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Claudia Marcucetti Pascoli: Heridas de agua [Wounds of Water]

I have read books narrated by various odd characters, humans and inanimate objects (see this page for other examples) but this is the first book I have read narrated by a mill/granary. Fortunately, it is only the prologue and a few interspersed sections that are narrated by the mill, with the rest of the book using conventional third person narration. The mill in question was built by Nuño de Guzmán, the rival and enemy of Hernán Cortés. Part of the reason was to build New Spain (i.e. the country that later became Mexico) like old Spain and that meant wheat and not the maize preferred by the native inhabitants. However, though the mill remains important, we soon move away from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth.

The main part of the story starts with the death of Gioconda Cattaneo de González Núñez. She was born to a well-to-do family in Naples. She had been a difficult child for her parents, with an independent spirit. She had been sent to a convent but said, contrary to what she had been told, that God did not speak to her. She went even further, appearing before the Mother Superior completely naked, saying that as God had refused to speak to her, she would appear naked, so that he could recognise her as she was when she entered the world. Her parents and the Mother Superior were not impressed and her father determined that the only solution was to marry her off. This proved difficult, as she rejected all suitors, before finally accepting José Crescencio, primarily because she was curious to see Mexico.

The marriage was not a success. He spent much of his time, hunting either animals or women. When he came to her bedroom, he was rough and brutal and when she decided to join in, he smothered her with a pillow to stop her making orgasmic noises, which were clearly improper for a woman. The only influence she had on him, was persuading him to buy the mill/granary and the surrounding land. She wanted it because she thought it was beautiful. He wanted it because it had belonged to his ancestors. But, as we know, she died, falling into a well near the mill. Though her body may have died, her spirit did not. Indeed, she watches her funeral procession and even manages to trip up her husband.

There are a few plot lines which we now follow. Gioconda may be dead in body but she certainly is not dead in spirit. Her ghost lives on in the mill. She soon meets two other deceased inhabitants. The first is a Dominican friar and the second a French soldier, who died at the period that the French temporarily took over Mexico. Both committed suicide (part of the plot will be learning why they did.). Gioconda wonders why she has been placed with the suicides (she will meet others), not least because she has no idea how she died. All she can really remember is the water. She feels sure that she would not have killed herself but really cannot remember. If she did not kill herself, was it an accident or was it murder, and if so, by whom and why? Her attempt to find out is also a key plot element.

We gradually learn that, though her husband was certainly unfaithful to her, she seems to have been unfaithful to him, though how much is not made clear. There are at least two candidates. The first is a historical figure: José Yves Limantour, Secretary of Finance under Porfirio Díaz. The second is Fortunato Imana. Like her he was an Italian immigrant. He had come over with his wife, Margherita. She becomes insane and very violent but, for a long time, Fortunato continues to look after her. They have a daughter, Ángela. Margherita later dies and Fortunato marries Ignacia (Nacha) who had been Giocanda’s maid. She has a son, Jorge who we later learn is the biological son of José Crescencio. Paternity is even more complicated as José Crescencio is sure that the son he had with Gioconda, Giminiano, is not his biological child. This issue of who is father of whom remains an issue throughout the book.

The book continues till more or less the present day. Gioconda remains an inhabitant of the mill till the death of her husband and when his ghost moves in, she moves out. However, we follow what happens to her, her interaction with Gia, daughter of Nacha and Fortunato, the only living person who can really see Gioconda and the other ghosts (though others sense them.) But a good part of the novel is about the political situation in Mexico. We follow the corruption of the Porfirio Díaz administration, with both Limantour and José Crescencio both being involved, as Mexico City expands and there are profits to be made. We follow the Mexican Revolution, in which Giminiano plays a role, fighting first with Peppino Garibaldi (grandson of the famous Garibaldi) and then with Pancho Villa.

Marcucetti also shows the disparity between the rich and poor, with the textile workers (which include Fortunato) being brutally oppressed and the rich always eager to make a profit at the expense of the poor, a situation which probably has not changed much. We also see it in the issue of land ownership. The mill and the land around it had been bought with Gioconda’s money and, unbeknown to José Crescencio, she had given it to Fortunato, not least because she thought, rightly, that he was more likely to preserve it than her husband. José Crescencio tries to trick it out of Fortunato and so does Giminiano when he inherits it.

This summary can only give a glimpse of this novel which is set over a period of five hundred years, involves a large cast of characters, gets very much involved in politics, both feminism as well as rich versus poor, and often seems to wander off on a tangent, before coming back. The mill itself comments, somewhat like a Greek chorus, on the situation and also suffers (the 1907 earthquake, the Mexican Revolution and neglect in the later part of the 20th century).

This can best be described as a quirky novel, with a sentient mill and a series of ghosts. But Marcucetti clearly wants to raise political issues: the role of women in Mexico, the role of Italians in Mexico, the rich/poor divide and corruption in high places. She also has an interesting tale to tell. I wonder if she was influenced by a famous Italian novel about a mill: Riccardo Bacchelli‘s Il mulino del Po (The Mill on the Po), a novel set around a mill and also involving Garibaldi. While certainly not as great a novel as Bacchelli’s, it did make for enjoyable reading. By the way, the mill really exits: here’s a YouTube video of it.

Publishing history

First published by Santillana in 2012
No English translation