solitude where the width of canvas could allow us to view a whole family through several generations, this novel is comparatively slim and so the movement between characters is jerky and unsatisfactory. That is not to say that the characterization is not good, it is. I would have preferred it if the writer had focused on giving us more of a narrative of Zacarius' life and the Jewish side of the family.   

The book's cover blurb speaks of the novel being in the tradition of Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel - a multigenerational tale of family passions. To my mind it does not live up to Allende or Marquez, but then not many authors do. Nevertheless it is an enjoyable piece of magic realism. 

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