"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
high romance, spiced with a few traditional Mexican recipes, was the
ingredient that made Laura Esquivel’s first novel, “Like Water for
Chocolate,” an international phenomenon when it was simultaneously released as both a book and a movie in the U.S. in 1993. Her second novel might well be destined for a similar popularity.
Part New Age bodice ripper, part picture-book for adults, “The Law of Love,”
is a plot-driven novel designed to allow the reader short breaks
between chapters to look at illustrations by Miguelanxo Prado and listen to
Mexican love songs and popular opera arias, all incorporated by Esquivel into
the plot. The music is provided on a CD tucked into the back of the book.
If the package sounds gimmicky, it is, and serious readers are likely to
find the novel, with its comic-book characters and musical interludes, more
irritating than engaging. But Esquivel is both a former schoolteacher and a
screenwriter, and her mission is to teach and to entertain. This novel, like
its predecessor, was clearly intended for the movies. Robert Redford has
already expressed an interest in filming the story, with its inventive plot
and wonderful visual possibilities. And if “The Law of Love” is not much in
the way of a literary work, it has a definite appeal rooted in Esquivel’s
gift for inventing new ways of telling the story of thwarted romantic love,
and in her deep and earnest belief in certain dicta of the New Age.
Esquivel’s heroine is Azucena, a psychotherapist living in 23rd-century
Mexico City where high technology has virtually eliminated crime and
research has acquired new meaning thanks to equipment that can decode the secrets of everything, from human auras to the memories of the stones that have borne witness to human history. Azucena, who uses music to help her patients remember their past lives, is trying to recover her own memories in a search for her Twin Soul, her true love, Rodrigo. There are Guardian Angels, both good and evil, and there is a politician who claims to have been Mother Teresa in a past life and who needs to eliminate everyone with a memory that could prove otherwise.
Esquivel’s strength is her sincere belief in The Law of Love, or perhaps
more precisely, the rule of love. After the remarkable success of “Like
Water for Chocolate” — which, according to Entertainment Weekly, was one of the highest-grossing foreign films of all time — her 12-year marriage and
professional collaboration with Mexican director Alfonso Arau fell apart and
she sued him in New York’s State Supreme Court for allegedly reneging on a
promise to pay her 5 percent of the film’s net profits. She has since met
and married a man she calls her own Twin Soul, a dentist named Javier
Valdez. They live together in Mexico City, where she is finishing a
children’s book and beginning another novel.
Esquivel spoke with Salon through her literary agent, Thomas Colchie, who
elegantly translated my questions into Spanish and her responses into
English over the phone.
In both of your novels, love is a powerful influence on destiny and
is, perhaps, the ultimate human destiny. How did you come to be preoccupied with this theme?
For me, love is the most important force. It moves the universe.
Destiny has always been something that interested me as a subject, but not
in a fatalistic way because I believe that one can transform destiny through
self-knowledge. To transform yourself is to transform your destiny.
What is destiny, if it can be transformed?
It is a path you must follow, or travel, and it is up to you to
decide how you are going to travel it.
You so often invoke the power of tradition in your work. What does
history have to do with this transformation of destiny?
Tradition is an element that enters into play with destiny,
because you are born into a particular family — Jewish or Islamic or
Christian or Mexican — and your family determines to some extent what you
are expected to become. And society is always there attempting to determine
the role we will play within it. And these expectations are not always in
good relationship with our personal desires. I am always interested in that
relationship between outer reality and inner desire, and I think it is
important to pay attention to the inner voice, because it is the only way to
discover your mission in life, and the only way to develop the strength to
break with whatever familial or cultural norms are preventing you from
fulfilling your destiny.
What do you do if the inner voices are not in accord?
Well, Azucena in “The Law of Love” actually suffers a great deal
of internal conflict. She refuses to listen to her Guardian Angel, who is
even himself at times conflicted. And she is certainly in conflict with the
social elements of her time — though they don’t seem so traditional because
the novel is set in the future — but she is constantly committing illegal
acts of one kind or another, buying bootleg music, using a machine to avoid
having her mind read. I think there is always conflict.
Isabel Allende, who writes as you do in Spanish, has said that her
novels are very different in English translation, that some things,
especially the topic of romantic love, do not translate well from Spanish to
English. Have you found that to be true?
COLCHIE responds: Laura says she is very happy with the translation, but I
guess that is not a value judgment. With this book there were enormous
problems because she had invented so many technical ideas and terms, so the translator had to come up with similar technical sounding words that sounded as if they had been invented in English. And humor is of course harder to translate than anything. Jokes depend on those cultural things Azucena is trying to break out of. Cuquita [another less karmically evolved character whose speech is full of funny malapropisms] was the biggest challenge. The translator had to simply give up certain puns and invent others that worked in English.
