… neither miracles nor miracle-workers can help us …

The Miracle-Worker, by Carmen Boullosa and translated by Amanda Hopkinson

Every now and then I read something new. Not new in the sense that I haven’t read it before – that happens a couple of times a week. New in the sense that I haven’t read anything like it before.

In a foreword The Miracle-Worker claims to be a collection of papers and a transcribed audio tape all of which were found in the arms of a corpse. It sets up an expectation of a crime and with that the implicit promise that if we read on we will at least understand that crime even if we may not see justice done. Things will not be quite so clear.

The papers are various. They include: the words of the Miracle-Worker, the Milagrosa, herself; examples of petitions made to her; and an account by a private detective named Aurelio Jimenez who was paid to investigate and destroy her and who is probably the dead body found clutching it all.

I say ‘probably’ above because the unnamed person who’s collated these materials doesn’t know for sure whose body it is and compiled the various documents in what seemed ‘to be the most easily comprehensible sequence’. Already, before we’ve even entered the narrative, we’re unsure of the status or outcome of what we’re about to read.

The Milagrosa’s section reveals a woman imprisoned by her own gift. She lives simply dressing only in white and letting no man touch her lest the loss of her virginity should mean the loss of her powers. When she sleeps she can dream miracles which then occur: illnesses cured; limbs restored; lives transformed. Faced with that how can she put her own needs ahead of the want of the world?

Each day two queues form outside the house of the Milagrosa. One for those seeking a miracle; the other for those making vigil. The petitioners explain their particular plea to the Milagrosa and when she goes to sleep that night she dreams of those whose petition will be granted. All she asks in return is that they return to fill out a visitor’s book with their testimonial. Most do, some going further and returning with little tin votive offerings.

That picture is from a church in Naples which I first saw back in 1992. In one of its chapels there were walls covered with small tin images: limbs, heads, torsos. Each is a symbol of an afflicted organ and a healing believed granted; articles of a faith rewarded. I have no faith myself and so found it disturbing rather than inspiring. All that suffering.

Boullosa captures what I felt that day. The petitions here evidence a tidal-wave of desperate want and in doing so render the very concept of miracles somehow ludicrous and offensive. If God can heal the sick why not restore a missing limb? Why not grant the ability to fly, or bring rain to end a drought, or return lost friends back from the dead? (All actual petitions in the text). The Milagrosa can do all that, but her gift doesn’t always respond and it’s unclear why some have their prayers answered and others not. Somehow this just underlines the arbitrariness of the world and the extent of the suffering within it.

‘They raped my daughter.’

‘When she awakes tomorrow, nobody will remember anything about it, there’ll be no trace left on either her body or her mind. Don’t come and give thanks. I absolve you from the responsibility, because you won’t remember having come.

‘My husband has burned himself. Who knows how? He put some lit matches against his clothes, clothes that catch fire as you look at them. You know him well … he’s the man who delivers the eggs.’

‘[…] And another thing, if you could also get rid of my stammer when I speak … If you’d give me my teeth back, I’ve only got two left … And another thing, I don’t like my name, nor my surname. Please make me completely different, because the way I am is a curse. That’s it. I think that’s the best way to ask for what I want. Make me different. Into someone who isn’t as I am.’

The difficulty for Aurelio’s mission is that none of these requests are beyond the Milagrosa’s power. Her gift is real and worse she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. He falls instantly in love with her (even if she does cure his drinking problem without being asked so leaving him utterly unable to enjoy a whisky anymore).

Aurelio’s section is different in style to the petitions, which were themselves different to the Milagrosa’s words. He is a strike-breaker, an agent of a corrupt union and a man who has much in his past to account for. On first arriving he’s beaten nearly to death by outraged workers for reasons never made clear but which don’t seem to be entirely unjustified. He’s a noir protagonist who’s wandered in from another kind of novel altogether and he and the Milagrosa each have the chance to find in the other an escape from lives neither chose.

With Aurelio’s arrival The Miracle-Worker becomes a kind of political thriller:

‘They’ve been plotting something.’

