Monday, November 21, 2016

Mexico: Umami, by Laia Jufresa

Moving on down the North American continent, I arrived (at least in the pages of a book) in Mexico."Umami" tells the story of the residents of a mews complex in Mexico City. Alfonso, the owner and designer of the complex, is an expert in Meso-American dietary habits, and has named the five apartments after the five principal tastes - umami (savoury), sweet, sour, salty and bitter). His wife Noelia, a cardiologist, has died. The Perez-Walker family live in one apartment and run a music school in another. Then there is Beto, wife Chela and daughter Pina, and in the fourth apartment Marina, a depressed young artist.

One summer Ana, the eldest daughter of the Perez-Walker family, begs to be allowed to stay for the summer rather than going to her grandma Emma's in Michigan with her brothers. As her summer project, she plants a milpa (traditional Mexican garden). Ana also had a younger sister Luz, but Luz drowned three summers ago in the lake at her grandmother's.

The book moves back and forth in time over a period of four years, and changes narrators from chapter to chapter. We see the points of view of Ana, Alfonso, Pina, Luz and Marina in particular. They are all interesting characters - no stereotypes here! I found myself wondering at the task of the translator in some of the use of language. For instance Marina likes to invent colours. "Briefoamite is the ephemeral white of seafoam...burgunlip is the colour of your mouth after a few glasses of red wine...cantalight is that melony orange you only see at twilight." Reading these made me wonder what they were in the original Spanish, and whether the translator (Sophie Hughes) had to invent an entirely new set of colour names in English.

Then, in the chapters told by Luz, there are some intriguing words which arise out of a five year old's misunderstanding - "camuflash" appears to be her version of "camouflage". "Ziplings" had me wondering for a bit - your "ziplings" are the people you live with who are a similar size to you - then I realised it is "siblings". It's possible these are the same in the original, as the children do speak English when at their grandmother's for the summer. Whether English or Spanish though, I found the use of language great fun. And the book overall, funny, sad, tender, lyrical and poetic.

Laia Jufresa was born in Mexico City, and spent her adolescence in Paris. She returned to Mexico City in 2001. She currently lives in Cologne, Germany.

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