Pilgrim Tales: Luisa Josefina Hernández’s medieval fiction

Ana Elena González-Treviño

From the vast fictional repertoire of Luisa Josefina Hernández (Campeche, México, 1928), there is a group of novels which can be roughly described as medieval fiction, a label which is not entirely precise, but which does provide a distinctive idea of what sets them apart from Hernández’s other dozens of novels, which have secular, contemporary settings, both metropolitan and provincial. Her medieval fiction includes Los trovadores [The Troubadours] (Joaquín Mortiz, 1973), Apostasía [Apostasy] (UNAM, 1978), Apocalipsis cum figuris (Universidad Veracruzana, 1982), and Roch, novela hagiográfica [Roch, Hagiographic Novel] (Universidad Veracruzana, 2008). These four novels occur in medieval or medievalesque settings, which may however seem simultaneously timeless or even half futuristic. In them characters interact with each other and their environment, while profoundly experiencing their inner self, and fulfilling their destinies either in hagiographic tales which are relatively well-known—as in the case of Saint Roch or Julian the apostate, or in original fiction, as in The Troubadours or Apocalipsis cum figuris. None of them are religious novels insofar as they keep well away from Christian indoctrination, but they certainly follow a hagiographic model of sorts in the sense that characters go on spiritual journeys of profound introspection (not necessarily connected to the Christian faith) while facing worldly opposition.

Luisa Josefina Hernández y Lavalle was the only child born on November 2, 1928 to a middle-aged couple from the southern state of Campeche in Mexico. The Hernández family was blessed with an extensive library which nourished young Luisa Josefina’s voracious appetite for learning, with the support of her lawyer father who believed girls were entitled to the same education as boys, not a common attitude in the Mexican provinces of the 1920s and 1930s. Luisa Josefina Hernández studied Law, English and Drama at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and later specialized in Medieval Art History and Christian iconography at Columbia University in New York City. (Prado 9-10) A professor emeritus at her Mexican alma mater, a polyglot and a polymath as are now rare, her creative output is impressive by any standards. She is better known as a dramatist than as an essayist, theoretician, translator or novelist, even though she has excelled in all these genres. She began writing drama professionally in the 1950s, but she soon took up fiction as well. The latter genre is clearly sustained by the former in the sense that her narrative works follow a very careful design, resulting in a solid if often intricate artistic structure, which nevertheless allows for events which would be normally precluded from the theater. The majority of her novels are explorations of human nature within a contemporary, realistic framework, often working as vehicles for social critique. In this context, her “medieval” novels constitute an exception.

Her fondness for the Middle Ages does not spring solely from historical interest or from the desire to provide historically accurate reconstructions of a particular event. Her medieval settings and stories tend to be minimalistic, and could be described as austere, sometimes even close to abstraction. In an era when cheap medievalism proliferates, her prop-free and clear-cut narrative constitutes a rather singular virtue. These works are not entirely exempt of fantastic elements, but these are kept to a minimum, which is why they appear all the more remarkable. Her medieval novels recreate a remote past where saints may have carried stigmata on their feet and hands, and worked miracles of faith; some inexplicable events do take place, such as trees that seem to talk or candle smoke which seems to draw cryptic shapes in the air; yet it is not entirely certain whether these portents actually occur or whether they take place in the inner consciousness of the beholder.

At no point does the author get carried away by self-complacency: magical occurrences are scarce and brief, and they just happen when strictly necessary, thus enhancing their meaningfulness and memorability. In a certain sense, these novels are reminiscent of the mood in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) or The Virgin Spring (1960), because of their context, because of the strength deployed by the protagonists in the midst of dire events, and because of a kind of silence or sobriety which frames them and provides them with a transcendent, luminous dimension, even through a depiction that is not entirely smooth or accurate. Hernández’s medieval novels are like fairy tales mixed with plays by Samuel Beckett, and even with stories by Kafka, where characters as unfathomable as Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot are represented with magnanimous compassion, and yet the narrator in each case does not compromise their rectitude and ethical standing. She could not be further away from the complacent exoticism of so-called magic realism.

These novels abound in human relations, conflicts, misunderstandings, ruptures and alliances which have an unquestionably contemporary resonance; hence another reason for their powerful appeal. (Hence also the urgency to produce new editions of them, since they constitute a very unique literary heritage.) In what follows I will analyze a few brief passages taken from them in order to explain myself. Given the relative unavailability of the texts, I have taken the liberty of extracting some examples of how she handles the supernatural, in the hope of awakening the interest of potential readers.

