OVER THE PAST TWO DECADES the literature of Latin America has soared into international prominence on the wings of myth and fantasy. The indigenous mythical-legenday dimension had its champion in the late Guatemalan author, Miguel Angel Asturias. The European-inspired fantastic strain emerged most notably in the meticulously crafted philosophical and metaphysical prose tales of the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez's epochal chronical of Macondo, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), destined perhaps to be judged as the finest Latin American novel of our time, occupies a kind of middle ground, evoking Asturias' native telluric base as well as Borges' pervasive disregard for the conventional distinctions between reality and fantasy.
It was a 1977 Wall Street Journal interview with Gregory Rabassa (translator of Marquez) that resulted in the introduction of the heretofore neglected Ecuadorian writer, Demetrio Aguilera-Malta, to the North American publishing scene. Rabassa mentioned then that he was translating a marvelous book by an obscure Ecuadorian author -- even without a publisher's contract -- simply because it had merit. Down in Austin, a University of Texas Press editor read the interview and contacted Rabassa, making an offer to issue the book.
Seven Serpents and Seven Moons reveals certain obvious affinities with Solitude, but in Rabassa's expert translation, the author's distinctive voice is clearly heard. Aguilera-Malta was a member of the "Group of Guayaquil," a loose association of Ecuadorian writers who addressed themselves in the 1930s to sociological and political problems that plagued their country during that period. Aguilera's special concern was the cholo, or coastal native, and his earliest novels and short stories deal sympathetically and in powerfully realistic terms with the cholo's plight.
His novel Don Goyo (1933) had as its setting the coastal islands along the Pacific shores of Ecuador and exalted the venerable cholo of the title as a noble representative of a people who, in the end, are dominated by the whites who invade and exploit their territory. With his death Don Goyo is transfigured into a legendary character, a symbol of the defeated Indian race.
Seven Serpents and Seven Moons relates the epic struggle between the much more generalized forces of good and evil in Santoronton, a mythical coastal city in an unnamed Spanish American nation. In a narrative voice that moves easily back and forth in time, Aguilera lays the "magical-realistic" foundation of the village and presents its inhabitants. There is Father Candido, a priest who brought with him to Santoronton a crucified Christ (cross and all, the gift of some pirates he once ran across) who converses with his companion and occasionally comes down from the cross, but never for the purpose of interfering in mortal affairs. Bulu-Bulu is a wizard whose kingdom is the neighboring island of Balumba. His daughter Dominga is visited periodically by a series of fantastically phallic serpents who attempt to violate her, but whom she is artfully able to slay, preserving her virtue.
Coronel Candelario Mariscal, godson of Father Candido, has fallen out with the priest (whose church he burned down in a drunken spree) and has acquired strange powers and attributes. He changes at will into a crocodile and has become terrifyingly brutal. Frustrated in his compulsion to possess Josefa Quindales, he murders her parents and rapes her younger sister. Josefa escapes, marries and later dies, but her ghost returns to visit Mariscal nightly to deplete his sexual energies.
Somewhere in the midst of these relationships stands Crisostomo Chalena, a local entrepreneur who has made a pact with the Devil and succeeds in acquiring control over all of the Santoronton's rainwater and thus subjects the entire region to his will. The townpeople, led by Father Candido, eventually manage to defeat him and assure their survival. Yet the ultimate victory of Christian virtue over the powers of the Dark One cannot be achieved until Coronel Mariscal is dissuaded from pursuing his cruel designs. The Coronel himself feels that he can be saved through marriage to the wizard's daughter, but Father Candido and the devout women of Santoronton will not allow the ceremony to mock the sanctity of their church.
By means of these conflicts, Aguilera has set down in mythical terms a multi-faceted allegory, whose final resolution points toward the affirmation of tolerance and forgiveness. The author appears to have overcome some of his earlier pessimism and now sees hope where there was none before.
I feel that Aguilera in this novel tends toward unwarranted prolixity and that the experiments with magical, incantatory language are on the whole less effective than those Asturias was writing 30 years ago. However, Aguillera's felicitous intuitions and the vigorously erotic character of the book are redeeming merits.