A review of Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun by Liza Bakewell

Reviewed by Sue Bond

Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun
by Liza Bakewell
W W Norton & Co

First of all, this is a beautifully presented book, with an eye-catching and humorous cover. How a book looks and feels, before the reader even opens it up, is important. The reader’s senses are alive immediately.

Liza Bakewell is a linguistic anthropologist but Madre is not an academic tome; more like a dance through the linguistic history and difficulties of a word in the Spanish language that does not just mean ‘mother’. Madre, it becomes clear, can take on all sorts of meanings depending on the context of its use.

And most of the time Bakewell writes with fun and energy, using interesting phrases and descriptions that catch the attention and hold it. From the first page I liked the way she describes houses as ‘salty white and sandy brown’ with ‘lawns trimmed and polished as fine as I imagined the proprietors themselves’ (11). She introduces her friends and colleagues throughout the book in a way which makes them real on the page, and presents dialogue fluently and naturally.

What started her on her odyssey was a piece of graffiti in Mexico City, where she was living while researching her PhD a couple of decades ago: ‘A toda madre o un desmadre’. She learns that this is language she shouldn’t use herself, but it has something to do with ‘a fabulous situation’ (a toda madre) and ‘a disaster’ (desmadre) (19). Soon, she realises that many puzzling aspects of life in Mexico are related to sex, religion, gender relations and language, plus everything in between.

Bakewell notes that:

The study of language can occur just about anywhere. But if carried out by a linguistic anthropologist, it usually occurs in situ, rather than out-of-situ, on a street rather than in a lab. (26)

Which is exactly what she does in this book, and it is partly what makes it unusual, warm and alive. She records a conversation with her friend Armando while driving to a wedding, and asks him awkward questions about madre and its connotations; his silences and evasions speak volumes about the vulgarity and complexity of the meanings. Another friend tells her that ‘expressions with madre in them are fuertes, powerful’ (47), and she must be careful using them—this warning is often repeated. Padre, however, has a different feel to it, without any of the negative connotations often associated with madre. Bakewell voices her confusion, and it takes a long time for her to get a clear answer.

Religion and its implications for women are explored: the Virgin Mary and Eve seem to do battle with each other. Malinche, the indigenous woman who translated for Cortés, was viewed as a traitor for enabling the Spanish invasion of Mexico, and so the word malinchista lives on as a term of abuse. Slang, street talk, and its connection with the high place of mothers in Mexican society are explained; the language of swearing is lively and, someone tells her, ‘organic’: ‘it grows and reproduces, dies and decomposes, and then pops up again, reincarnated into something else’ (76).

There is much to absorb in the text, including the cult of the Mexican mother and the revolt against their power via language. The chapter ‘Food Fight’ has a fascinating discussion on albures or word phrases with sexual double meanings, and how important it is to be able to use them skilfully. And ‘Lost in Los’ gets down to the nitty gritty of sexual and gender relations, and how they are played out in language. ‘Sounding it Out’ has the author asking others to sound out the word mama repeatedly, and tracking its original source, the baby suckling.

I got the distinct feeling at times that I was missing out on something in some of the chapters, and wondered if readers with some command of Spanish would be at an advantage. It is obviously not meant to be a definitive book on the subject, but rather an entertaining way of introducing the reader to the beauty and complexity of how humans use language, using Mexico and madre as a keen example; it is an anecdotal treatment rather than a thorough one. There were times when I felt the text was a little repetitive, such as the discussions on swearing with madre, and my interest waned. But generally it is enjoyable and imaginatively constructed, opening our eyes to language and culture and how we humans make, shape and alter it to our own devices.

About the reviewer: Sue Bond is a writer and reviewer living in Brisbane. Her writing interests are memoir, short stories and essays, snippets of which can be found at her blog: http://thewordygecko.wordpress.com