The opening chapter of Los trovadores, for instance, tells the story of a young woman who walks from town to town delivering a message. She must traverse hostile moors and climb jagged mountains. With her fragile, yet resistant body, she once leans on a rock and a spring is produced. This miraculous event is an emblem of her mission: words pour out from her mouth just as the spring from the rocks. Further ahead, she visits a small town in order to deliver her message yet again, but the wind blows her mantle away in order to reveal a radiant mane of hair and luxurious apparel, adorned with precious stones. She looks like an apparition and the people bow before her. In this manner, she works miracles in the town, or to be precise, she provokes, almost in spite of herself, a series of transformations which will change forever the lives of the inhabitants. She then returns to the mountain and takes refuge inside a cave after accidentally stepping on a thorny patch. She is badly hurt, so she collapses, exhausted. A shepherd catches sight of her, takes pity, and pulls the thorns out of her foot. In spite of this, the maiden dies, but the shepherd who has stayed by her side witnesses the prodigy that follows.

        Había puesto las espinas en hilera, sobre la tierra dura del suelo de la cueva, y pronto le pareció que algo particular ocurría con ellas, un espejismo de lágrimas, tal vez, porque desde hacía rato no tenía los ojos secos. Pero no, en cada espina había una flor de cuatro pétalos, tierna y recién nacida y las espinas estaban clavadas en el suelo, como enraizadas y todo ante su vista iba creciendo, y él tenía miedo, un miedo inmenso de no poder abarcar la presencia de Dios, ni siquiera en la señal…
        Las espinas echaban ramas florecidas que se entrecruzaban sin tocar el cuerpo de la peregrina y formaban una reja luminosa y cortante, desde donde podía mirarla y admirarla, y verla destilar luz a raudales, belleza, joyas, bordados complicados en la túnica blanca, flores de plata sobre el manto, aún cubierta a medias por su tela que ahora parecía el más suave vellón, el más blanqueado, el más favorecido para recibir ángeles.
        Las espinas llegaron al techo y dejaron de moverse. Ya no crecían; en una hora, o dos, habían hecho un santuario, habían protegido su reliquia, la conservaban eternamente como prueba. (Hernándea 1973: 44-45)

        [He had aligned all the thorns on the hard soil inside the cave, and he soon realized something odd was about to happen to them, a mirage of his own tears, maybe because for a while now his eyes had not been dry. But no, on each thorn there was a four-petal flower, tender as if newly-born, and the thorns had pierced the floor, as if they had taken root right then and there; and before his very eyes they started to grow, and he was filled with fear, an immense fear not to be able to resist the presence of God, not even in symbolic shape…
        The thorns kept blossoming in multiple directions, crisscrossing without touching the maiden pilgrim’s body, forming a sharp, luminous trellis, allowing her to be seen and admired, where she could distill floods of light, beauty, jewels, complicated embroidery on her white tunic, silver flowers on her mantle, still half-covered by the fabric which now looked like the softest wool, the whitest, the most suitable for entertaining angels.
        The thorns reached the roof of the cave and they stopped moving. They stopped growing; in an hour or two, they had transformed the cave into a sanctuary, they had protected their relic, preserved it eternally as evidence.]

[This and subsequent citations are followed by my translation. Even though LJH’s plays have been translated into English, most of her novels have not. –AEGT]/blockquote>

This brief anecdote, which is reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty and of pagan tales about water sprites, nymphs or undines which populate rivers, springs, and waterfalls, suggests some ancestral wisdom about nature, a more direct way of relating to it, yes, but still secret and mysterious. The woman who is veiled by a humble mantle hiding luxurious garments has a profound symbolism. In fairy tales such as Peau d’âne or Cinderella, the protagonist is obliged to hide her majestic status until the right time comes to reveal it. Indirectly linked to the theme of the doppelgänger, her poor, gray appearance represents a level of human nature which identifies with celestial nature, which is in turn accepted in all its splendor. (Bayley, 196). The messenger in Los trovadores might seem to have renounced courtly life and thrown herself to the roads, like any other peddler. Nonetheless, her mission is to deliver her message by somehow delivering her own self, offering her own royalty as an example, in order to evoke in other people the wish to find their own.

