La Semana De Colores, by Elena Garro – A Review

Elena Garro is not well known in the English speaking world, or if known, she is unfortunately known as the wife of Octavio Paz. She has been called the most important Mexican woman writer after Sor Juana, but for the most part her importance has dimmed over time so that only two books are in print in English.  La semana de colores is not one of those books, although the story Es la culpa de las tlaxcaltecas (It Is the Fault of the Tlaxcaltecas)is quite famous.

The stories in La semana range in style from magical realism to stories of criminal twist. Es la culpa de las tlazcaltecas is the best story in the book and shows a mastery of the magical and historical in a story that blends 500 hundred years of history. Garro tells the story of a woman who meets an Indian on the side of the road. He is dressed for battle and keeps mentioning battles of in the distance. Margarita, a woman domineered by her husband, talks with him, but doesn’t understand what he is doing on the side of the road. Latter she sees him in Mexico City and around her home. The Indian, though, is just more than an aparation of the past, he is her cousin and husband, and Margarita continually says she has betrayed him. Yet she has to wait for him in the home of her husband in Mexico City and even tells him about the Indian, which makes him think she is crazy. Throughout the story Margarita shifts between these two realities: the modern Mexican life, and the Indian who is running from a defeat in battle; a loveless and violent marriage, and the true husband. Es la culpa de las tlazcaltecas plays with the idea of a golden past, the past before the Spaniards came, to create a work that criticizes the macho world Margarita lives in. In the house she is a prisoner; outside she is free. The link is made all the more clear by the repeated references to the Tlazcaltecas who were the tribe who helped Cortés defeat the Aztecs. And when she says she was a traitor she plays on the story of La Malinche who helped Cortés and became his mistress. Garro uses these elements to create an opposing world where she would be free from the machismo of her house in Mexico City. There is also a longing to correct the mistake La Malinche made in becoming Cortés mistress. For Margarita to free herself of her husband, to do what she wants to do, is the way to break with the last 500 years of history and return at once to the past and the future.

If Es la culpa de las tlazcaltecas masterfully blends the magical and the historical, some of the other stories are not quite as well rounded and tend towards a mix of peasants and ghosts or peasants and crime that is tiring. More than a few times I thought I was reading a mix of Juan Rulfo and Edgar Allen Poe. An example of the latter is Perfecto Luna where a man who was so overcome with guilt about killing a friend and disposing of the body parts in the adobe of his home he begins to hear him everywhere. Finally, he has to flee his home and town. As he is fleeing he finds a man on the side of the road and tells him everything. The next morning they find the killer dead. Perfecto Luna like other stories has several elements that run through many of the stories and grow a little tedious: peasants who believe in spirits and which manifests itself as a simple mindedness. While these stories were written in 1964 before Magical Realism became the dominant style, at this point to read stories about ghosts or devils or superstitious people who believe in them seems to insult the characters.

The other story that had some real merit was El arból. El arból while using a twist device at the end shows class tensions between an upper class woman and an illiterate woman from the country. The story, of course, shows the classest and racist attitudes of the rich woman, but it dwells more on how those fears become self fulfilling. However, there is, as always in these stories, a question of whether the attitudes bring on the rich woman’s violent end or was it something super natural. Where as some of the stories rely on the simplicity only of the characters, El arból allows for a broader range of thoughts and emotions between the two characters which makes it a richer story. Unfortunately, the ending is a little bit of a one liner that seems a little easy.

While the stories seem uneven, except for the Es la culpa de las tlazcaltecas, there are sufficiently well written to warrant reading one of her few works that are translated into English.