The Mangy Parrot
Jose Joaquin Fernandez de Lizardi
Today’s reviews all come from my adventures in academia, specifically a class comparing the cultures of Germany and Mexico. These are the four novels we had to read. We start with The Mangy Parrot, sometimes translated as The Itching Parrot. Considered the first Mexican novel,its author, journalist Jose de Lizardi, clearly loves Don Quixote and makes several references to it. However, Lizardi has more in common with his English counterpart, Charles Dickens, than Miguel de Cervantes.
Lizardi creates the “autobiography” of Pedro Sarniento, a self-described rogue and possibly the spiritual ancestor to Kerouac’s Sal Paradise in On the Road. Through an unfortunate pun (in Spanish, of course) at school, Pedro, or Poll as his friends call him, earns the unfortunate nickname “Parrot.” Coupled with an ill-timed rash, this becomes “the Mangy Parrot,” an epithet he will carry with him throughout his life.
Pedro writes from his deathbed, telling his children of his dishonest past and how he threw away opportunity after opportunity to make good by being a rogue. He is reared by a poor but noble father and educated, then sent to become a priest. Pedro, however, likes gambling, women, and drinking. And he’s not above a little petty theft to finance his lifestyle. Time and again, Pedro finds himself under a new master – an abbot, an inn keeper, pharmacist, a doctor, and eventually a colonel in the Spanish army. Each and every time, someone insults Poll and he either ends up in prison or running away as he steals from whomever is helping him. Time and again, someone else offers him a chance at redemption. He nearly succeeds in reforming himself after being sentence to serve under the colonel sent to the Philippines. He observes that, by faking honesty, he eventually becomes honest. Only after a shipwreck following the colonel’s death, he manages to throw away the only legitimate fortune he’s ever made and winds up back in Mexico starving and running from the law.
The story is as episodic as any classic novel from the era, likely a function of its newspaper serial origins. However, like Dickens in England and Mark Twain later in America, Lizardi uses Poll’s lack of morality and his rotten luck to shine a light on the conditions of the poor and the downtrodden in Mexico. Indeed, it’s not hard to see why Mexico rebelled from Spain (which happens late in the story, after Poll has redeemed himself for good.)
Like Water for Chocolate
Like Water for Chocolate has a similar vibe to The Itching Parrot in that it’s a life-spanning story set in Mexico during a time of radical change. Like Lizardi’s tale, Water faces a backdrop of revolution. Unlike Itching, this story has a clear arc, though it is episodic and throws similar darts to some of Mexico’s social norms. In this case, Esquivel, who published this work in 1992, has chosen to write about the turn of the twentieth century, a time close enough to us to be familiar yet far enough in the past for it to be exotic.
At it’s core, it is a love story between Tita, a young woman bound to stay with her widowed mother until she dies, and Pedro, who, since he cannot marry Tita, marries her sister. Tita’s life is defined by the kitchen. She was born in a kitchen and virtually raised by her family’s long-time cook, the elderly Nacha. Tita could marry Pedro if her father had not died shortly after her birth. In her family, the youngest daughter must stay with the mother and take care of her after the father has passed away. And Tita’s mother, the redoubtable Mama Elena, is a harsh task master, constantly reminding Tita of her duty and berating her for perceived failures.
Around the time this was written came a really annoying trend of weaving recipes into stories, usually cozy mysteries. Like Water for Chocolate, which relies on the same device, is definitely not a cozy. Tita is a cook before anything else, and the recipes are jumping off points for the next stage of the plot. Food, as much as her passion for Pedro, defines Tita’s life. In a later era, she would likely have opened her own place.
The story also is a bit of a tall tale. Tita’s crying floods the kitchen in a couple of places, and her oldest sister is so hot with lust that she causes the shower to catch fire around her. Mama Elena appears as a ghost after her death, which makes this also a bit of a supernatural tale. But the beginning establishes that the story is being told by Tita’s grandniece in a more recent time. And it’s the cookbook, from which the beginnings of each chapter are taken, that is the basis of her tale. She has inherited it, and the legend surrounding it fascinates her.
The Sorrows of Young Werther
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
One of the first modern German novels, this classic by Goethe is surprisingly short. Consider that Goethe’s career overlaps that of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, who were rather verbose writers. Sorrows is an epistolic novel, a form that peaked later in the 19th century with Stoker’s Dracula. It concerns a young artist, the titular Werther, who goes to a city to seek his fortune. There he meets Lotte, a young woman caring for a dying mother and ailing father, and her fiancee Albert. Werther falls in love with Lotte, and she reciprocates, which causes them no end to anguish. Realizing that he is pining for a woman about to be married (and to a man she also loves very much), he decides to take a job in a foreign court. (This being pre-Napoleonic Germany, foreign often means the next town over.) Werther soon realizes he despises aristocrats and feels at home with peasants.
Although this was read in translation, Goethe’s prose is rather slim for its era, when French, British, and American writers produced dense prose resulting in huge tomes. Some of this was a function of novels of the day appearing in newspapers.If so, Goethe either did not serialize this or did not write this over very many entries.
In some ways, this novel foreshadows today’s social media world. Werther is obsessed and having an emotional affair with Lotte. Time and again, we hear stories of people getting close on Facebook and in chat rooms when one or both are in relationships already. And time and again, it ends in disaster. The difference is that Werther’s doom is portrayed in letters to his friend Wilhelm while social media plays out this drama for all the world to see. In Goethe’s time, this tale serves as a moral treatise on German society and morality. Modern variations become fodder for “reality” television. Which makes it all the more ironic that Goethe is also the author who gave us Faust.
Summer of the Pike
The final book I read for this course was Jutta Richter’s Summer of the Pike. It’s a little strange for American audiences as the bulk of the story takes place on the grounds of a medieval manor where the adults work for the earl who owns it. The story concerns Anna and her neighbors, Daniel and Lucas. They are so-called “manor kids,” who don’t really interact at school with the “village kids” or the “farm kids.” So the setting seems a little off if you’re used to a castle-less existence.
Daniel and Lucas’s mother is dying of cancer. It’s danced around and referred to vaguely through part of the book, but “cancer” is uttered. Daniel, who is obsessed with fishing in the castle’s moat, wants to catch this giant pike that lives there. Daniel has come to believe that, if he can catch the pike (the “pike-god,” he calls it after declaring he is an atheist), his mother will get well. Anna, who lives with her divorced mother, finds herself involved with their mother’s advancing illness. There’s even a whiff of adultery hinted at as Daniel and Lucas’s father is worn down by his wife’s slow death by cancer. When the rumors come to a head, Anna reacts as violently as a kid in modern rural Germany might. (Which involved shoving an ice cream cone in someone’s face.) But the summer when all this occurs only serves to underscore Anna’s isolation. While she has always been close to Daniel and Lucas, she is uncomfortable with them being treated increasingly as brothers. Also, she longs to reach out to some of the other kids at school. But they’re all living in a modern world, despite all of them having hyphenated last names starting with “Schulze-“. It implies a certain amount of inbreeding within the surrounding township (though nothing so obscene as first cousins marrying.) But it also serves to separate the kids within the manor from those outside it. They live a thoroughly modern life inside a thoroughly medieval place, and Anna feels left out.