June 11, 2007

In Praise of Love

Book front cover
Title:
By the Light of My Father's Smile
Author:
Alice Walker
ISBN:
070434646X
Rating:
Not rated

By The Light of my Father’s Smile is held together by a construct that at first seems artificial initially: a father is looking down on his daughter after his own death.

She was not even aware at the time of my death that she missed me. Poor child. She did not cry at my funeral. She was a stoic spectator. Her heart, she thought, was closed. (3)

As an atheist, I found the idea of an afterlife from which the father was speaking a little disappointing. However it becomes far more interesting when reading on, because we discover that the tradition drawn on is that of the Mexican “Mundo” tribe, the philosophy of which features prominently in this book. On the one hand, the journey of the book is towards the reconciliation of the father and his daughers, Susannah and Magdelena. However the title does not only refer to the relationship of children and parents. It is also about the sublime experience of love-making, since the “Mundo” tribe, describe the sickle moon as a father’s smile blessing the procreative cycles, which allow sexual intercourse to be fruitful. At the beginning of the book, it is clear that sex for the daughters is a transgression and the journey towards reconciliation with the father is also a path towards healing their view of love-making.

In Walker’s vision, a reconciliation of familial and sexual difficulties can only be allowed when the whole family has recounted its narrative and is at peace. For this reason, the narration moves between relatives, who all contribute to the telling of the family story. Flashing back to Susannah’s and Magdelena’s childhood, the family voices tell how the parents are denied funding to study the “Mundo” tribe, ‘a tiny band of mixed-race Blacks and Indians’ due to institutional racism (14). However as a family linked to the black church, the family can become missionaries, in order to live in Mexico and secretly study the “Mundo”. Walker’s novel is ultimately a passing narrative that depicts the hateful atmosphere emerging in an atheist family passing as Christians. The father, named only with the formal title Señor Robinson, describes how he is ‘sucked into the black cloth’ of the priest’s costume and his only relief is secret, transgressive sexual pleasure when making love to his wife Langley (156).

Yet in hiding his own sexual pleasure, Señor Robinson also enforces his rule on his daughters, the uncertain Susannah and the more wayward, Magdelena. From Magdelena to Maggie to Mad Dog to June, Magdelena’s names map her course: from the innocence of childhood; to the adoption of “Mundo” peoples’ values (including a belief in the crazy wisdom of the mad dog); to the repression and domestication of her natural sexual instinct. Magdelena’s story is the most touching, as Walker conjures regret and the acceptance of lost ideals vividly.

Yet the centre of the story is Susannah, who must learn to forgive her sister for inadvertently driving the family apart. In the process of this education, Susannah takes on many mentors: women who have had to fight in a society that frowns on difference. For example, Irene, the Greek dwarf, escapes the confinement of her place in society, while Susannah’s lover, Lily-Pauline, manages to build her own restaurant empire in spite of her experience of rape, a loveless marriage and poverty. In the case of each woman, she is saved by the redemptive qualities of friendship and physical love, which leaves the reader like Susannah ‘peering through the mist of the orgasm itself […] seeking what is essentially beyond it’ (190).


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