I have been reading a number of translated works, lately, to the benefit of my horizons, expansion-wise. Sofía Segovia is a Mexican writer, with several other acclaimed words, but I believe this is the first in translation. The translator is Simon Bruni, and as in all great translations, if you haven’t a clue it is a translation, then it is a good one. A good translation doesn’t just exchange original language word for an English word, sometimes it must actually rephrase something so that it has the same connotation and feel in English as it does in the original language.
In The Murmur of Bees, as I seem to find in most Latin American writing, there is that ever-present soupçon of fantasy, or magical realism, that small touch of the surreal that distinguishes the Latin American soul from the prosaic core of the American canon.
Written in 2010, the time setting spans the turn of the twentieth century through the remainder of that century, in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, whose capital is Monterrey. At this time, Monterrey is very small, and the state rural and remote.
An elderly nanny sits rocking, day after day for decades, in the shade of a shed on the grounds of the Morales family ranch, when she suddenly disappears, to be found the next morning sitting in the shade of a bridge, kilometers from the ranch, holding two bundles wrapped in her aprons. One was a beehive and its residents, and the other was a day-old infant covered in bees.
And thus begins the story of Simonopío, born with a badly disfiguring cleft lip and palate, who was taken in by the Morales family. Reviled and mocked by most because of his deformity, but loved unconditionally by his foster family, he proves to be a strange child, devoted to his bees and his Nana Reja. He has an inborn ability to sense things afar, to sense danger, and even, to know a little about the future. It would seem his ever-present bees tell him things, things they have learned in their travels and on the wind.
When late-life Francisco Morales Jr. is born after his two older sisters have grown and married and started their own families, his middle-aged mother finds him so different from his sedate sisters, this boisterous boy. Simonopío has completely taken him under his wing, from before he was even born, and is his companion and protector.
What makes this such a wonderful story is the background of Mexico during those years, years of the internal civil war, years when the Catholic Church was banned, the churches closed or burned, the priests in hiding. holding secret services and secret schools. It was the years that the plague, brought back to the U.S. by returning WWI soldiers made it way southward, no respecter of borders, and took its terrible toll on the citizens of the small town that was the center for life in the area of these ranches, where no one escaped losing family members. Franciso Sr. seeing what was happening, gathered up his family and his workers and took everyone to a far distant ranch he owned, where everyone crowded together in isolation to wait out the disease.
It was a time when land reform was beginning to come to the fore, when the government was seizing lands from the big landowners to distribute among the non-land owning, and Franciso Sr. was hard put to hangon to his extensive holdings. The bees led
Simonopío year after year, farther and farther from the area, where he discovered growing healthy, productive orange trees, planted long ago by someone. He brought back the oranges to his foster father, trying to make him understand that this was the future. The laws at this time were that the government would seize without notice any non-working land, so farmers and rangers were struggling to keep all their fields active, although they needed to lie fallow from time to time to recover. But Franciso could see that by planting orchards, instead of grains, etc, the fields would always be in use, and in three years or so, newly planted trees would start producing fruit. So he converted almost all of his extensive holdings to orchards, where they prospered.
Most workers on these ranches at this time worked for small wages, but were given a small house and a parcel of land of their own to work on a sharecrop basis, and eventually could pay it off and own it outright. The bulk of the story revolves around one disgruntled man from the southern part of the country, who wanted it all now, then lost his wife and all but two of his children to the plague, and lived for revenge on Franciso, Sr., his son, and the foster boy, whom he considered the devil incarnate because of his deformity, and whom he was convinced had come to destroy them all.
It is told primarily in first person by Francisco, Jr. as an old man, with a few disconcerting changing narration voices to third person, and to first person of other characters, but all it all, it was a compelling page turner, just wonderful in its execution and pacing.
This is her only translated work, I believe, and I loved it.
To the lower left of the green colored state of Nuevo Leon you will see the outline of the state of Zacataces, which is where I live.