On the East Coast, we are entering one of my favorites times of the year, a bright and fragrant period I like to call the Season of the Bees.
The early risers have emerged from their winter refuge, spilling out of their hives to sip nectar from my backyard camellias. In the months to come they’ll return to gorge among the purple coneflowers, the sprightly asters and those gangly charmers, the Joe-Pye weeds.
So it seems fitting that the enchanting Mexican novel, “The Murmur of Bees,” a much-loved work by Sofía Segovia should be arriving in an English translation in sync with the first appearances of furtive pollinators outside my windows. The book’s publication in the United States by Amazon Crossing announces a writer whose absorbing yet accessible prose and gift for sprinkling the mystical into a deeply human narrative is sure to draw comparisons to Latin American greats, such as Isabel Allende. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The book, translated by Simon Bruni, is set in the fertile fields and rugged hillsides around the city of Linares, southeast of Monterrey, during a tumultuous epoch in the early 1900s when Mexico was ravaged by a chaotic revolution and the scourge of the Spanish flu epidemic.
Segovia writes with lush sensuality about the dynastic ranching family and its servants at the center of the novel, all of whom live on a hacienda scented by “the thyme and epazote that grew in pots in the garden,” and by the rapturous smells of “oranges, blossoms, and honey.” An “incalculably old” wet nurse named Nana Reja, who has nourished generations of the Morales clan, spends each day outside a shed in her rocking chair, eyes ever-closed until “the fireflies reminded her it was night.”
Reja’s wooden immobility is shaken one day, and she disappears without explanation. Later she’s found beneath a bridge cradling a newborn boy whose body is covered in a living blanket of bees. The child is remarkably healthy, but his face has no upper lip, gums or palate.
The region where he is found is known for its superstitions, and fearful peasant sharecroppers conclude he is the devilish spawn of the promiscuous witches that are said to roam nearby.
“Evil will befall us, you’ll see,” warns one peon, Anselmo Espiricueta.
The patriarch of the hacienda, Francisco Morales, is having none of it. He allows Reja to bring the child, whom they name Simonopio, back to the hacienda and raise him as a member of the extended ranch family, even agreeing to be his godfather. Reading this, I chafed a bit at the idealized depiction of the patron and his servant, especially since we have all been exposed to stark and uncomfortable realities of servant life in Mexico depicted in films such as last year’s epic, “Roma.”
But Segovia doesn’t fall prey to sentimentality. For all his laudable traits, Morales — who like many of the Mexican elite of the day is pale-skinned and fair-haired in contrast to the dark-skinned campesinos — has benefited from a brutal system in which poor sharecroppers work the land with little hope of ever becoming owners. Espiricueta’s family had been homeless and starving when they were granted permission to farm on Morales’s land, but they feel trapped, “prisoners of their will to live and the unexpected and cruel kindness of these people who offered only false hope.”
On the hacienda, Simonopio grows into a remarkable child, in tune with nature, even as he is unable to speak. Bees follow wherever he goes, except on the rare occasions when he strays onto the land tended by Espiricueta, whom he imagines as a menacing coyote, a figure of complicated mythical significance in Mexican lore.
“Without the bees swarming around him, coming and going, the information he received from the world was linear; while with them, from the moment he had begun to feel sensation, he had grown accustomed to perceiving the world as it was: a sphere.”
In Simonopio, Segovia has created an unforgettable figure, a character who is both mysterious and endearing. Segovia imbues him with a heavy dose of magical realism — he can sense danger, as well as the promise of good things to come. But he is also an embodiment of uniquely human wisdom that can melt even a cynic’s heart.
In order to save the Morales family, he makes himself ill. It is his illness that finally persuades them of the gravity of the epidemic sweeping through Linares, and they flee to one of their other haciendas.
Confined to his bed, Simonopio allows his godfather to administer a blistering mustard poultice to his chest — even though he has already recovered — knowing that Morales needs to feel as if he has saved him.
“One should never contradict an act of love,” Simonopio reasons.
The book is narrated by one of Francisco Morales’s sons, who years later returns to the family home to puzzle through the very nature of memory, realizing that “you leave a place or say goodbye to someone, and thereafter, you feel the existence you have left behind is frozen by your absence.”
The memory that resonates most is of the boy who was followed by bees, the boy who belonged to the hills and brambles.
“I didn’t see the defect,” the narrator says. “I saw only my brother, and I loved him.”
Manuel Roig-Franzia is a Washington Post staff writer and former Mexico City bureau chief.
By Sofía Segovia. Translated by Simon Bruni.
Amazon Crossing. 476 pp. $24.95