Los trovadores is a complex novel, with a multiple, non-lineal plot, and where each story touches the others tangentially, at seemingly unessential points, covering a much larger scope of space and time than was initially warranted; little by little, the puzzle starts taking shape and acquiring an unexpectedly cosmic resonance. One of the most memorable passages occurs in the third chapter, which tells the story of two sisters, thus underlining the theme of the double, however subtly. The elder sister is a duchess, the younger, a nun. The elder has ascended socially by marrying a duke who is also a goldsmith, and with whom she has had two beautiful daughters. The duchess, however, is not happy. She has no imagination, and the only pastime she has come up with is to become the lover of each one of her daughters’ tutors, one after the other. The last one of them has abandoned her with a gesture of disdain. The nun, on her part, seems to lead a fulfilled life, and has triumphed in the outside world. Kings and princes take turns to invite her to their castles, since, besides having cultivated her intellect in all senses, God has blessed her, in her own terms, with “three distinctions”. And I quote:

        En ocasiones, traían un cojincillo de raso, otras veces preparaban unas suaves sandalias y ella se acomodaba en un sillón forrado de brocado. Ahora, frente a sus sobrinas, su hermana y su cuñado el duque, dio ejemplo de familiaridad, o sea, que con un rápido movimiento se quitó los zapatos, tiró de sus medias de lana y caminando descalza se sentó en el taburete del pianoforte al tiempo que subía la manga izquierda de su hábito y mostraba su mano, que nunca había empleado durante la comida.
        La madre provincial tenía atravesados los pies y la mano por unos clavos invisibles y las heridas se mantenían abiertas y sangrantes. Los miembros eran tan blancos y pequeños que trastornaba el corazón mirarlos así atormentados, pues aquellas heridas eran tan profundas que podía mirarse de lado a lado.
        El duque tuvo un movimiento incontenible y se alejó de su cuñada, las muchachas cayeron de rodillas con las manos unidas y la servidumbre hizo lo mismo en el más absoluto silencio. La duquesa miraba los pies y la mano de su hermana sin decir palabra, sin moverse y sin rezar.
        La mano sostenida en el aire, como ella la tenía, era particularmente impresionante. Blanca como el papel, tan delgada que se adivinaban los cinco huesos quebrados de los dedos y con aquella terrible horadación, roja y ardiente, hubiera podido decirse que ensangrentada. Ni el más maniático de los charlatanes se hubiera atrevido a mantener en vivo por medios artificiales aquellas tres heridas.
        [Más adelante, el duque le pregunta:] ¿Cómo y cuándo empezó este… fenómeno?
        [Y ella responde:] Hace alrededor de cuatro años. Apareció primero un círculo rojo y luego un pentágono, después una llaga en ambos lados, que avanzó hasta volverse lo que es ahora, una especie de túnel.
        [Y después, el duque formula la pregunta que a todos asalta:] ¿En la mano derecha no tenéis nada?
        —¿No, duque—La monja extendió su mano y la mostró por ambos lados, luego la abandonó sobre su hábito y el duque la tomó entre las suyas ardorosas.
        —¿Y no teméis…? ¿No teméis que ocurra lo mismo con ésta?
        —Ya lo he pensado, tenéis razón.
        —Decidme qué habéis pensado.
        —Que debo cumplir con algún requisito para que eso ocurra. (Hernández 1973: 101-102)

        [Sometimes they brought a satin cushion, others they prepared a pair of soft sandals and she sat in a brocade armchair. Now, in front of her nieces, her sister, and the duke, her brother-in-law, she acted with unusual familiarity: with a quick movement she took off her shoes, she pulled off her woolen stockings, and she walked barefoot towards the pianoforte stool, where she pulled up the left sleeve of her habit to display her left hand, which she had not used at all during mealtime.
        The provincial nun’s two feet and one hand were run through by invisible nails, leaving open, bleeding wounds. They were so white and small that hearts were profoundly upset when they saw them thus tormented, since those wounds were so deep you could see right through them.
        The duke stepped uncontrollably away from his sister-in-law, the girls fell on their knees holding each other’s hands, and the servants did exactly the same thing in deadly silence. The duchess looked at the feet and hand of her sister without uttering a single word, without either moving or praying.
        The hand she held in the air was particularly impressive. White as paper, so thin you could guess where the broken finger bones lay, and with that horrible piercing, red and burning, or one could have said, bloody. Not even the most deranged of charlatans would have dared to maintain those wounds alive through artificial means.
        [Later on, the duke asks:] How and when did this phenomenon start?
        [To which she answers:] Around four years ago. At first there appeared a red circle, then a pentagon, then an ulcer on both sides, which grew until it became what it is today, a kind of tunnel.
        [Then the duke asks the question on everyone else’s mind:] What about your right hand? Is there not a wound there as well?
        “No, duke,” the nun took out her hand and displayed both sides of it. Then she dropped it on her lap and the duke grasped it with his own burning hands.
        “And are you not afraid…? Are you not afraid the same might happen to this one?”
        “I have given it some thought, you are right.”
        “Pray, tell me what you have thought.”
        “That I must fulfill some requirement in order for that to ocurr.”]

