Soul singing with a Super Evo

THE LAW OF LOVE by Laura Esquivel trs Margaret Sayers Peden Chatto pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
Laura Esquivel's second novel is an epic romance set in 23rd-century Mexico City. While people are still struggling with the meaning of life, they have at least cracked the meaning of death: it is now understood that the evolution of souls into higher beings takes place through thousands of carefully balanced incarnations. Unfortunately, this process is continually upset by all kinds of human interference.

Azucena, an "astro-analyst", has been united with her twin soul, Rodrigo, only to have him disappear after just one night. To find him again, she not only has to search the galaxy but untangle her previous existences and his, as well as those of several other people. But Azucena has given up listening to her guardian angel and so has to battle alone with evil, here in the form of Isabel Gonzalez, the ruthless candidate for Planetary President. Politicians now face a search for sleaze that goes back into their last ten lives and Isabel's public image depends upon her fraudulent claim once to have been Mother Teresa. Earlier embodiments of both Rodrigo and Azucena were involved in her true past, which is why Isabel has had him disappeared to another planet, and tries her best to get rid of Azucena as well.

The story begins at the time of the conquistadores, with Cortes razing the Aztec city of Tenochtitlin, knowing that to leave any part of it visible would provoke a dangerous nostalgia. In this turbulent setting the past erupts into the present: 800 years later, a pyramid pokes up through Isabel's patio. The material world carries another threat, for objects can now be analysed to reveal events they have "witnessed".

Esquivel uses New Age motifs: angels, auras and karmic destiny. It is the world of ambient music, therapeutic regression (even pillow punching) and plants that talk. This is made bearable, and even interesting, by Esquivel's no-nonsense manner and her enthusiasm for the practical application of such ideas. An African violet wired up to a "Plantspeaker" provides valuable incriminating evidence; "aurographs" are used as identity passes. There are some fine comic moments, such as when Rodrigo and Azucena wake up to find a dead man lying in bed with them. She had forgotten to turn off her virtual television, and this is the news.

Just as we can recognise Esquivel's vision of a high-tech society dominated by superstition, her more serious observations are of issues that are already familiar. The psychological probing of prospective employees is now done by photographing their thoughts. The discovery of a store of frozen embryos leads to an illegal trade in spare bodies. Class differences persist, but are now determined by the point to which your soul has evolved. The ability to disintegrate and reintegrate, to exchange bodies, to erase or retrieve memories, add up to a flimsy sense of identity, further undermined by the pervasiveness of virtual imagery.

Azucena is a privileged "Super Evo", but her search for Rodrigo becomes something of a social education. She discovers backstreet life and travels to a Primeval planet on the spacecraft equivalent of the Mexican bus, complete with chickens. She befriends Cuquita, the supervisor of her apartment block, who proves to be something of a electronics whizz, having built a "cybernetic ouija" from odds and ends including a fax machine, a tortilla platter and a party clacker.

Esquivel's bestselling novel Like Water for Chocolate, whether badly written or just bumpily translated, was a strikingly prim piece of magic realism in which even the food failed to excite. It was billed as "A Novel in Monthly Instalments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies"; this disingenuous charm led to astonishing international success. The Law of Love, tagged as "A Novel with Music", is another proposition altogether. It comes not only with a CD of Puccini arias and Mexican canzones to be played at specified moments but also several sections of illustrations by Miguelanxo Prado, "Spain's premier graphic novel artist". These add to the fun of a book that is enough of an extrava- ganza in itself, a camped-up metaphysical burlesque in the midst of which Esquivel does some passionate straight-talking.