Spirits of the Ordinary
About the book:
A spectacular tapestry of folklore, spirituality, and landscape, this extraordinary first novel vividly blurs fantasy and reality as it details one family’s search for identity. In a small village in northern Mexico, the Carabajals have long been practicing their Jewish faith in secret. The father, Julio, spends his days dabbling with alchemy. His wife, Mariana, cannot speak but is clairvoyant. Their son has allied himself with a Catholic woman and is obsessed with his search for gold. Central to the surprising destinies of these characters are the momentous events and the ancient and sacred cliff dwellings of Casas Grandes, high in the mountains. This story of two cultures, of the elusive bonds of love and faith, is dazzling in its originality. It is for all readers who loved Allende’s The House of Spirits or Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.
About the author:
Q. Water is present throughout the novel. It provides the fountain pulse of the home of Julio and Mariana and the tableau for their visions of their son’s journey. Bubbling streams carry the riches of gold and silver from deep in the earth, and a mountain waterfall sculpts the path of Zacarias’ escape. In what other ways does water, or the lack of it, influence the events that unfold?
Q. The only scene in a Catholic church features an impassive Virgin Mary statue. The votive candles before her illuminate the alarming amount of gold in the church. Yet for all the richness, Estela leaves feeling empty and without absolution. Father Newman proves to be the most fertile priest in all of Mexico, dishing out penances that often take nine months to complete. Does the Catholic church have any redeem-ing qualities in the lives of the Mexicans? What does this say about the perils of a religion wielding too much earthly power?
Q. Gold serves as a powerful metaphor throughout the book. Though it is recognized as a barometer of wealth, the definition of that wealth varies widely-from the economic benefits of the mineral to the suste-nance of sunlight. Why does it seem appropriate that an exhausted gold prospector emerges as a new messiah? How does his search for gold compare with other kinds of searches people make throughout their lives? What is the significance of Zacarias’ use of a gold nugget as a healing totem?
Q. Lizards and salamanders slither out from under rocks and across the pages of Spirits of the Ordinary. We hear of their remarkable ability to adapt to the desert and of theories that they may be the descendants of the fish that once swam in the ocean where there is now only desert. Matukami has a lizard tattooed on the back of his hand. Why do the Indians and even Zacarias identify so closely with the lizards?
Q. Even when he experiences great pleasure, Zacarias suffers from intense headaches after making love. The post-coital headaches ensue regardless of his partner, either his wife, or his mistress and sexual tutor, Magdalena. What do you think causes these headaches?
Q. Membrillo and Manzana are described as “an offense to God’s natural order.” People seem as drawn to them as they are perplexed. Yet the only thing Father Newman cites as a problem is that their behavior may encourage women to sit astride on their horses. What is it about the twins that so rivets and horrifies people? Do they see something in themselves that they fear? Why is it important that the androgynous twins draw equally on the powers of mysticism and science?
Q. Mariana and Julio seek the same truths but take radically different paths. The mute Mariana sees the answers to her questions in the everyday things around her. Julio draws on the holy sorcery of the cabala. Does Julio’s failure to see his God in the world around him condemn him to never find what he seeks? Is there something disturbing about Julio’s activities with alchemy, as though he is trying to pry something out of God rather than pray to him?
Q. The Indians, like the Jews, are forced to hide their faith and traditions from the punishing eyes of the Catholic church. Both groups wait for the return of their creator to free them from their oppressors. Does this liberation theology unite the two groups? Is it an important foundation for Zacarias’ transformation and his acceptance by the Indians at Casas Grandes?
Q. In his delirium after his illness, Zacarias says that he “remembers the future,” yet another example of time twisting and turning over itself. He sees a vision of a woman at the piano, a sailor, a tiny yellow bird, and an old woman dressed like a gypsy bending over a strange shiny road. What is the meaning of this vision? Does everyone who receives a vision get the chance to learn its meaning? If not, what use do they make of these visions?
Q. An important result of the strong community created by the Indians is the transmission of cultural heritage. Their history and tradition grows and is enhanced with each passing generation. Do we continue to do this today? If not, what are the consequences for the heritage of our civilization?