The rest of this enthralling tale is the story of an interior voyage and the harsh tests the nun must overcome right there, at her sister’s palace, before the fourth stigma, the crowning one, is granted. Partly inspired in the story of Saint Catherine of Siena, an Italian fourteenth-century saint who received the stigmata, just as Saint Francis of Assisi, the story of the two sisters is imbued with an immense compassion without ever making any concessions to worldly vanity, including the saintly protagonist’s own pride. It is an implacable tale of sisterly love and hatred, as well as a story of forgiveness:

The duchess’s debauched lifestyle contrasts with the asceticism and intelligence of her nun sister. The two loathe each other, and yet they also complement each other: the one leads a life that is diametrically opposed to the other. This is the area in which the mystery of the fourth stigma is to be resolved, and it comes to the nun as a revelation: “no obtenía el cuarto estigma porque no amaba y jamás había amado a su hermana, porque la culpaba de todos los sucesos de su vida aunque fueran buenos...” (Hernández 1973: 109) [“She did not obtain the fourth stigma because she did not love nor had she ever loved her sister, because she blamed her for everything that had happened in her life, the good and the bad…”] (Hernández 1973: 109)

The only possible remedy to overcome the abyss which separates them will occur when they both suffer a transformation, and the bonding they experience during the nun’s visit will propitiate it. This will happen by means of a symbolic, fleeting interchange of identities. The duchess, full of embarrassment, resolves to adopt some of the austerity of her sister regarding personal attire: “De hoy en adelante no usaré afeites, ni me harás peinados complicados, ni me pondré joyas.” (Hernández 1973: 117) [“From now on, I will not wear makeup, nor will you make elaborate hairdos for me, nor will I wear any more jewels.”]The nun, on her part, lodged in one of the castle chambers, carries out her penitence by adorning herself with “una bata de seda oriental con alamares de pasamanería y un turbante trenzado en hilo de oro” y enjoyándose con “dos pulseras, un pectoral y seis anillos” [“a robe of oriental silk with twisted cords and elaborate trimmings of passementerie, and a turban braided with golden thread” and “two bracelets, a bejeweled bib, and six rings.”] She exclaims:

Como ella soy—decía—. Miradme. Igual de vanidosa, encandilada me siento con las joyas, temblorosa entre la seda viviente y colorida, orgullosa de cubrirme con oro. Concededme el amor. Mi sangre es suya, mi piel, mis ojos, las palpitaciones de mi corazón. Suya soy y ella es mía y las dos somos vuestras. Miradnos, seres presentes, elementos divinos que flotáis en el aire, miradnos e igualadnos por medio del amor. Amor, amor por ella como si por mí fuera, miedo por ella como por mí, sufrimiento por ella como por mis llagas, timidez como la que yo siento, deseo de ocultarme, miedo, fuerza para seguir mostrando mi cuerpo atravesado. (Hernández 1973: 120)

[“I am like her,” she said. “Look at me. Equally vain, I am bedazzled by these jewels and I tremble underneath the living, colorful silk, proud to deck myself with gold. Grant me love. My blood is hers, my skin, my eyes, the beatings of my heart. I am hers and she is mine and we both are yours. Look at us, present beings, divine elements floating in the air, look at us and equal us by means of love. Love, love for her as if for me, fear for her as if for me, suffering for her as by my own wounds, a shyness equal to mine, the desire to hide, fear, strength to keep making a show of my pierced body.]

The nun enters a state of profound meditation where she achieves total identification with that which she finds repugnant. She spends hours locked up, to the utter disconcert of those who surround her, but she emerges full of peace. Her visit comes to an end, and while going away “ignoraba … que en los huecos del aire ya estaba el clavo ardiente, el cuarto, que se afilaba para entrar en su mano derecha.” (Hernández 1973: 121) [“she did not realize that in the hollows of the air the fourth, burning nail was already sharpening to run through her right hand.”]

