by Ashley Dickson-Ellison (@teachingtheapocalypse)
Wow. This one will definitely be one of my top reads of the year. I chose this, Sofia Segovia's The Murmur of Bees, as my book in translation pick for the Modern Mrs. Darcy challenge, which is the reading challenge I participated in this past year. Segovia is a Mexican author writing in Spanish, and her work was translated by Simon Bruni. (Check out our reading challenge episodes from the beginning of 2020 where we shared our selections, from the middle of the year where we shared midyear updates, and from our recent one where we shared thoughts as the end of the year approaches.)
This book is broad in its scope and covers a long time period and many important historical events, including the influenza of 1918 and the Mexican Revolution, but at its center is the phenomenal boy Simonopio, who is discovered as an abandoned baby covered in a blanket of bees. He is disfigured, and the physical deformity on his face impacts the way that he speaks, so he spends much of his life silent but endlessly observant. Although many in the larger community fear him and worry that he is marked by the devil, the wealthy landowning family that takes him in, led by Francisco and Beatriz Morales, adores him and cares for him throughout his early childhood. Simonopio's bees stay with him throughout his life, and his perspective on the world is shaped by this unique connection to nature. Because of this connection and his uncanny ability to listen to nature, he has a sixth sense that guides him toward choices that protect those he loves. He is a pure, kind person full of love for others, and his story is a beautiful one.
Although the influenza of 1918 was only a small part of this sweeping story, it felt eerie to read it amid our own COVID-19 global pandemic. I appreciated the rich and subtle way that Segovia wove historical details into the storyline.
The three most acute months of the Spanish influenza crisis left the survivors of Linares and of the whole world with scars that would never heal and voids that would never be filled. It is now known that there was nothing Spanish about that influenza. Spain, since it was not involved in the Great War, was simply the first to report the infection to the world. Hence the name...Still, in January 1919, in Linares, these details were of little interest, because absences were not measured in numbers or statistics: they were measured in grief.
Although Segovia could not have known what was to come when this book was published in 2015, it was haunting to read of the impact that illness had on the community. From the influenza to the war to the agricultural changes that took place in the 1900s to protect landowner's property, Segovia painted a vibrant picture of life in Mexico in the early 1900s from the perspective of one landowning aristocratic family.
One of the intriguing aspects of the narrative is that much of the story is told by a character who is not yet born for a large part of the book, but as an old man, he's taking a journey back home and is talking to a taxi driver, telling him of all of the events that impacted his family leading up to a pivotal moment in his own early life. It's a bit of a mystery how that all comes together, so I'll leave that to you to discover more about him as you read, but I loved the framing and found that it made the story so much richer.
I loved this beautiful book so very much, and I'll be thinking about this one for a long time to come. While this is not an easy read and has some painful, heartbreaking parts, it is a whimsical, satisfying story full of magic and adventure. I love the way that Segovia celebrates the connection we can have to nature if we choose to listen and the way she reveals the lifelong bonds that can form between people. I'll leave you with this lovely, wistful comment shared by the narrator as he tells his story.
At my age, one realizes that time is a cruel and fickle master, for the more you want it, the faster it appears to vanish, and vice versa: the more you want to escape it, the more stagnant it becomes. We are its slaves—or its puppets, if you prefer—and it moves or paralyzes us at its whim. Today, for instance, I would like to reach the end of this story, so I wish I could have more time—that time would slow down. You, on other hand, might want this old man you’ve just met to be quiet so that you can put on your music or think about something else, so perhaps your journey is taking forever. But let me tell you what I know, what I’ve concluded: it doesn’t matter whether time passes slowly or quickly. What you can be sure of is that, in the end, all you want is to have more.
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