How did you begin writing novels?
Out of necessity. Not personal, but professional, because I am a
kindergarten teacher and I worked in a theater workshop for children and
there was very little material available so I began to write children’s
plays. And then I began writing for children’s public television. At the
time I was married to Alfonso Arau and he liked very much what I was doing,
so he taught me to write film scripts and encouraged me to work in cinema.
But the problem for me was that producers always tried to change my ideas
and they are always having production problems and wanting to kill this
character or that character to solve them. So I became very frustrated with
that medium. “Like Water for Chocolate,” for instance, was originally an
idea for a film, but they told me, “No, it’s going to cost too much, it’s a
period film, the budget will be extraordinary.” So I decided to write it as
a novel but always in my mind it was a film, though I never thought it would
be brought to the screen because of what everybody had told me to begin
with. Then, when the book was so successful in Mexico and throughout Latin
America, I began to receive a lot of proposals from people who wanted to
make it into a film, so we decided to make it ourselves.
“The Law of Love” is so much more visual than novelistic. Was it also
intended as a film?
Definitely. It is just now being offered to producers.
How would you compare writing a novel to writing a screenplay?
They are totally different undertakings. In film you can use
images exclusively and narrate a whole story very quickly, but you don’t
always so easily find the form in cinema to dig deeper into human thoughts
and emotions. And in a novel you can much more easily express a character’s inner thoughts and feelings.
Are there things you want to teach through your novels?
Yes. As a teacher I realize that what one learns in school doesn’t
serve for very much at all, that the only thing one can really learn is
self understanding and this is something that can’t be taught. The law of
love is what one really should be learning in school, and what I want to
communicate to people is that they should disobey the social rules that do
not pertain to them, they should rebel against what is not personally true.
And how did you come to these conclusions?
I come from a Catholic family, but it was not a very strong
religious upbringing, and from adolescence on I began studying Eastern
philosophy and became a vegetarian and everything else. I was a love child.
Since then I’ve meditated, but my spiritual background has been very
eclectic, and it has definitely shaped my philosophy.
There is clearly a hunger for spirituality and I wonder if that is
part of the reason for the popularity of your books.
The letters I have received from my readers have been
overwhelmingly in favor of my quest, thanking me for whatever part my books
play in the spiritual dimension of their lives.
What made you decide to set this book in the future?
It was a dramatic necessity. I needed a technology that would be
able to take the thoughts out of what we look upon as inanimate objects –
walls, houses, and so on — and be able to read those thoughts, because I
believe that all objects have consciousness, that houses, for instance,
guard the energies of the lives that have passed through them.
What does cooking mean to you?
The kitchen, to me, is the most important part of the house. It is
a source of knowledge and understanding that generates life and pleasure.
Where did you learn to cook?
With my mother and my grandmother. The recipes in “Like Water for Chocolate” are old family recipes of my own and they all have very specific, very rich associations.
Who do you like to read?
I like to read everything. Amy Tan, for example. I am delighted by her writing. And Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And there is an extraordinary novel by Juan Rulfo called “Pedro Paramo.” Garcia Marquez always said that Rulfo inspired him. He wrote only two books — “Pedro Paramo” which has been published by Grove/Atlantic and a book of stories called “The Burning Plain” published by the University of Texas. He was the first to write what we call magical realism in the modern sense, because of course there have been writers since Cervantes who have employed those techniques.
How would you define magical realism?
It is more a term for critics than for writers, I think.
Has Garcia Marquez influenced your work?
Everyone in Latin America has been influenced by him, but I
believe there are just as strong influences in the food that people eat and
in the music we listen to. I think that because the cultural elements are
so similar throughout Latin America, the literature is similar as well.
What made you decide to put a CD in this book?
I wanted to share the experience of listening to Puccini with the
world, first of all. And, second, because the music causes altered states
of consciousness in the characters, I wanted the readers to share the
experiences of the characters as much as possible.
Were you afraid that listening to music while reading a novel might
be somewhat distracting?
No. That is why I had the illustrations, so that the reader would
continue to look at the book, but at the illustrations, while listening to
the music, and so maintain the continuity of the experience.
Why do you think people read novels?
I can’t speak for readers in general, but personally I like to
read stories behind which there is some truth, something real and above all,
something emotional. I don’t like to read essays on literature, I don’t like
to read critical or rational or impersonal or cold disquisitions on
subjects. What I like are books that bring me closer to other people.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)