In Apocalipsis cum figuris (1982) we find a vertiginous narrative which makes no concessions, not even to chapter divisions. The story takes place in a possibly medieval setting, but where one rather finds that the only rule is unlimited imagination, since there is no space or time that has been explicitly excluded from the tale. In it we witness a parade of varied creatures called “castes” whose fate has been determined by their body and inclinations. They all travel constantly in a state of perennial transit, searching something, even though most of them would not be able to say what. They travel in groups or tribes which mingle and conflict with each other according to the dictates of their atavisms. We find for example the caste of pilgrims, who lead an intensive inner life, never forming couples other than idealistic or platonic (the female protagonist belongs to this caste). There is also a caste of gray creatures who lead a miserable existence; a caste of statues who are white and beautiful to see, but who tend to lead their companions to self-destructive idolatry; the caste of friars who, despite their name, live far from Franciscan asceticism; and many more: knights, monsters, housekeepers, circus people, clowns, acrobats, chieftains, musicians, scarecrows, and red and green ballerinas. The tribes that populate the eerie world of Apocalipsis cum figuris are also surrounded by a peculiar fauna, hybrids of real and imaginary animals among which we find serpents, basilisks, lions, parrots, dragons and unicorns. All of them are always migrating, searching, with all the advantages and the disadvantages afforded by their particular caste. “Llevamos las castas escritas en la frente.” (Hernández 1982: 108), [“Our caste is written on our foreheads”] claims the woman Pilgrim (la Peregrina) as a protest, but also acceptingly.

One of the most cryptic and memorable passages in the novel occurs when the two protagonists come up to a gigantic wall. La Peregrina is accompanied by a lascivious friar, whom she beats up at every opportunity, and a young couple comprised by a clown girl and a Pierrot youth. Together they form a peculiar family with vaguely filial bonds. Upon reaching the great wall, they realize in stupor that it is insurmountable because of its height, and also because it runs from one side to another without visible end. La Peregrina notices that there seem to be more trees right beside the wall than anywhere else in the road; she concludes that these trees are all that is left of other travelers like themselves who were stopped short in that very place. Since they did not know what to do, they grew roots and stayed fixed on the spot. She knows she must act quickly or they shall all have the same destiny as their predecessors.

Just as in Los trovadores, in Apocalipsis cum figuris Hernández deals with the theme of the double, though at a more subtle and mysterious level. La Peregrina’s double is her male equivalent, el Peregrino, who appears and disappears from the novel at the most unexpected times. He works not so much as a twin soul than as a reference point for whom the friar, la Peregrina’s actual companion, is completely useless. La Peregrina invokes el Peregrino by shouting something which could or could not come from the Bible (Joshua 6: 1-27) that somehow held the answer to the enigma of the wall.

“—Peregrino, escúchame. Estaban los soldados de Josué frente a la muralla y el Señor dijo: “Dadle siete vueltas diariamente durante siete días, siete el séptimo día.” Tocaron sus trompetas los soldados y se desmoronó la muralla. Peregrino, así fue vencida la ciudad de Jericó. Así y no de otro modo.” (Hernández 1982:74) [Peregrino, listen to me. Joshua’s soldiers stood at the foot of the wall and the Lord said, ‘You must walk round the wall seven times, every day, for seven days; seven on the seventh day.’ The soldiers sounded their horns and the wall crumbled down. Peregrino, this is how they defeated the city of Jericho. Thus and not otherwise.”] El Peregrino, typically, does not come, but la Peregrina’s invocation is enough to get her started.

The ordeal that follows turns out to be part of an extremely rigorous initiation rite which is only gradually understood. La Peregrina commands the friar to come with her, for she does not trust him alone with their “children”. The friar reluctantly agrees, and la Peregrina orders the young couple to dance all the time required by the circumambulation, to keep them from sprouting roots; they will also serve as a landmark to keep track of the number of turns. The Friar, whose moral strength is close to nil, cannot even finish the first lap, but la Peregrina’s determination is such that she had rather carry him on her back than give up. After the first round on the first day they are both exhausted, and the trial appears to be impossibly difficult. However, a curious phenomenon takes place: the more rounds they make, the shorter they appear. By the end of the seventh day, la Peregrina

…crispó el rostro como quien ha de hacer un esfuerzo último; un acto temerario y terrible como el suicidio y la blasfemia; gritó entonces a todo pulmón:
        —¡Ahora, Dios, las trompetas!
        Su voz hizo ecos y ecos hasta que sonaron las trompetas en una forma tan ensordecedora que más parecía una tempestad. El fraile y Pierrot se abrazaron, también la Peregrina y la payasa. Luego de tempestad, aquello tomó el aspecto de un temblor de tierra, crujieron los árboles, chillaron las murallas y de pronto las piedras grises se rechazaron unas a las otras y con estruendo se vinieron abajo. Cerraron ellos los ojos y se apretujaron, luego la voz de ella.
        —¡A pasar! ¡Es el momento!
        Se tomaron de las manos y se dejaron guiar con los párpados bien apretados, todo era un polvo espeso que oscurecía la luz, sus pies tropezaban a menudo, sus lenguas rezumaban tierra gris, los cabellos y las ropas se cubrían de polvo, de un polvo que les corría por los hombros y los rostros hasta llegar al suelo.
        No contaron los minutos, pero su sangre los empujaba hacia delante y su pensamiento era el mismo que puede tener una flecha ya disparada en el aire. Hasta que sintieron la frescura en el rostro, hubo un silencio como un recién nacido y una atmósfera clara se insinuaba en la respiración; no se soltaron para restregarse los ojos. (Hernández 1982: 84)

