“Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality.”
Love is the primary force, not only in the events of Fiesta of Love, but in Suzan Hill’s motivation to tell her story: her selection of Che Guevara’s words as epigraph for the novel’s afterword is perfectly appropriate, and it reminds readers that storytelling can be a revolutionary act.
She explains: “For more than thirty years I’ve traveled in Mexico, not to tourist destinations, but into the interior of the country where the anguish of the Mexican people is unvarnished.”
Certainly, there is a wide-reaching arc supporting her tale: corruption, oppression, genocide, resistance, revolution.
“When the Spaniards came here, five hundred years ago, they left millions of indigenous people dead in their wake. You whose people came from across the sea have a capacity to annihilate without conscience those who stand in your way. And at the same time, you possess an opposite impulse, a resistance to oppression, a hatred of tyrants. So you create your own world, free of tyranny, but at the cost of my people. You see us as primitives and our culture of no value, and so you wipe it away, with no conscience.”
And, yet, Fiesta of Smoke is, above all, a love story.
Romantic love, yes.
“The room was in cloistered darkness. They sat, with the hiss of the radiator and the background roar of evening traffic, in silence. At that moment, they both knew the truth: there would never be another human being as intimately, inextricably bound to them as they were to one another.”
In fact, initially, romantic love appears to be the driving force of the novel.
“It’s one thing to follow a news story to the ends of the earth, and quite another to do the same for a woman. There was obviously no sense to it; it completely defied all logic. But there you had it. That was what he intended to do.”
But Fiesta of Love is also about a passionate love for a culture, threatened but enduring.
“The people of Javier’s native village were simple men in rough white cotton pants and shirts, with homemade sombreros. The women wore dark skirts of handwoven cotton and had fat black braids hanging down their backs. They moved past the adobe house on bare feet like figures in a dream, leading donkeys or carrying loads on their own shoulders, with the inoffensive yet proud faces of peasantry.”
And the love of a land, a deep-rooted sense of belonging, a place nourishing and sometimes haunting.
“It was the deepest she had been into the Lacandón forest, and despite its beauty, she felt its menace hunkering around them. She kept the flap of her holster unsnapped and worked at observing her surroundings. The shadows were deep and, in pockets, black. The air was still and moist. Moving through it was a burden, making her hot, sweaty and cross.”
Suzan Still has a doctorate in depth psychology; her interest in our attachment to the profound, to archetypes, to the vital forces that lie beneath, is reflected in her characters’ journeys and explorations. Sometimes these elements further the plot and illuminate aspects of characterization.
“A diversion. To get to a lie you never just bit straight into it. No, you savored it, nibbled around the edges, like a kid with a chocolate cream.”
Which is not to suggest that the language of her story-telling is all serious and reflective. In fact, there are certainly some playful moments, and there are moments in which the expected, the mystical, and the surreal surge forth.
Consider a scene with “some kinda weird cyber-cowboy-slash-bounty-hunter-slash-arms dealer-slash-snitch”. Or a scene in which Calypso is “caught in the glare of the stone eyes of a huge carving of Kulkulkan, the feathered serpent!”
“It represented the nature of duality: feathers for its ability to ascend the sky; serpents’ body to claim to Earth. Now, she understood the terrain surrounding her. These were not hillocks, at all, but the ruins of Mayan city, completely upholstered in a tapestry of plants and, even in ruin, the sacred ground of the great feathered serpent.”
And, yet, there are serious social and cultural observations made using the vehicle of story.
“He knew exactly where he was. The prison was a grim, gray, stained fortress at the intersection of two of Chihuahua City’s main streets. How many times in his life he had passed it, with the long line of women out front, mostly peasant women with long skirts and baskets at their feet, that the kicked along as the line slowly advanced into a small door in the north-side wall. Only occasionally there would be a pale skinned, middle-class woman or two, in heels and nylons, with their hair done up, trying to look aloof amidst the mestizas and indigenas.”
The language is descriptive, but not generally figurative or poetic. The style is accessible, with the flourishes and dramatic touches that one expects to find in romance novels.
“Never, never, never underestimate the power of a woman, even, or maybe especially, an old, blind woman. He began to chuckle, and the more he laughed, the more ridiculous his position became to him. Soon, the courtyard resounded as his deep laughter bounced against the sun-struck walls. A spell like an amber glaze of shellac seemed to crackle and fall away.”
Laughter is as important as waging war for survival, and although some scenes contain brutality and violence, characters cope as best they can, relying upon everything from humour to loved ones’ support in facing their challenges.
“Well it’s not every day that I’m abducted by a sorceress and chased by an army. I’m fine, though. A little scuffed up, is all.”
And ultimately the story is a survival story, a story of love’s survival.
“In the thirty years it has taken to bring this book to completion, uprisings have taken place all over Mexico, chiefly in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero.”
Suzan Hill’s story is respectful and as a storyteller, she is motivated by a sincere desire to draw the reader’s attention to injustices that are too often overlooked.
“Fiesta of Smoke is a fiction in which I have been scrupulous both in following recent developments in Mexico and in avoiding using real incidents as fodder for this narrative. Real people are suffering and dying due to social and political conditions in Mexico and I would never use their grief casually.”
If you are still unsure whether there is a match to be made between you as reader and Suzan Still’s novel, please explore her website. (Her writing about inspiration and the photography adds an interesting layer to the experiences which led to the novel.)
You can find more information on her publisher’s page, The Story Plant’s site (including summaries of characters, an excerpt, and readers’ responses offer additional insight to the work).
And, check out the thoughts of other TLC Tour participants (I will add links as they become available) at the sites below:
Tuesday, October 15th: …the bookworm …