An Enchanted Land: Sofía Segovia’s The Murmur of Bees

The Murmur of Bees by Mexican writer Sofía Segovia (translated by Simon Bruni, Amazon Crossing, 2019) is the rare novel in historical fiction, realistically framed within historical events – the Mexican Revolution, the Spanish flu – and, at the same time, filled with preternatural circumstances and fantastic characters that have earned Segovia comparisons with magical realism writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende. It is universal at heart but also deeply imbedded in its setting.

Inspired by stories from her childhood, Segovia sets her novel in Linares, northern Mexico, weaving the era’s class struggle and agrarian reform into the sweeping multi-generational tale of the Morales family. It is also an evocative portrait of the land and its people, from Francisco Morales, vying to keep his inheritance and pass it to his children, to the mysterious Nana Reja, the wet nurse whose flesh has become wood. In this landscape, houses echo with the laughter of long-gone children, shutters bang on windless days, and people accept the extraordinary, regardless of logic.

Among the strong characters that populate The Murmur of Bees, one stands out: Simonopio, an abandoned infant with a facial disfigurement, who is adopted by the Morales family and grows up to be their protector. Constantly surrounded by bees, Simonopio is fanciful, mystical, almost a nature spirit in the classical sense. It’s hard to achieve truth and credibility but Segovia succeeds with him. “A character like Simonopio has to emerge on its own,” she says. “Simonopio couldn’t be planned. I absolutely believed in him since paragraph one, so he is written from a place of honesty and even love. That’s important. I think that’s the reason readers easily accept traversing the threshold of disbelief as they follow Simonopio and his bees.” And the bees, by the way, are no arbitrary plot device. Like Chekhov’s gun, they appear early, are relevant throughout the narrative, and central at a crucial point.

Yet, Segovia didn’t set out with a plan and genre. “I don’t like labels,” she says. “I wasn’t planning on magical realism as I wrote The Murmur of Bees. I always imagined magical realism would thrive only in the rain forest! But I tread in the desert and it jumped at me and enthralled me. If it’s there in my novel, it sprouted on its own. Much like nature. With a combo like Nana Reja, Simonopio and the bees, how could it be otherwise? That’s how it should be, or else it would come off as contrived, artificial.”

Going from one chapter to another, Segovia switches points of view, a technique that sometimes confuses readers. In this case, however, the switch heightens tension and pace, and deepens the understanding of the characters. Segovia even plunges into the mind of the sinister Anselmo Espiricueta, a laborer whose envy and resentment triggers murder and heartbreak. “Everything [about Espiricueta] is alien: his origins, his feelings, his ancestral history, his suffering,” Segovia points out. “But I had to be brave and go deep and walk not in his shoes, but in his skin and feel his beating heart. It was very painful and eye-opening.”

Translated works often invite questions about what Nabokov described as “the world of verbal transmigration.” How much of the original text is preserved? What are the concerns when the novel is historical? Simon Bruni, who translated The Murmur of Bees, grew up reading novels from the Victorian era and early twentieth century. His work retains the lovely incantatory tone of Segovia’s prose in Spanish, rendering her voice and rhythms; her superb use of language registers. Bruni is aware of the potential pitfalls of translation. “The first,” Bruni asserts, “is a challenge that the original author also faces, which is to adopt a style that evokes the past but is accessible to a modern reader. I’m writing in modern English, really, but adding an archaic flavor. There are two pitfalls to avoid here: clichéd language that reads as a parody of old English, and language that is too modern for the context. I try to create the right balance primarily by using English that is in current or quite recent usage.”

An unusual milieu presents added challenges. As Bruni observes, “the new readership is likely to be less acquainted with the history, culture and real historical figures in the book than the original readership. People tend to know much more about the history of their own country.” When context is needed, the translator must intervene: “What I try to do here is add some kind of description as seamlessly as possible, with the addition of a word or a few words if needed. Brevity is key and I do this only when absolutely necessary to avoid interrupting the original flow of the book.”

Segovia’s approach to research is distinctive. While many authors fret about the historical record and squirm about deviating from it, she is forthright about taking liberties. “There is no greater freedom than writing a piece of fiction,” she writes in the novel’s Notes, where she also admits to willful anachronisms, and to mixing fictional and historical characters. Extensive as her research was, she resolved to be faithful to her inspiration.

With so many novelized biographies in which authors pretty much follow biographers’ trails, I asked if the role of imagination is devalued in historical fiction. “I think imagination should be a requisite for all types of writing or creative endeavor, be that literary, historical or scientific, even,” Segovia suggests. “Imagination sparks new questions, invites us to see with different eyes, see connections where others haven’t. In historical fiction, I believe that imagination works as an invitation for the reader to connect, to perceive, to feel, to make a story from another time and place their own.”

About the contributor: Adelaida Lucena-Lower lives in Virginia and is working on a novel set in eighth-century Spain.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 89 (August 2019)

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