[Her face cringed as if she had used up her last vestige of strength; a bold, terrible action such as suicide or blasphemy; she then shouted as loud as she could: “God, it’s time for the trumpets!” Her voice resounded in one echo after another until the trumpets began to blow with such strength that there appeared to be a storm. The friar and Pierrot hugged, and so did la Peregrina and the clown girl. After the tempest, there appeared to be an earthquake; the trees began to creak, the walls squealed and suddenly the grey stones rejected one another, and came down uproariously. They all closed their eyes and hugged tighter; then her voice.
        “We must go through now, right now!”
        They took each other’s hands and allowed themselves to be guided, their eyes well shut; everything was covered in thick dust, which blocked the light; their feet stumbled often; their tongues exuded grey soil; their hair and garments were covered with dust, a dust which ran through their faces and shoulders, until it reached the ground.
        They did not count the minutes, but their blood pushed them forward and their thought was the same as the thought of an arrow in mid air. Finally they felt fresh air on their faces; there was silence, like a newborn babe, and a limpid atmosphere insinuated by their breath. They did not let go of each other to rub their eyes.]

The crumbling of the wall as a consequence of the circumambulation is reminiscent of the ritual circumambulation of ancient labyrinths, going in concentric circles: a symbolic pilgrimage. Labyrinths are instruments of introspection by means of which the walker can meditate and expand their consciousness. (Purce 110) The enormous size of the wall turns out to be relative after all, and the journey is its own recompense. The world behind the wall is strangely similar to the world outside, but the level of consciousness with which it is perceived has undoubtedly altered.

Finally, I wish to refer to Roch, novela hagiográfica (2008). The two former novels contain some recognizable elements taken from the lives of saints, but Roch is explicitly such a one. It is a fictional recreation of the life of Saint Roch, a French fourteenth-century saint, contemporary of Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Bridget of Sweden, who briefly appear in this story. There is a more precise historical research in this novel. The family of Roch, the protagonist, lives in Montpellier, France, when the papal see was in Avignon; this is the time when Franciscans were persecuted; when flagellating monks sought to expiate the sins of the entire world; when armies of mercenary soldiers abounded and when the first commercial cities such as Venice, flourished. This is the time of the plague.

From a very early age Roch had a virtue which would eventually lead to his canonization. It is a rare virtue, especially unusual in a saint. His virtue is good sense, razor sharp discernment. He is able to uncover illusory appearances and to clarify the absurdities and misunderstandings of life. He is also endowed with great compassion. He spends long periods of time in villages that have been afflicted by the plague, looking after the sick and burying the dead. For some mysterious reason, he seems to be immune to illness, until he finally contracts it due to a wound on his thigh; so he retires to the forest to heal himself. The mystery of his healing, the best known part of his life, takes place there, when he is surrounded by animals, in particular by a dog with whom he is represented in traditional Christian iconography. Wolves and other wild beasts respect Roch in acknowledgment of his spiritual superiority. He returns to the world to fulfill his altruistic mission, but human beings, incapable of understanding him, end up incarcerating him. He spends five years in prison, and from the poverty of his cell, a series of miraculous visions occur before the stupefied gaze of his jailer:

