I picked up this novel at the library last week. Mexican writer Sofía Segovia weaves a story of land, entitlement, the Mexican Revolution and agrarian reform through the eyes of a hacienda-owning family over three generations. The Murmur of Bees was published in an English translation in 2019.
Here is what I liked about it:
- I learned about Northern Mexico’s history of producing sugar cane and corn in the late 1800s to early 1900s. To avoid agrarian reform, later they grew oranges, because land with fruit trees could not be appropriated.
- Part of the story was about the 1918 flu, which had interesting parallels to the current pandemic.
- The characters of the Morales family were well-developed. A funny example is a sister’s admirer reveals himself to her apoplectic father when the young man writes her over 70 letters in 3 months apart.
- The boy of mysterious origins named Simonopio who was clairvoyant, kind-hearted and the honey bees favorite.
What I didn’t like:
- The narrator is partially omniscient although he was a character who is born halfway through the book. We do not find out he is narrating aloud to someone else until midway through the novel.
- The hacienda owners are not viewed through a social justice lens. We see them as they see themselves; powerful, entitled, and supposedly generous. The only “peon” who speak and acts against them is vilified.
- Women’s roles are traditional and mostly passive without any implied critique although the author is female. Only Nana Reja escapes the stereotype by creating her own position at the hacienda after she nurses a dozen children.
- Racism: The dark colored worker from southern Mexico is portrayed as spiteful, unruly and ungrateful. He is painted as the story’s main villain.
These are serious drawbacks. The book is also quite non-linear which can be both confusing and frustrating. In two cases Segovia draws out a dramatic scene ending for five chapters. However, her portrayal of the 1918 flu was fascinating.
My favorite quote:
“The miracle would have been if those arrogant fools with the fate of the country in their hands had listened in time to the voice of the experts. Now it was too late.”
This was written in 2015! Congratulations to the author for her deep insight into epidemics. She represent key points of history, bringing them to life. However, mostly from the perspective of the class that has already written the history books.
The 1957 classic by Rosario Castellanos, Balún Canán, does a far better job of showing land reform from the point of view of the landless. I find it odd that a story like Murmur of Bees, which seems so hesitant to critique the hacienda owners is the more recent novel published in the year 2015.
What are you reading?