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Sergio Galindo: Otilia Rauda (Otilia’s Body)
The Spanish title just gives the name of the main character while the English title focuses on one of the main features of this character. Sensationalist? Undoubtedly but also quite relevant to the subject matter. Otilia Rauda is born and grows up in Las Vigas, a small Mexican town. It soon becomes apparent, as she reaches puberty, that she is going to have a full figure, something not common in the town. This turns out not be a benefit either for her or her family (she is the only child of a couple who lost a lot of their land in the Mexican post-revolution land reforms). The men lust after her, while the women consider her a shameless hussy at best and and evil temptress at worse. Prudencio, for example, whom she met at school as a boy, falls in love with her at an early age but his mother, Doña Silvina, considers Otilia to be evil and does everything possible to turn her son and, indeed, the rest of the town against her. Though they cannot marry, Prudencio and Otilia continue to be close.
Despite all the attention, which makes her something of an outcast, Otilia does have affairs but is also an obedient daughter and remains at home, looking after her parents. There are suitors but they are often discouraged by their parents or considered unsuitable by Otilia’s parents. Finally, Otilia is twenty-seven and the suitors have dwindled away. Reluctantly, Don Isaac, her father, marries her off to the highly unsuitable Isidro Peña. Isidro comes from a good family but he is shiftless and lazy. He had been working in a butcher’s shop, so Don Isaac sets him up with his own shop. However, he is not a good husband. He drinks and he womanises (he even gives his wife a venereal disease). Eventually, after the death of her parents, they live fairly separate lives, not least because they have no children, because of the venereal disease. (At the start of the book, he is mayor of the town) While her parent’s house is nominally in the name of her godmother Irena (to prevent it falling into Isidro’s hands), this is a legal fiction and Otilia spends a lot of time there.
By the start of the book, Otilia is approaching forty. She has only three friends – her neighbours, Genoveva and her son, Melquiades, who are also outcasts, and her gossip friend, Chenda. Genoveva is considered a witch by the locals, merely because she practises herbal medicine. Melquiades is somewhat simple and naive. He had been a very strong man and worked on the railways. One day the supports on a wagon carrying logs broke and the logs tumbled down towards the workers. Melquiades was able to get in their way and stop them, giving time for his workmates to escape, but his legs were badly injured. While he can still work, it is with a heavy limp and he cannot run or do heavy work any more. Melquiades is very much in love with Otilia but, while she sexually teases him and has done so since she was young, and is very fond of him, it is clear that the most he can hope for is an occasional handjob.
One day, Otilia turns up at the house to find a wounded man on the floor. It is the well-known bandit, Rubén Lazcano, who has been shot but managed to flee and hide out in Otilia’s house. With the help of Genoveva and Melquiades, both of whom would do anything for her, he is gradually nursed back to health. Otilia, to the disgust of Melquiades, has fallen in love with Rubén. He is grateful for her help but does not reciprocate her love. Initially, we do not know what happened, only that Otilia is very bitter towards Rubén. When she finds another wounded man on the floor of the same room, eight years later, she hopes that it is Rubén. It is not, but, rather, a young man, Tomás, who got into a fight with another man and stabbed him to death. Without Rúben, Otilia is happy to have Tomás, young enough to be her son, as her lover.
The second part of the novel is Rúben’s story. We learn how he and his family became involved in the Mexican Civil War, particularly as they lived near Vera Cruz, which was invaded by the USA during the Civil War. But we also learn about the rivalry between the Lazcanos and the neighbouring family, between Rúben and his greedy elder brother and about the powerful man, who abducts Rúben’s mother, though not entirely without her being complicit in the abduction, and Rúben’s life-long search for vengeance. We also learn why he became an outlaw.
Otilia is is a fiercely independent woman at a period in Mexico when women were, on the whole, not meant to be fiercely independent. She was also fiercely passionate and sexual, when women were meant to be god-loving and good wives and mothers. She is not a woman who takes a slight lightly. She is happy to string along Prudencio and Melquiades, to keep Isidro in his place, to have a fling with Tomás but she is not going to let a man, even a well-known bandit, scorn her. She has waited eight years for him to return and when he does, he his going to face an opponent far more ferocious than he has met before.
This is an excellent novel, with the character, more than the body, of Otilia making this novel, as her passion and her independence let her control the men, while being friends with the outcasts, like Melquiades and Geneveva, and her friend Chenda. Part of its success, of course, is because it does, in part, play to a certain stereotype of the passionate but jealous Latin lover but, above all, it is a fine novel about passion, betrayal, jealousy and the Mexican Civil War.
First published by Grijalbo in 1986
First English translation by University of Texas Press in 1994
Translated by Carolyn and John Brushwood