        A propósito de sus cabellos, el carcelero había creído tener alucinaciones: se asomaba a mirarlo por la rejilla todas las mañanas y todas las noches, cuando le llevaba el agua y el pan que casi el otro no tocaba; una mañana le pareció que la barba del preso se había convertido en un colchón de musgo y tréboles; sus cabellos en largos tallos flexibles y muy verdes. Decidió no tomarlo en serio y sólo se frotó los ojos, pero luego, en la tarde, porque no pudo esperar hasta la noche, volvió a espiarlo y le pareció ver que aquella barba se veía como un manojo de flores moradas y olorosas, como las que se dan en la humedad del bosque, los cabellos en un ramo de floripondios que empezaban a abrirse. El olor era tan fuerte que el carcelero sintió mareos, regresó a su cuarto y se echó en su camastro en donde durmió hasta la mañana siguiente. Esto le pareció extraordinario y no quiso confiarse a sus parientes pero volvió a ocurrir casi diariamente con la peculiaridad de que no veía siempre las mismas flores ni las mismas hierbas aunque todas fueran olorosas y lo hicieran dormir.
        Hubo una ocasión especial que ciertamente no lo aterrorizó porque la esperaba. La celda se llenó de caléndulas, ramos de romero, de albahaca, de ranúnculos y jazmines. Mientras él admiraba y temía vio también un palpitar de mariposas en medio de las plantas y comprendió que sin duda había más insectos y quizá hasta pájaros. Lo de los pájaros no sería tan especial porque a su propia celda llegaban con frecuencia gorriones y palomas. No pudo más entonces y preguntó en voz alta.
        —¿Qué es todo esto?
        Oyó la voz del preso, perdido en un amasijo de hojas y de tallos.
        —Es el bosque—dijo la voz—. Ha venido conmigo. (Hernández 2008: 236-37)

        [Regarding his hair, the jailer thought he was hallucinating: he peeped to see him through the gate every morning and every night, when he offered him water and bread which [Roch] hardly ever touched; one morning it seemed to him that the prisoner’s beard had turned into a mattress made of moss and shamrock; his long hair was turned into long and flexible stems of green grass. He decided not to take this seriously, and he rubbed his eyes, but then, in the evening, for he could not wait until night, he spied on him again and he thought that man’s beard now looked like a bouquet of fragrant purple flowers, such as only grow in the middle of the forest; his hair became a bunch of lilies which were beginning to open. The fragrance was so strong, that the jailer felt dizzy; he went back to his room and threw himself on his cot, where he slept until the following morning. He thought all this was extraordinary and he did not want to tell any of it to his family, but the same thing happened almost every day with the peculiarity that he did not always see the same kind of flowers nor the same herbs, even though they were all odoriferous and made him drowsy.
        There was one special occasion which did not terrify him only because he expected it. The cell filled with calendulas, bunches of rosemary, basil, ranunculi and jasmine. While he admired and feared, he also saw butterflies beating their wings amidst all those plants, and he understood without a doubt that there were more insects there, and maybe even birds. The presence of birds would not be so special because in his own cell he was often visited by sparrows and doves. He could not help it any longer and he asked, “What is all this?”
        He heard the prisoner’s voice, lost below a pile of leaves and stems.
        “It is the forest,” a voice said. “It has come with me.”]

Hernández has conceived a saint who has kept within him the fragrant and invasive force of nature. He is a wild man, a wild saint who produces in others dreams and revelations, like a benevolence presence whose magnetic influence overpowers everything that surrounds him, even though he lives in absolute anonymity. Towards the end of the novel not a single person knows who he is.

The novel is a display of narrative and psychological dexterity, and just as in the other cases, it is very hard to do it justice. Roch’s family, with their virtues and their weaknesses, are a singular group comprising the mother, the father, the two elder sisters, Hélène and Dénise, daughters of the mother from her first marriage, and the two sons, François and Roch. Each lives their own particular journey, their destiny, which goes from a mundane sense of fulfillment as in the case of Dénise—whose marriage to a rich merchant is described in a way that is reminiscent of Van Eyck’s Arnolfini couple—to the artistic triumph of the father, Jean-Marie, who becomes famous for his magnificent plastic representations of all-devouring death.

Roch’s family belongs to the guild of artisans, tapestry embroiderers and miniature painters (not based on actual history). Descriptions of manual crafts, whether it be painting, embroidery, carpentry or others constitute one of Hernández most enjoyable tasks, and they reappear in these three as well as in her modern, urban works. Suffice it to look at her description of Jean-Marie’s workshop:

        La mesa de trabajo del miniaturista era cosa de verse. Manejaba siete colores y cada uno se hallaba en un moldecito de vidrio, en orden escrupuloso. El dorado estaba en un frasco. Aparte de eso y los pinceles nada había sobre la mesa más que la superficie lúcida, limpísima, abrillantada por el uso. Allí pintaba una sola hoja a la vez.
        Jean-Marie consultaba modelos, como todo el mundo, pero luego no volvía a mirarlos y así ocurría que sus miniaturas conservaban el sentido del original y al mismo tiempo iban poblándose del mundo cotidiano; los tapiceros reconocían sin esfuerzo sus muebles y por supuesto sus rostros y sus cuerpos.
        Cuando dibujaba tapices, en donde por principio está vedado lo mínimo pero cuya temática es más libre, se volcaba en ironías en un humor agresivo insospechable de su carácter suave.
        El ambiente del taller era distinto. Si el cuartito donde trabajaba parecía la celda de un asceta, ese taller derrochaba sensualidad; los montones de hilos de colores, abultados y suaves, tirados como cuerpos por el suelo, los pasos de las mujeres y sus voces le prestaban un calor especial, una alegría ruda, un gusto por la vida entre pagano y primitivo. (Hernández 2008: 23)

