When Cherie Elston, arts editor of Latin American literature ezine Palabras Errantes, suggested Gioconda Belli as my Nicaraguan author, I knew exactly which one of the writer’s novels I would choose. After all, it’s not every day you come across an award-winning reworking of the Genesis story following the lives of Adam and Eve through and after the Fall. Infinity in the Palm of her Hand it would be.
Inspired by a book of apocryphal versions of Bible stories she found in her father-in-law’s library, the book is Belli’s attempt to ‘imagine the first man and the first woman discovering themselves and discovering life around them, to wonder what they would feel, think and experience’. As such, it charts the coming to consciousness of Adam and Eve, their experience and loss of paradise and the struggles they endure adapting to mortality, parenthood and the realities of an imperfect world.
The rich subject matter provides Belli with some great descriptive possibilities. From the ‘cataclysms… distant darkness and intermittent eruptions’ the characters glimpse beyond the boundaries of the Garden of Eden to the complicated business of growing into and using a body for the very first time, the book is full of deft touches that show how thoroughly the author has inhabited her creation.
The dramatisation of some of the theological problems thrown up by the story of the Fall is particularly good. Positing a thoughtless, deist God, who dashes off his creations before getting bored and wandering off, Belli puts most of the meatiest points in the mouth of the female serpent Satan. A scathing critic of the Almighty’s obsession with his ‘futile exercise not entirely devoid of arrogance’, she at times even assumes the tone of the world-weary spouse whose partner persists in tinkering in the garden shed when there are better things to be doing:
‘Today he is resting. Eventually he will be bored. He will not know what to do, and again I will be the one who has to soothe him. That is how it has been through Eternity. Constellation after constellation. He conceives and then forgets his creations.’
Now and then, the chronology is a little wonky, with day and night coming into being after the Fall rather than on the fourth day of creation. This may be because Belli is working from an apocryphal text rather than from the Bible, but it does get the inner pedant ranting over the narrative now and then.
Similarly, there are several awkward compromises that risk breaking faith with the reader by bending the rules of the harsh ‘reality’ Adam and Eve are forced to endure post-Fall. Animal skins just happen to be lying around on rocks and fig trees spring up overnight to give them food, so that it sometimes feel as though Belli is as impatient as her characters with the rules of the new universe and anxious to wriggle around them to get on with the aspects of the story that really interest her.
Taken as whole, though, this ambitious and poetic book, which won the Biblioteca Breve and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz prizes in 2008, is an impressive exploration of one of the central stories threaded through the culture of much of the world. Belli takes a tale that has been worn and faded by time and familiarity and weaves it afresh in bright colours. She makes us see things differently. Few human creators could hope for more.
Infinity in the Palm of her Hand by Gioconda Belli, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden (Harper, 2010)