Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

04 Nov 2011

(Novel) Like Water for Chocolate by: Laura Esquivel

(Reaction) No substitution by: Jose Angelo Singson

Como Agua Para Chocolate or more widely known in the Anglophone world as Like Water for Chocolate is a popular novel that was published in 1989 by first-time Mexican novelist Laura Esquivel.

The novel follows the story of a young woman named Josefita (yech) or Tita, as she is fondly called, who yearns to marry her lover, Pedro. Unfortunately, she can never have him because of a family tradition that Tita's mother, Mama Elena, upholds and enforces with an iron fist. Traditionally, the youngest daughter of the De La Garza family cannot marry and must tend to her mother until the day she dies.

Mama Elena is a domineering woman, tyrannical in her control over her youngest daughter and deviously manipulative; often using violence to respond to Tita's protests. Tita is taught how to cook by the family chef Nacha and develops great skill in cooking. Eventually she begins to use cooking as a vehicle to express her emotions and unvoiced sentiments.

Much like Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Esquivel also makes use of magical realism in her novel to blend the mundane and the supernatural and much like Marquez she makes use of this blend of the fantastic and the real to critique a historical event, in this case, the Mexican Revolution. Although the novel takes the odd poke at the revolution and the social injustice that marked that period, it is not a political statement or protest novel. It is still at the very core of it a tragic romance.

Despite the nature of the novel as a romantic story it never comes off as excessively melodramatic or overly sentimental. In fact the romance element often serves as scenery where the more profound themes of tradition and redemption play out. Again, much like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Like Water for Chocolate also tackles many themes but I will only stick to the ones that helped the story progress.

Tradition(s): Like Water for Chocolate almost exclusively revolves around the tradition of maternal servitude of the youngest female in the De la Garza family. The De la Garza family itself has its own innumerable cadre of traditions. Some of which are constructive while the others hamper. The tradition of cooking is passed from their cook Nacha to Tita and later on to Esperanza's daughter. Future generations of De la Garzas are able to remember and revere their ancestors through this act of passing on family recipes.

The tradition of keeping the youngest child from marrying, however, hinders two of the novel's characters from finding true love. These two traditions are complete polar opposites. The tradition of cooking is a selfless, noble tradition, existing only to please the individuals that are being served. Ironically it is this benevolent tradition that is abandoned (the cooking by the time Tita comes into the scene is done mostly by the family cook Nacha rather than the matriarch Mama Elena) and the oppressive tradition of turning the youngest female into a spinster is maintained, obviously because it favors her overbearing mother.

I find it very ironic that the romantic love so venerated in the novel is often hindered by Tita's mother and used as leverage for enforcing the tradition that the youngest daughter serving her mother until her last days. The traditional protocol imposed by Mama Elena however, is gradually defied as the novel progresses. This progressive rebellion against established norms is analogous to the setting of the escalating violence of the Mexican Revolution. Like Water for Chocolate further parallels the Mexican Revolution in that the power of the country controlled by a select few and most people had no clout or means to express their sentiments. Mama Elena therefore epitomizes the fortunate few who had access to political power and privilege, while Tita on the other hand represents the voiceless, powerless masses because she, like them, had no power to express her opinions and could only obey her mother's rules.

Deliverance: Deliverance of the persecuted is another recurring theme in the novel. Wrongdoers are, without fail, in one way or another punished. Mama Elena, who cruelly disciplines Tita and prevents her from marrying her one true love, becomes paralyzed later on. After her paralysis she then becomes wholly dependent on Tita for her care. Rosaura, Tita's older sister, steals Pedro away and marries him. Rosaura though is treated indifferently by Pedro because of his enduring love for Tita and he starts to resent her because of her poor cooking skills and deteriorating physical appearance. Ironically Rosaura, who is fixated with preserving her public image, dies in a horrible, bloated state from severe digestive problems. She literally dies while passing gas, which in turns kills whatever little regard her husband, Pedro, had for her. Towards the end of the novel, all wrongs inflicted upon Tita by family and lovers are redressed and she emerges the most triumphant. Once more Tita's quiet endurance of the abuses heaped on her and the eventual comeuppance that her tormentors receive is a reflection of the sincere desire of people living in those chaotic days of the Mexican Revolution for deliverance.

