Let Us Sit Here and Smoke and Talk About the Desert

Skull decorated with Mexican designsSome novels are like getting in a car and driving someplace, knowing you are going there, looking at the scenery and chatting until you arrive. The murder mysteries of Agatha Christie are like that. To take away the metaphor, such books have an obvious plot and you know you’re following it. If it’s an Agatha Christie novel, when you arrive you’ll have tea and discuss what happened.

If we want to have that metaphor take a seat for various kinds of travel, we might represent different books other ways, as a slow-bobbing boat, but moving  (The Old Man and the Sea [Ernest Hemingway]), or a horseback ride (take your choice, say The Count of Monte Cristo [Alexandre Dumas]). These books have a plot, and you know it.

Other books, instead of movement, might be represented by metaphors of location, like a hotel room (Sheltering Sky [Paul Bowles]). That book sort of  has a plot, conceptually, in the increasing chaos and weirdness, but no plot in the same sense as the vehicle novels. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [Douglas Adams] or in many ways Don Quixote [Miguel de Cervantes] are also novels that don’t particularly move forward toward a conclusion that wraps up the plot.

Recently I read the book The Hummingbird’s Daughter, by Luis Alberto Urrea, an American writer. Up until page 300 I decided, or realized, that this is not a book about going somewhere; it’s a book just about being where you are. I’ll grant you, 300 pages is a lot of space for a novel that isn’t going anywhere (and it went on for another 150 after that). If you just cannot abide such a thing, then this is not your book. Sometimes I don’t like that in a novel, and I couldn’t make myself finish reading One Hundred Years of Solitude (so shoot me). But I read The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

What you mostly get with The Hummingbird’s Daughter is not a story of what people do, but a story of how people be. For me it worked because they are well described and eccentric people, and I found that the things told about them struck my imagination and surprised me often enough to enjoy what I was reading.

The novel is based on the true story of Teresa Urrea, presumably an ancestor of the author, who was considered a combination of saint and revolutionary in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Some people will read or discuss the book as it relates to the real person, but I’m not doing that. This is a totally fictional character, and the fact that she acquires magical powers toward the end of the book ought to make that clear.

The author Urrea has a vivid capacity to convey details. Let’s take one sentence selected very randomly: “Huila carried her new double-barreled shotgun, and she had her objects in her apron pockets: tobacco, a folding knife, her apocalyptic man pouch, red matches, a bundle of sage, a bone, and her three buffalo teeth.” The “apocalyptic man pouch” was a small leather bag rumored to have been made from a man’s scrotum.

Though Urrea moves his story from the birth of Teresa to her recognition as a saint, this longish book often relates things having absolutely nothing to do with her story. There is at times a rambling quality, which might be a fault if we were following a plot, but we are not. There is much beauty here, and views of people living, as well as moments of surreal disturbing brutality.

One criticism I have of the book is the liberal use of Spanish terms, dropped into sentences as if they were simply English words, as well as an occasional line of dialogue in Spanish without interpretation. This bothered me more as a idea about writing than because I struggled. In practice, I know enough Spanish that I was OK with it, but I wonder what Urrea was thinking of. Did he write the book only for people who know both languages? Or did he write it thinking to hell with you if you don’t?

If you like exotic locales, richness of detail, a wealth of eccentric characters, and rolling around in the language, this could be your book. Whatever the book might be “about”, the experience of reading it is mostly about just being there where you are on the page.

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