Historical fiction strives to restore the virtue of La Malinche, the infamous slave and confidante of Hernán Cortés, through an intimate coming-of-age tale.
At the beginning of the 16th century, the peoples of Latin America faced massive upheaval as Spanish conquistadors arrived to spread Christianity and claim the land’s fortune for themselves. The most noteworthy of these conquistadors was legendary Hernán Cortés, a man of many resources, though perhaps none greater than the multilingual slave and recent convert Marina. With her aid and council, Cortés and his fellow Spaniards were able to ally themselves with the Tlaxcalans to defeat the Aztecs; and with her love, Cortés fathered one of the first mestizos, a child of both European and Latin American descent. But before she was Marina, she was Malinalli, a Nahua girl from a well-to-do family, who, by the machinations of self-serving men, was sold into slavery. Only through her inquisitive spirit was she able overcome her hardships and learn the skills that made her invaluable to Cortés, establishing her as one of the most important—and often maligned—women in Mexican history. Heavily researched, Gordon’s (Voice of the Vanquished, 1995, etc.) narrative tackles Marina’s story with a distinctly contemporary voice, modernizing even the dialogue to make it both relevant and approachable and to more easily parallel present-day topics such as politics, family values, religion and gender roles. Despite this modernization, the tale doesn’t neglect the bygone cultures it portrays; instead, it highlights the nuances of the unique people, customs and languages Marina encounters. Though strong overall, the narrative has a few flaws: Some character developments feel rushed, especially Malinalli’s quick acceptance of Christianity, where perhaps complex emotion has been sacrificed for historical accuracy. Similarly, the text seems so intent on restoring honor to Marina that it greatly simplifies the struggle between her birth culture and the invading Spaniards’, which is particularly noticeable in the narrative’s less than robust criticism of colonialism. In Malinalli’s story, spiritual omens, Christian or otherwise, often feel Shakespearean in nature—befitting of the story’s emphasis on the joy and tragedy in the life of the controversial “mother of the new Mexican people.”
Emotionally dry, but historical fiction doesn’t get much better.