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A servant's tale.

Nadine Gordimer has described black South African playwrights as being concerned not with the development of actions but with the representation of conditions. In her latest novel, A Servant's Tale, Paula Fox, who is one of our most intelligent (and least appreciated) contemporary novelists, clearly has represented conditions. Fox's earlier novel The Widow's Children, about several generations of Cuban-born spaniards in America, reverberates with much more than family history, though it is also marvelously specific as to time, place and character. In A Servant's Tale, the conditions represented are those in the life of a Hispanic woman named Luisa. Born and raised on a small island in the Caribbean, she emigrates with her parents to New York City in 1936 and grows up to spend the rest of her life cleaning other people's rooms.

Luisa tells her own story, which begins with her increasing awareness of the scandal of her illegitimate birth in Malagita, a tiny village employed down to the last soul on the coffee plantation of the de la Cueva family. Her mother, a kitchen maid in the de la Cuevas' vivienda, is in time-honored fashion seduced by the son of the house, Orlando. Oddly, their liaison lasts: Orlando refuses to marry the heiress of a neighboring plantation, and his mother cuts him out of the family fortune. Eventually Luisa's parents marry, but their union is a bitter one. He is violently contemptuous of his wife, who humbly continues to work at the big house in order to support him and their child.

Despite this domestic hell, Luisa's memories are precious to her. Small and poor and decaying, Malagita yet contains all the aspirations as well as the fears of its inhabitants. Their imaginations do not stray. It is Luisa's father who threatens this world, not because he is brutal and a wastrel but because he is educated and knows something of a world beyond. When revolution is imminent, Luisa and her family emigrate, exchanging their cabin for a damp basement in the barrio of upper Broadway. And so Luisa comes of age in isolation, her community shrunk to her poor parents and a series of even poorer boarders, all seeking refuge from hard times and the confusion of the city.

From this point on, Luisa's tale is a lament:

My work, done and every day undone--was the dull, mechanical movement of a treadle. I dreamed of another life. I wondered if I had become the ghost of the plantation, if the people of the village, walking along the dirt roads at twilight, gazing up at the slowly darkening sky, would, sensing my presence, shiver and retreat indoors. Yet it was the very monotony of my servant's life that freed me to return in my thoughts to Malagita.

After a brief marriage and divorce, she goes back to work in order to support herself and her son. Though she gains the good will of her employers, she has only one real friend, a black girl who becomes a lawyer and later goes south to work in the civil rights movement. But Luisa is not touched by her friend's ambition or her idealism, and a servant she remains. Fox refuses to allow her heroine a resolution to this strugglef nor does she permit the reader the luxury of empathy and catharsis. Luisa's voice, objective as it seems, also makes her opaque. Regarding her relationship with her first employer, Luisa writes (and in tone and judgment, the title notwithstanding, this book is written, not spoken), "I sensed I must relinquish nothing of my secret life." Fox, having established this need for her character, respects it. We know Louisa only indirectly--her oval face through someone's compliment, her stubbornness and Cinderella-like decency through her role as maid and mother. And if Fox is careful to diagram the historical conditions of her protagonist's world, she is also careful to communicate the peculiar quality of Luisa's social and political unawareness--less simple ignorance than a refusal to understand the complexities of an alien society.

With this novel as with an earlier one, The Western coast, Fox demonstrates an interesting attitude toward what fiction can and cannot impart about a particular life and its relation to history. Admittedly we can never know the full extent to which a person affects or is affected by public events. But the author implies that our perception of a given period can be altered by the respectful study of an individual. It is in this way that her work is didactic. One is reminded of Flaubert's use of history in L'Education Sentimentale as something to be reseen, rewoven through individual perspectives, and of such American writers as Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris and William Carlos Williams, who struggled to reinterpret the orthodoxies of American history through their tales of individual people.

In The Western Coast, Fox represents the Depression years through the eyes of the ignorant young loner, Annie Gianfala, who moves through the end of the 1930s and the war years like a female Virgil winding through the circles of hell. Annie and Luisa perform something of the same function, which is to create a historical context that allows the reader to see events from below, as it were--with an objectivity that derives from powerlessness. And yet the earlier character, Annie, is finally the more effective catalyst, perhaps because Fox tells her story in the third person rather than the first. Luisa's perceptions can render psychologically detailed portraits of her parents and her employers--charming, lying Mrs. Burgess, or the Millers, whose two demanding children "had their secret lives [too], refuges from the weight of that love that seemed to measure and record every breath they drew." But what we get to know of Luisa herself is more conventionalized and finally less interesting. "I sensed ... a shapeless lump of obduracy in myself," she writes. "But I could not lift it up into light." That diffident monotone, which Fox has purposefully chosen, insures that her servant will remain in shadow.
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Author:Birmelin, Blair T.
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 3, 1984
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