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Review of Mulata de tal (The Mulatta and Mister Fly) by Miguel Ángel Asturias, journal entry 2 and review

This is the second book I finish in the Global Reading Challenge, the North-American one. Guatemala, the author’s home land and setting of the book, is part of Latin America which makes people with a not-too firm grasp of geography sometimes assume it’s in South America. This novel is the first I read that takes place in Guatemala, although I had read about the country in travelogues before.


Year originally published: 1963; English translation: 1967
Transleted by: Gregory Rabassa
Genre: Literary novel (fantasy, magic realism, surrealism)
Setting & time: Guatemala, timeless

The story begins with a humorous description of one Celestino Yumí’s disgraceful behaviour at a realistically described village fair, then moves into magic realism territory and from there on to fantasy, finally culminating in a vortex of surrealistic descriptions. The story tells the tale of Yumí, his wife Catalina Zabala, and the Mulatta, a magical, sexual being connected to the moon, who charms Yumí and enrages Catalina and causes a struggle between them. All three then get drawn into a battle between the old Mayan demon-gods and the Christian Devil, and between the Christian Devil and some Catholic priests, for the hearts and souls of the people of a small town. Part two of the book can easily be seen as a metaphor for the destruction of the old Mayan beliefs by Christian ideas.

This is a colourful narrative, full of metaphor and descriptive language, and must surely draw on the author’s knowledge of Mayan folklore and beliefs (he was, among other things, a student of ethnology), although I can’t really be certain it isn’t all straight from his imagination, because I know very little about the subject of Latin American folklore (I would like to change that, so if anyone can recommend a good book on the subject, I would appreciate it).

What I do know is that I would have enjoyed Mulata de tal a lot more had there been some sympathetic characters in it. I could only ever sympathise with any given character for a few pages at a time, because they would always go and do something that would prove that they were irredeemably bad, and not in any kind of charming or even particularly hateful way. I feel that in order to really enjoy a book, there has to be at least one character one can either sympathise with or enjoy hating, and this book has neither. It’s a little like watching a troupe of monkeys enjoying a day out. You see flashes of genuine feeling that are immediately smothered in excess of some kind and it isn’t until the last 50 or so pages that you begin to see genuine depth of feeling, but those feelings are felt by characters it is also hard to sympathise with, and they are negative feelings, of fear and lust that lead the characters astray.

The best thing about this book is the language and the imagination that went into the storytelling. I can only imagine what it must be like to read some of the more colourfully expressive and glorious passages in the original Spanish.

Because of the problem with the characters I can not give this book more than 3 stars, but if it had given me a character to really like or really hate, it would certainly have got one more.

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