Sunday, December 19, 2010

Liza Bakewell's "Madre"

Liza Bakewell is a linguistic anthropologist at Brown University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Madre, friends have come for dinner to teach me, the author, about albures, a form of verbal basketball played in Mexico by men. On occasion women play, too, but those women have a certain reputation, unless, like me, they plead: “But I’m an Anthropologist!” I write in this chapter, Food Fight, that my dinner guests have come to teach me about sex in Mexico, because albures are a formalized, yet creative, way to talk and joke about sex, without ever mentioning the word sex. Page 99 begins:
So albures are composed of puns, and puns are a kind of bilingualism. One may be fluent in Spanish, but inside an albur, every word you thought you knew has another meaning, not listed in the dictionary. You can talk and talk and talk about sex and never mention vagina and penis because, well, how vulgar of you. People will hear you. You’ll be found out. They’ll look down on you. It’s low class to talk that way. But in an albur, no one will know what you are saying. Except those who know. And they are most likely your friends. Or Mexicans, anyway. Because Mexicans, that is Mexican men, who are worth their chili pepper are bilingual in that way.
Albures require double entendres, which then involve winners and losers, victors and vanquished, laughter and sometimes fist fights. Men in Mexico learn how to alburear when they are young boys, perfecting the craft in adolescence and adulthood. There is not a man in Spanish-speaking Mexico who does not know about albures. Page 99 continues:
“It happens inside a normal conversation.” [David said]

You either see it--I mean hear it--or you don’t. A tacit agreement to step into the looking glass for a minute or two with another person, using another language.

“…cucumbers, bananas, sweet potatoes, carrots, corn-on-the-cob, sausage,” Tony continues with his list. “These all mean penis.”

Forks, spoons and knives plunged into the huitlacoche egg rolls, black fungus oozed out into the mango, a viscous evening cloud into a pulpy sunset.
Ironically, however, page 99 and the chapter in which it finds itself are about a style of speaking that discourages any reference to one’s or another’s madre (mother), and Madre, the book, is about madre, the word. In this case, perhaps, page 99 does reveal the essence of the book (sex, men-talk), yet all in the form of an exception (sex, men-talk, without madre-isms). Page 99 goes on:
“There’s no methodology, per se,” David and Tony explained, “except albures must have rhythm and rhyme.”

And, synonyms and homonyms, prefixes and affixes, metaphors and metonyms, food and clothing, roots and branches, trunks and canopy.

“And speed.” David added.
Albures are revelatory, as exceptions often are, for in all the other chapters, the use of madre is predicated on a machismo that is complicated, the way a ball of yarn after the cat had it is complicated, and is, more often than not, hidden from view (well, from my view as a woman, anyway, taking place behind closed office doors, in bars where only men go, on the street after dark, although, the times they are a changin’ a bit and young women more and more use the madre-isms), not to mention deeply sequestered in histories and political geographies. Page 99 ends this way:
Be quick with your words and actions. Alburear, a game of wit like arm wrestling. A poetic entanglement. The Mexican tango.

And, then, a curved ball.

Because the albur is not just any sexual joke. It’s not like jokes you hear in Argentina or Colombia or Puerto Rico or Cuba. Or anywhere else in the world, because of course they are everywhere.
The machismo of the other chapters finds itself out in the open, more playful and jocular, here on page 99 and in the Food Fight chapter, generally. Well, out in the open, yes, but within the linguistic, tongue-twisting duels of the albur.

The rest of Madre, the book, focuses on the expressions with the word “madre” in them, and in Mexico in particular there are hundreds, almost all of them are profane, expressions that you wouldn’t use in public. Not if you know better, not if you have any madre in you. Qué padre, on the other hand, literally translates as “what a father,” meaning “that’s fabulous,” and you can use it anytime in public. Indeed it boosts you up, it adds authenticity to your voice, if you use it in Mexico. (If you use it in Chile, they’ll know you learned it in Mexico. Or that you are Mexican.) But none of padre’s success is true for madre. Take me vale madre. Literally it means, “it’s worth a mother,” figuratively, “it’s worthless”). That expression, along with all the other madres, just about, you don’t want to use in public. It would not be a good idea if you are trying to appear cultured, educated, knowledgeable of the culture, the place, the linguistic rules. No. No. No.
Learn more about the book and author at Liza Bakewell's website.

--Marshal Zeringue