The Condesa of M. is an absorbing tale within a tale. The tale within is of an eighteenth-century ranch-owning Mexican noblewoman, María Victoria Cervantes y Gazoponda, Condesa of Michoácuaro. An irregular beauty, the Condesa is also a woman of intelligence, remarkable intuition, and an uncompromising sense of justice. Her beloved husband, Gonzalo Jural Sopena, dies unexpectedly during a session of passionate love-making, but comes back as an other-worldly presence to watch over her, give her practical advice and take note from his new vantage point of how those around his wife and three daughters conduct themselves. His presence is intermittent, but when he appears, he provides a unique perspective, delivering insight which eludes even the perspicacious Victoria.
Szanto taps into a genre of Latin-American literature called Magical Realism, of which Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude is a foremost example. Steeped on the one hand in the religion of Catholicism, and on the other, in the beliefs and superstitions which predate it, Magical Realism incorporates the supernatural as if it were part of the natural order; in deed the natural order is presented as embracing various levels of existence. Those who aren't fans of the supernatural element in literature, may still concede that for the most part Szanto's spirits are a concoction not hard to swallow. Gonzalo, when he appears, is himself subject to constraints which are part of that other plane. Here's part of a conversation between Gonzalo and his wife. He has just died and appears before Victoria for the first time.
And why can I see you? [Victoria asks]
He took a step toward her. You loved me . . .Don't be too mournful, alive, without me.
Her head shook. I'll. . .see you again?
He smiled. I think so.
You don't know?
It's new to me too.
Tinged with humour as well as sadness, this encounter and others like it, demonstrate the limitations imposed on Gonzalo in the realm in which he finds himself. Not unlike Victoria in her corporeal world, he can understand and do only so much. As time goes by, Victoria's life is disrupted by a series of tragedies, diminishing her love of life and the confidence with which she attempts to bring order to everyday life at Santa Rita. Gonzalo too is affected, perhaps even disoriented, by the deaths of two loved-ones. He can give no reassurance to Victoria: "Gonzalo had not seen them. He did not know where they were. Gonzalo, it seemed to María Victoria, had come to know increasingly little."
The story of María Victoria, is a tale within another, a modern tale of a priest, Joaquîn Churscadón (the author of the Condesa story), wrongfully convicted and imprisoned in a Mexican jail, and Jorge, a member of PEN, who attempts to assist the priest while honeymooning with his new bride Rissa and her delightful young daughter, Kiki, in Mexico.
Jorge's Mexican friends are a charming, colourful lot, who like to gather for tequila, spin stories about local legends and gossip about other inhabitants of the town. When a local religious sect kidnaps Kiki and another little girl, believing them to be the prophesied innocents 'chosen' to open Heaven's portal, the friends pull together and devise a scheme (that is also a scam) to rescue the girls which involves a fake apparition of the Condesa, and a fake helicoptered Pope. Szanto had me laughing hard.
A nice contrast is achieved by the juxtaposition of two very different casts, the characters in Jorge's story and the Condesa tale. But Szanto is shooting for more: The Condesa's understanding of justice-despite the cruel nature of the punishment she metes out to an inordinately cruel man-is inherently more reasonable than the Mexican justice system and the distorted logic (of a thwarted Bishop) used to jail the priest who comes to write of her some two hundred years later. By comparison, the Condesa is a formidable individual whose practices and thinking on a variety of matters are far more enlightened than what Jorge encounters in modern-day Mexico. Olga Stein
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--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.