literal

Como agua para chocolate coverLaura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) presents itself as a fusion of cookbook and novel. Each of its twelve chapters opens with a list of ingredients and the instructions for making a given dish: Tortas de navidad, Pastel Chabela, Codornices en pétalos de rosas, and so on. But it’s hard to tell how seriously these recipes are to be taken, and soon enough the cookbook discourse is replaced by a novelistic account of the lives and loves of a Mexican family in the early twentieth century.

To use the appropriate culinary metaphor, the brief snippets of recipe are mere stylistic garnish; they provide the decorative fiction that this book is in fact (as its narrator suggests in its closing pages) a cookbook that has been handed down from great-aunt to great-niece, and that contains “this love story embedded in it” (247).

Yet the relationship between food and life, food and love, is central to the novel. Tita, the protagonist, is born and brought up in the kitchen, and it’s to cooking that she turns when she seeks solace or refuge, or to express herself and vent her emotions. Hence the food that she serves, and the recipes that the book contains, are an extension of her personality and her primary means of relating with the world, with often dramatic effects.

For Tita has been prohibited other social outlets. By family tradition, the last-born daughter is condemned to remain at home, and is to dedicate herself to serving the widowed mother in all her whims and demands. Tita is therefore unable to wed her sweetheart, Pedro, who promptly decides that the next best thing is to take up with his beloved’s elder sister, Rosaura. Insult added to injury, Pedro’s marriage to Rosaura leaves Tita feeling “like the quail” that she herself is cooking: “broken in body and soul” (48).

The book’s dominant trope consists in such comparisons: on hearing of her sister’s marriage, Tita’s cheeks burn red “like the color of the apples in front of her” on the kitchen table (13); seeing Pedro, she “understood exactly what the dough for a doughnut must feel on its contact with the boiling oil” (15); later, “like the saying goes, her skin turned to goose bumps” (24); she feels as abandoned as “a chile en nogada left behind on a tray after a banquet” (57); put to looking after her nephew, she ensures he is “wrapped up like a taco” (74); she leaves home but without words “to express what was cooking inside her” (108); on her mother’s death, she feels “fresh like a lettuce” (137); and when Pedro does embrace her, “her body shook like jelly” (140).

Indeed, it’s a simile that gives the book its title. We’re told that, angry at the prospect that her niece will have to bear a similar burden of looking after her own mother, “Tita was literally ‘like water for chocolate'” (151).

Tita’s not, of course, literally “like water for chocolate” (a Mexican expression meaning “at boiling point”). But there’s something revealing about this mistake: Esquivel’s book consistently literalizes the figurative comparisons upon which it depends. Its drive is to join cooking and life so completely that there should be no distance between the two. And it’s this fear of figuration that subtends Esquivel’s brand of magical realism.

So it’s not good enough to suggest that Tita is so embroiled in the world of the kitchen that it’s as though she had been born there: she has to be literally born among the pots and pans, “among the vapours of a noodle soup that was on the boil” (4). And as a premonition of the obstacles that her life will face, it’s not sufficient that the tears that attend her birth should be metaphorical: they have to be an “overwhelming torrent [. . .] that washed over the table and the kitchen floor” (4). And so on for another 250 pages.

Como agua para chocolate proceeds by means of a stubborn literalization of emotion. If a dinner is made “with love,” it has to be literally infused by the blood of the enamoured, and then to produce immediately physical symptoms in those who consume it. Passion has to make itself evident in lights, sounds, and smells. Arguments must be literally to the death, as characters die of flatulence, their disgust made flesh.

This is a cartoon world in which nothing can go without saying; everything has to be spelled out and embodied, made sensual and tactile. All of which is well and good in some ways. But doesn’t it show a basic misunderstanding of the ways in which literature works? And isn’t it an irony that a genre celebrated for its creativity turns in the end on an inability to leave anything to the imagination?

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