"The girl, daughter of an aristocrat and a commoner, had the childhood of a foundling. Her mother hated her from the moment she nursed her for the first and only time, and then refused to keep the baby with her for fear she would kill her. Dominga de Adviento suckled her, baptized her in Christ and consecrated her to Olokun, a Yoruban deity of indeterminate sex… Sierva María learned to dance before she could speak, learned three African languages at he same time… and to glide past Christians unseen and unheard like an incorporeal being… Over time the slave women hung the beads of various gods around her neck, until she was wearing sixteen necklaces." Pg 42-43
A young girl is bitten by a rabid dog and feared to have been infected with the disease. That is all the plot needed for the author to tell a very dense tale of injustice. Sierva María is a child of neglect. Her mother had to force herself on her father merely to conceived a child so adamant was his desire to not be a parent. While it is Sierva María that takes center stage it is the supporting cast that lends so much power to the story.
The novel's setting is perhaps García Márquez's greatest testament to his writing ability. He is able to convey so much that will be foreign to many readers in so short a period of time and in so vivid a manner. There is an immediacy to his setting: things don't develop in your mind as you read rather they are communicated instantaneously. It's a strong trait for any writer but combined with a semi-exotic locale and a period of time that hasn't been overdone it is very easy to be swept away.
It's made very clear that neither of Sierva María's parents want anything to do with her and her care is entrusted to the family's slaves. Twelve years later she is fluent in Yoruban, Congolese, and Mandingo, and sings and dances with the grace and beauty to rival the other African slaves while she struggles with Castilian, literacy and courtly graces expected of her as one of the aristocracy. "The only thing white about that child was her color." This would be a reoccurring theme and a trait that would cause her much suffering for the perceived flaw.
"He always believed he loved his daughter, but the fear of rabies obliged the Marquis to admit to himself that this was a lie for the sake of convenience. Bernarda, on the other hand, did not even ask herself the question, for she knew very well she did not love the girl and the girl did not love her, and both things seemed fitting. A good part of the hatred each of them felt for Sierva María was caused by the other's qualities in her. Nevertheless, to preserve her honor, Bernarda was prepared to play out the farce of shedding tears and mourning like a grief-stricken mother, on the condition that the girl's death have a seemly cause.
"It doesn't matter what," she specified, "as long as it's not a dog's disease." Pg 16
Upon the incident of the dog bite and the possibility of her going mad and dying from rabies, Sierva María's father takes an interest in her and in the course of a few days attempts to make up for a life time of neglect. This change of mind greatly helps alter his own life in a positive way, yet even after being convinced by the best doctor in town that Sierva María is fine and rabies has passed her by her father, the Marquis, comes to find that he doesn't know his daughter at all. He finds her odd and many of her actions fey. He convinces himself that something has to be wrong, that she is mad and needs to be institutionalized in a convent to await exorcism. Though it is initially his love and concern that harbingers the demise of his daughter his, and the love of others ultimately interfere with Sierva Maria's happiness and condemn her.
The intervention of the church complicates matters immensely. The Bishop and Abbess see all Sierva María's superstitions and inexplicable occurrences as African magic and works of the devil. While Cayetano Delaura, the priest charged with performing the exorcism who has a peculiar past with the Inquisition and his sights set on a position in Rome, can't find one rational argument to justify her being possessed, rather many to suggest she be canonized as a saint.
The novels strongest interactions involve Delaura. His unlikely and short friendship with Abrenuncio, the doctor who first vouched that Sierva Maria was free of rabies, shows Delaura to be too smart a man to believe in possession or risk an exorcism that could mean death. And yet he can't surrender to the logic his mind has told him to be true or the comfort of an atheist like Abrenuncio who, without the restraints of faith, has proven himself even smarter than Delaura. As the two spend more time together, Delaura sees himself as much a heretic as Abrenuncio who is outside of faith and in possession of every book forbidden by the church. Theirs is a relationship of shared intelligence when those around them seek the scapegoats of demons when their reason fails them. Abrenuncio sums up their friendship bluntly in a conclusion that undercuts all of the sentimentality and respect the two share: "I leave you with this enigma," Abrenuncio concluded as he spurred his horse. "No god could have created a talent like yours to waste it scrubbing lepers." Both a powerful literal statement of Delaura's life and a euphemism for what he could be.
I think García Márquez's best feat is writing a historical novel without the standard narration that is so common today: "In the year X, in the country of Y, there was a small town of Z in which..." He writes the book as if it were being read by someone of the time and from that area. The presentation demands a little bit more from the reader but it is in no way demanding. Taking into account the simplicity of this kind of narration it's odd to think that I or anyone else would champion the style as it is nothing more than exactly how contemporary fiction of today is written. The story is as much about Sierva María's parents and her doomed relationship with Delaura as much as it is about herself. (There is an absolutely gorgeous paragraph at the end that encapsulates the beginning, middle and end of Sierva María and Delaura's relationship.) With characters this strong and material this powerful I remain in awe of how García Márquez worked it all in a mere one hundred and fourty-seven pages.