Forbidden love across the castes


Ángeles del abismo by Enrique Serna transports the reader into a labyrinth of power and deception in colonial New Spain


Ángeles del abismo
Enrique Serna
2004, Joaquín Mortiz
544 pages

Reviewed by Eli Gardner

ALTHOUGH IT IS not his most recent novel, Ángeles del abismo will surely be one of Serna’s most remembered. Set in seventeenth-century colonial Mexico, la Nueva España, it is many things – but, above all, it is a story about forbidden love.

Crisanta, a castiza woman raised by an abusive father after being abandoned as an infant by her mother, has fallen in love with Tlacotzin, a full-blooded Indian. Both have grown up on the outskirts of Mexico City in homes divided by domestic conflict. Tlacotzin is torn between choosing the religion of his father, the worship of the pantheon of ancient Aztec gods, or conversion to the religion of the Spaniards who are ruling his country and who have convinced his mother that this is the true path to salvation. Ultimately, his mother prevails in the mind of her young child and places him in the local monastery where Tlacotzin, aside from finding a more upwardly mobile position in the Hispanic society of the day, is rapidly won over by the austerity and self-denial of his first religious tutor.

Crisanta has the misfortune of looking like her mother, a mestiza actress who left her Spanish husband, Onésimo, in search of better opportunities in Havana. When Crisanta unknowingly falls in love with her mother’s passion, theatre, her father becomes infuriated and prohibits her from having any access to this world. In the end, this will separate the two and put the young woman on a path that will lead her to the capital and her future lover who, due to the later abundant hypocrisies he witnesses in a subsequent tutor, Cárcamo, has grown disenchanted with his mother’s religion.

Serna has introduced a heavy dose of realism in Ángeles del abismo. Indeed, in his “final credits” he confesses that the narrative itself was inspired by the historical figure “la falsa Teresa de Jesús” who was prosecuted for crimes similar to those Crisanta commits in the novel. It is the author’s dose of realism that prohibits him from allowing his two lovers to live a public life together, lest it be their undoing.

Convincing ease

The writer’s lengthy residence in Spain (he has only recently returned to Mexico) is easily noticed as he portrays the Spanish register of the clergy with convincing ease and, occasionally, even juxtaposes it with the Náhuatl spoken by the indigenous Mexicans as well as the more Latin American Spanish spoken by the criollos and mestizos. Class distinctions are strongly marked according to race, place of birth and opportunities.

Serna’s novel is concerned with those in power, the Spanish and the criollos, and those trying to make a name for themselves through their own ingenuity and falling into the good graces of those in power. As the author incorporates a theme that concerns the acquisition of power or fame – or both – he studies the main characters whose goals and intentions are to accumulate just that. In this, we are able to witness their various methods. However, all of these characters employ a certain amount of deception, and it is this that is used to create a great deal of the suspense within the narrative.

Crisanta fakes celestial raptures in order to turn herself into a local saint in the hope of gaining enough money to go to Cuba.

Cárcamo allows his clerical career to be transformed into a political one as he aspires to greater power within what was possibly the strongest institution of la Nueva España, while becoming increasingly involved in relationships prohibited by his profession.

Tlacotzin is perhaps the most sincere of the three. Having lost faith in the religion of his mother, he embarks on a campaign to destroy the faith of the conquistadores by mutilating the physical representations of its icons in local cathedrals. However, such a direct attack on a strong institution must be carried out with secrecy and deception, lest he be turned over to the Spanish Inquisition and executed. Thus, his true activities require him to live a double life that he is unable to reveal, even to his lover. It is, like many Hispanic novels set in this era, the very Spanish Inquisition that will fuel the novel with fear and suspense throughout most of its second half.

Perhaps one of the details the active reader will find enjoyable is the abundance of small references to the future independent Mexico. Serna includes quotes from and references to actual works of literature from this era. Likewise, the two lovers come across what looks to be a youthful version of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Mexico’s first, and foremost, poetess. Tlacotzin, notwithstanding his deception with regard to the Church and his destruction of its effigies, comments on his fondness for a virgin of mestiza qualities in the vicinity of Tepeyac, the worship of whom has been growing, who is, of course, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of the nation to be.

While there are a few aspects of the novel that perhaps nurture disbelief, such as Tlacotzin’s accidental killing of his own father, which appears to stop tormenting him after he has received absolution upon confession, Ángeles del abismo is very enjoyable and well written. It is a thoughtful contribution to Serna’s ever increasing volume of work.

Eli Gardner is a scholar of Latin America

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