Self-discovery and Self-development: The novel carefully tracks the development of Tita's character from her youth to her fantastic, pyrotechnic end. She starts off as a generally subservient young lady and as the story progresses Tita learns to defy the injustice her mother exacts upon her. Slowly she becomes skilled at expressing her passions and emotions through various, mostly indirect, means. Initially, Tita's only outlet was cooking and it was often used as a plot device within the novel. Tita is able to imbue her dishes with whatever emotions she felt during the time she was preparing a dish. Through her dishes infused with her emotions she drives her family and friends on a wild, turbulent torrent of frenzied love-making, manic weeping, and bilious, nostalgic regretting. Later on through self-discovery Tita learns to verbalize and actualize her emotions and opinions, eventually becoming strong enough and courageous enough to and stand up the dictatorial Mama Elena.

Love: Like Water for Chocolate, at its heart, is about a girl trying to find, live out and enjoy true love. Tita is the vehicle the novel uses to illustrate familial, romantic and passionate love. Love is the catalyst that awakens the characters in the novel from the banality of their daily struggles. It is what motivates them and pushes them to move forward.

The title of the novel is from an interesting colloquial phrase which is rich in many meanings. It is used widely in many Latin American countries and the phrase can be interpreted to mean the substitution of one thing for another. Although there are also several translations of this phrase which are more sexual in nature and that is obviously what we encounter in the novel; which in this case comes to mean hot and ready/hot and bothered as in riled up/primed for love making.

I have however taken to interpret it to mean the substituting one for another, like using water in hot chocolate rather than milk; which makes for a poor, watery solution rather than a rich, satisfying one. I believe this translation to be closer to the mark and more appropriate to the understanding of the novel considering the cyclical theme of love and love spurned or rather love substituted. Take for example the love triangle of Tita, Rosauro and Pedro. Pedro substitutes Tita's love for Rosauro's love, literally making do with a clearly inferior product much is like using water in the mole sauce instead of chocolate and as a result Pedro and Rosauro's love is a dry, trite farce. Pedro and Tita's love on the other hand is aflame with passion, they can barely contain it. This love substitution is central to the novel as well. Even the despotic Mama Elena can be described as a victim of substitution During the funeral Tita really wept for her mother. Not for her castrating mother who had repressed Tita her entire life, but for the person who had lived a frustrated love. And she swore in front of Mama Elena's tomb that come what may, she would never renounce love.

It is only after Mama Elena's death that Tita begins to understand that her. Tita finally realizes that her mother had also experienced and lived through the same inability and resultant pain to be with her lover. Tita then actively decides to focus on this aspect of her mother, the most vulnerable, most human part her, rather than the unreasonable, ruthless woman that Tita had known for the greater portion of her youth.

The novel ends in a completely opposite way that it started but no less spectacularly. It started with a flood of tears now it ends with the immolation of Tita and the subsequent fiery consumption of the De La Garza homestead. The story is narrated by the daughter of Esperanza, Pedro's daughter. She says that all that survived under the smoldering rubble of the ranch was Tita's cookbook, which contained all the recipes described in the preceding chapters thus telling the readers that the memories of the De La Garza family have remained intact and will continue to live on.

Review:

Like Water for Chocolate is an oddball of a novel. It is unlikely but effective and imaginative combination of novel and cookbook. It is an oddly compelling mix of period story/history and passionate love story.

Esquivel effortlessly combines symbolism with realism, mixes the fantastic with the real. Magical events blend impeccably into the tedium of daily life for the De la Garza women.

The novel is an enjoyable read. One will encounter a plethora of pleasant oddities: characters that literally burn with passion, devour emotions and become intoxicated with feelings, and of course plenty of politely worded descriptions of heated sex. A little bit of something for everybody.

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