No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, March 01, 1997

The Law of Love -- Laura Esquivel

The Law of Love is a strange blend of magic realism and New Age spirituality, from the author of the award-winning Like Water for Chocolate, which was made into a successful film. Esquivel's second novel is set mainly in 23rd-century Mexico, but there are flashbacks to the past; for these, the author uses an imaginative blend of music and graphic art. This may be the first true multi-media novel; it is packaged with a CD which contains a catholic mixture of Puccini arias and Mexican danzones, and the narrative switches between text and pictures – drawn by the celebrated Latin-American graphic artist, Miguelanxo Prado – as the characters relive their past lives, each evoked by a particular melody.

The novel begins with a flashback to 16th century Mexico, at the time of the Conquistadors. Rodrigo, a Spanish commander, has conquered the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan with sword and flame. As his soldiers destroy the city, he sees Citlali, an Aztec woman whose new-born child he has killed, and is smitten with list; he rapes her on the pyramid of the Temple of Love, and takes her to be his slave. Rodrigo imports a Spanish wife, Isabella, who eventually becomes pregnant. When the child is born, Citlali kills it; Rodrigo kills her, and then himself.

After the blood and horror of the opening chapter, the juxtaposition of Azucena's life could not be greater. She lives in the Mexico City of the 23rd century, in an enlightened world where people routinely boast of their past lives and how much karmic debt they've worked off. Azucena is an 'astroanalyst' who helps people regress to previous lives to discover the roots of their current problems: her landlady's grandmother, for example, is blind because in a previous life as a member of the Chilean military "she had blinded several prisoners during torture".

Azucena has evolved to such a high level that at last she is permitted to meet her twin soul, Rodrigo. But after one night of cosmic passion they are parted; Rodrigo has been framed for a murder he did not commit by Isabel Gomez, the next candidate for Planetary President and the apparent reincarnation of Mother Teresa.

Stricken with grief, Azucena resolves to be reunited with Rodrigo. In the process, she will relive episodes from several past lives, and realise that the two of them – along with Isabel and Citlali – have played out a violent drama together in several past lives, each taking his or her turn at the roles of victim, aggressor and avenger. Only after reliving her various pasts can Azucena begin to understand who she is in this life, the karmic debt she owes and the mission she has repeatedly tried to complete. During her quest, she is aided – in the grand tradition – by a motley assortment of helpers, from Julito and his rag-tag spaceship the Interplanetary Cockfight, to Cuquita – Azucena's landlady – and her amazing cybernetic ouija board. Azucena's Guardian Angel Anacreonte, and the demon Mammon, Isabel’s ‘teacher’, provide a more theologically-oriented commentary on the proceedings

The Law of Love is a blend of Latin American magic realism and classic European fairytale themes, set in a future world which – although not entirely consistent – is nevertheless quite believable. The author doesn't seem to have set out to write a science fiction novel, but rather to depict a society in which reincarnation, cosmic harmony and all the rest are not only acceptable, but are integral to everyday life. Her characters are as ready to propitiate a volcano as to commute to work from the Moon. Esquivel successfully imagines a future which encompasses not only astroanalysis and past-life regression, but also instant teleportation, weather forecasts by planet and holographic TV. That future is occasionally cartoonish, and scientifically shaky, but it provides an entertaining backdrop for the author’s exuberantly human protagonists.

The horror of the first chapter balances the epiphany of the grand finale: above all, this is a book about balance and reconciliation – European with Mexican, man with woman, mother with daughter – and the ability to forgive people no matter what they have done to you.