        [The working table of the miniaturist was remarkable. He handled seven colors and each one of them was kept in a tiny glass vessel in scrupulous order. The golden one was in a larger jar. Besides this and his brushes, there was nothing on the table except the limpid, pristine surface, made to shine by much use. He used to paint one leaf at a time.
        Jean-Marie consulted models, just like everyone else, but then he looked only once, and so it happened that his miniatures preserved the sense of the original, but at the same time they became populated by the everyday world; upholsterers could easily recognize the furniture he had painted, and of course his characteristic faces and bodies.
        When he drew tapestries, where not many small things are allowed, but the thematic of which is more open, he poured out ironies in an aggressive mood which was surprising under the light of his amiable character.
        The atmosphere of the workshop was different. If the small room in which he worked looked like a hermit’s cell, the workshop overflowed with sensuality; the piles of color thread, bulky and soft, strewn like bodies on the floor, the steps of the women and their voices lent the place a special warmth, a rough gaiety, a taste for life which seemed both pagan and primitive.]

There is a joy in the materiality of the objects with which the artist creates, a meticulousness in the description of the different professions which places us in touch with one of running threads in this novel: love of the craft and the ability to combine technical mastery with instinct. Such is Jean-Marie’s reflection:

…los seres humanos, además de ser complejos, eran artificiales. El hombre puede dejar de funcionar como un ser natural y sobrevive. Estas reflexiones lo ocupaban con frecuencia mientras trabajaba o hablaba de otras cosas y lo ponían en conflicto. Ciertamente, el hombre era un ser artificial pero no por ello dejaba de tener acceso a sus instintos. Lo formulaba de esta manera y de la contraria: el hombre es un ser instintivo que tiene acceso a la artificialidad o sea a sobrevivir aun cuando niegue sus instintos. Aquí la idea del equilibrio provocaba conflicto; pues Jean Marie era un hombre preocupado por la perfección pero no gustaba de abandonar su animalidad y pensaba que cuando el razonamiento o el espíritu no nos ayudan, debemos ser capaces de sentir la línea de conducta adecuada a nuestra naturaleza. (Hernández 2008: 114)

[Besides complex, human beings were artificial. Man can stop functioning as a natural being and he will survive. These reflections occupied his mind often while he worked or talked about other things, and he was ill at ease. Certainly, man was an artificial being, but he never ceased to have contact with his instincts. He formulated it thus, and the opposite too: man is an instinctive being who has access to artificiality, that is, he could survive even if he denied his instincts. The idea of balance made him restless, for Jean-Marie was a man who worried about perfection but who refused to abandon his animal qualities, and who thought that when either reason or the spirit are of no help, we must be able to feel what line of conduct is adequate to our nature.]

To conclude, this is a small sampler of Luisa Josefina Hernández’s medieval fiction: technical mastery to trace the exuberance of being, well tempered by artistic instinct. And I would suggest that in these final descriptions one discovers an entire philosophy of art and literary creation to which Hernández remains faithful.


  • Bayley, Harold, The Lost Language of Symbolism. Londres: Citadel Press, 1993.
  • Hernández, Luisa Josefina, Los trovadores. México: Joaquín Mortiz, 1973. Serie del volador.
  • -----. Apocalipsis cum figuris. Xalapa: Universidad Veracruzana, 1982.
  • -----. Roch: novela hagiográfica. Xalapa: Universidad Veracruzana, 2008.
  • Prado, Gloria and Becerra, Luzma, eds., Luisa Josefina Hernández. Entre iconos, enigmas y capricos. Navegaciones múltiples. México: UNAM et al., 2010.
  • Purce, Jill, The Mystic Spiral: Journey of the Soul. Londres: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

ANA ELENA GONZÁLEZ-TREVIÑO is a professor of English and comparative literature at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She specializes in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English literature; literary criticism; translation, and cultural studies. She is the author of Representación, un dilema de la crítica. De la cueva de Platón al desierto de lo real.