Miguel Gutiérrez: El mundo sin Xóchitl [The World Without Xochitl]
Sadly, this is another novel that has not been translated into English. Indeed, the author has not been translated at all into English or any other language. It may be that the subject matter – incest – has put publishers off but, I suspect, that it is simply the usual case of neglect of Latin American authors. It starts off in a conventional way. A narrator tells us that he knew the main character of this story – Wenceslao A O – at boarding school in 1956. He had been very impressed with Wenceslao’s learning. He had kept in touch with Wenceslao on and off over the years, though they had never been close. He had also known Wenceslao’s wife, Grelia. He has now learned that Wenceslao has died of a heart attack. Grelia asks him to come to the house where she hands him a manuscript that Wenceslao had left, with instructions that it be given to the narrator. The text of the manuscript is the novel.
Wenceslao tells his story in the manuscript, though not in strict chronological order. He is the middle child of three. His sister, eleven months older than him, is called Xóchitl (it is the Nahuatl for flower). Their younger brother, nearly four years younger than Wenceslao, is called Papilio. His head is deformed from a difficult birth (his mother died giving birth to him) and he is mentally handicapped. Their father is called Elias and he was seventy when Constanza, his second wife, gave birth to Papilio. She was twenty-five, having married Elias when she was eighteen. Elias had two children by his first wife, Mathilde, who died in a mental institution. Elias is not on good terms with the children of his first marriage – Ricardo and Albina, who is a nun – as they very much resent the father’s treatment of their mother and his squandering of her assets. Elias was well off when he married Mathilde, who brought a substantial dowry. However, Elias has squandered the money and, during the novel, he sells off the furniture and his late wife’s jewellery. He will die completely bankrupt. He enjoys the good life – fine food, fine wine, membership of a club – but remains in mourning for his second wife. He despises all five of his children, so that the three children of his second marriage are left to their own devices under the casual but benevolent supervision of a black nanny, Artemisia.
Gutiérrez tells us much about Elias’ relationship with Mathilde and Constanza but the key theme of the book is the relationship between Wenceslao and Xóchitl. Left as they are to one another – they treat Papilio as their child – they continually do what they want. Xóchitl, in particular, is wilful. She can be cruel to Artemisa, refers to their father as grandfather and encourages misbehaviour, such as going into rooms they have been forbidden to go into, going out at night and listening in to their father’s conversations with others. However, above all, there is a clear incestuous relationship. Both swear undying love to one another, they sleep in the same bed and spend all their time together. Gutiérrez cleverly builds this up over the course of this relatively long novel. While we do not see them having sex with one another, he cleverly shows how their friends who are siblings do have sex with one other – from kissing to playing with one another’s genitals. However, when Elias is effectively bankrupt, the friends are kept away by their parents. Elias catches them sleeping together and is, for once concerned. They know this as they spy on a discussion he has with various family friends on the matter. The result is that they are both sent off to boarding school, where they vow to write to one another every day
As they get older Xóchitl tries to tempt Wenceslao with other girls. In particular, she constantly invites Teresa Sevilla and tries to leave her with Wenceslao but he is not interested. Eventually, Elias dies and the three children first escape to the house of a family friend, Harold Dunbar, as they have overheard Elias discussing their fate with his son Ricardo, with Wenceslao to be sent to his godfather’s and Xóchitl to boarding school. They are then allowed to live in a farm that Elias once owned, under the supervision of Artemisia, where Wenceslao becomes jealous as there are boys in the area who are interested in Xóchitl. We know what happens quite early as Wenceslao tells us in his story and we know that Wenceslao’s life had not been a particularly happy one, despite being married to a good and understanding woman.
However, despite the stories of Mathilde and Cosntanza and Wenceslao’s life as an adult, what makes this book is the story of the incest between brother and sister. Gutiérrez shows Wenceslao’s undying love for his sister and recounts her continuous statements that they will love each other forever and remain together forever. However, though they do sleep in the same bed, we see no physical contact between them. While Wenceslao himself, as an adult, recognises that there has been incest and, clearly, their father thinks so, the exact nature of the incest is left unsure. Despite or, perhaps, because of that, it is a superb novel of childhood and growing up and, as usual, I can only regret that it does not exist in translation.
First published in 2001 by Fondo de Cultura Económica
No English translation