By Laura Esquivel
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden
Crown. 271 pp $25

Go to the First Chapter of "The Law of Love"

Go to Chapter One

Songs To Die For

By Ursula K. Le Guin
Sunday, September 22, 1996

Four different elements make up Laura Esquivel's "The Law Of Love": a CD of music; six sections of narrative illustrations; several poems by ancient Aztec poets; and a novel -- a headlong fantastic adventure-romance full of mystical-moral disquisitions.

In Esquivel's famous and only previous novel, "Like Water for Chocolate," the radically weird combination of recipes with erotic melodrama worked like a charm. In "The Law of Love," the various elements never quite come together. I hate to say this, because it takes courage and imagination to try to make a book into an event involving several senses, and I wanted it to work.

The "graphic novel" sections by Spanish artist Miguelanxo Prado are visually dark and rich; no comic book flatness in their rough chiaroscuro. These episodes are integral to the text, replacing words with visions which, though explicit and narratively clear, have an enigmatic quality that adds a sense of mystery to the torrential and all-too-explanatory text. A real collaboration went on between writer and artist.

The music involves two wildly disparate elements: lively Mexican canzones alternate with Puccini arias. Liliana Felipe, who sings most of the "intermissions for dancing," is terrific. The Puccini bits are supposed to accompany the graphics. The characters of the story access their previous lives while listening to music, and the pictures show glimpses of those lives, while the music -- well, while the music pulls right away from both the pictures and the story. These are very familiar arias, and to those who know them they are deeply embedded in the story line and feeling-tone of the operas they come from. We're supposed to listen to "O Mio Babbino Caro" while looking at pictures of a murder, and "Nessun Dorma" during a dining-room rape scene. I tried. But I hear a woman singing "O my dear daddy" while I see Prado's pictures of a woman killing a baby with a rock, and there's no way I can put it together. The pictures are trivialized by the passionate surge of the music, and the arias are degraded by the attempt to use them as mere free-floating emotionality.

In the last track, a fragment of ancient Mexican music segues into the great choral theme from "Turandot," and it almost works. The pictures show a wonderful mixing and melding of an Aztec pyramid with the Cathedral of Mexico, and the music is supposed to effect the same overlay. But "Turandot" is imitation Chinese sung in Italian -- the wrong music, the wrong language. If only Esquivel had collaborated with a composer as she did with the artist! Or she might have used more of the ancient music of Mexico. That one haunting Pastorela makes me long for more.

The worlds of the danzones are clever, brilliant, light; the words of the Aztec poems are sad, fierce, luminous; and the contrast of those different voices is a good one.

The story itself is a time-tapestry reaching from the Conquest of Mexico to the Future of Mexico. Starting with a dark and violent love-triangle in Cortes's Tenochtitlan, it leaps into the 21st century, when science has discovered how to allow people to regress to any one of their 14,000 previous lives, change bodies, and flit about the cosmos in space ships. Esquivel's approach to technology is fearless. My favorite appliance is the Cybernetic Ouija, "put together from an ancient computer, a fax, a Stone Age record player, a telegraph, a scale, and an apothecary flask connected to a strange assortment of tubes, a clay tortilla platter edged with quartz crystals, and a wooden New Year's Eve party clacker." It works fine. I believe in it. The tortilla platter convinced me.

And this is another double strand of the book: lighthearted send-ups of New Age cliches -- crystals, guardian angels, regression to past lives, rage cured by hitting pillows, etc. But then the guardian angels lecture us, demons lecture us, the author lectures us on the law of love, all in the purest dialect of Eclectic Mystic Woowoo. Is she serious? When is she serious?

Does it matter? Well, if you can take the book as a racy futuristic extravaganza, a romp, it comes off. I think Esquivel was trying for more. Her effort to force disparate things together is serious. Her story of two (deeply stupid) twin souls trying to rejoin in love is a crazy, irresponsible comedy, but all through it runs the yearning for a true rejoining, the reconciliation of indio and conquistador, the loving and the murderous, the fleshy and the mystical -- all the incompatibles in the great double soul of Mexico. It's a gallant effort, but that reconciliation is beyond her.

Ursula K. Le Guin's most recent book is a story collection, "Unlocking the Air"; she is working on a collaborative translation with Diana Bellessi, "The Twins, the Dream/Las Gemelas, El Sueno."

© 1996 The Washington Post Co.

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