‘Do you have any idea what?’

‘They’re very nervous over the issue of Northern Textiles. You know, there are ten factories involved and for some reason the Union isn’t getting its way, and the workers are in control. They say it’s down to the Milagrosa. But the problem is that there’s only a year left to the presidential elections and you know how things go.’

Aurelio realises that the Milagrosa has unwittingly aided a presidential candidate who’s now tidying his trail behind him. Bodies are stacking up and it turns out that granting miracles may be a dangerous business both for the miracle-worker and for the wider country. Perhaps some petitions shouldn’t be granted.

So what is this? An exploration of the age-old problem of how we can reconcile the notion of faith in a benevolent deity with the evident existence of evil? Or is it a political satire? The union here hires strike-breakers and colludes with politicians against the workers. Power is gained through deceit, bribery and violence. Only the Milagrosa actually cares about the poor and we learn early on that she doesn’t herself believe in the god her followers attribute her powers to.

Is this instead a snapshot of the state of the nation? A collage-impression of Mexico in all its complexity and confusion? Or is it a post-modernist noir?

I think it’s all of those things and others I’m probably missing from my lack of the cultural and political references that the average Mexican reader would naturally have. It’s a complex book and yet in the edition I have it’s only 137 pages. What better compliment could I pay it than to say I don’t understand it?

Other reviews

Only one that I’m aware of which is by Grant at 1streading’s Blog here. Without Grant I wouldn’t have heard of this and if I had probably wouldn’t have read it. I’m glad that I did.


Filed under Boullosa, Carmen, Mexican fiction, Spanish

5 responses to “… neither miracles nor miracle-workers can help us …

  1. I’m glad that you’re glad that you read it – there’s little worse than someone reading a book on your suggestion and being disappointed! Like you, I felt this was a complex work despite its brevity, and one where some local knowledge would have added even more depth. It makes me want to read the more recent work published by Deep Vellum.

  2. It sounds an intriguing book, somewhat mercurial in style. The elements relating to supernatural powers remind me a little of a film I saw earlier this week, I Am Not a Witch, which focuses on a young girl who is accused of being a witch by the members of her community. On the surface, it could be viewed as a satire – but underneath it all, there’s a much darker story going on. Initially, the girl’s powers are perceived to be destructive, but that doesn’t stop her from being exploited by the local officials and tourism industry. A little like your book, it raises lots of questions – particularly in relation to the way in which these people are viewed and treated by society. Worth catching if you haven’t seen it.

  3. It was a very good steer Grant and it was definitely worth following up on your review. I do plan to get more though I’m not sure which yet.

    Jacqui, the supernatural elements (for want of a better term) for me undercut the very idea of the supernatural. She can pretty much do anything, which turns the question therefore into what should one do and why do only some benefit? Which for me at least becomes a question about the promises of religion.

    I suppose that’s what makes this not genre fiction. Her powers are in a sense a McGuffin. What’s interesting is the questions they raise. I am not a Witch sounds interesting. I’ll look out for it.

  4. Sendra

    Ha-ha. ‘I don’t understand it.’
    What did you get from it, Max? Is it just another debunking of religion or is it rather more thoughtful than that? Does the style impress? Does the complexity serve? What makes it worth reading? I’m curious but a little wary. Also, would you want a limb to grow back? Probably, but the endless questions . .
    Merry Christmas and all that.

  5. I think it debunks the outsourcing of responsibility. Here the miracle-worker isn’t herself religious – that’s an explanation others put on her powers. The miracles are arbitrary and for many don’t seem to actually make their lives any better. There’s a distinct sense that wishing for transformation is a mistake. That if you want your life to change you’d best do the changing yourself (or work with others in your community to change your lives together).

    But that’s a bit pat and I don’t think it’s quite that neat. I do think there are elements where I likely lack useful context, but I also think the structural changes between sections are interesting and the tensions as to the kind of story that’s being told add interest.

    I’d definitely want my limb back. I’d argue it had never been lost and that reports of its absence were either clerical error or mass hysteria.

    Happy new year!

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