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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Miguel Aacute;ngel Asturias bases Mulata on a popular Guatemalan legend—that of a man who sells his wife to the devil in exchange for unlimited wealth. The novel begins with Celestino Yumí parading through the religious fairs of the countryside around Quiavicús with the zipper of his pants open, in compliance with a bargain he has struck with Tazol, the corn-husk devil. In this way, Yumí will cause women to commit sins by looking at his private parts and then compound those sins by their accepting Communion without going again to confession. Successful in luring the women, Yumí is next informed by Tazol that, to complete the bargain whereby Yumí will become wealthy beyond his dreams, he has to hand over his wife, Catalina Zabala, to Tazol. Yumí is hesitant at first, but the promise of riches, importance, and power proves too much, and he finally consents. Tazol takes possession of Catalina, or Niniloj, as Yumí calls her, and grants Yumí his fondest wishes—lands, crops, and money in abundance.

Once rich, Yumí discovers that what Tazol had told him is true: Everyone asks for and respects his opinion on anything and everything—as Yumí himself remarks, “Just because I’m rich, not because I know anything.” Yet Yumí finds that riches and power cannot compensate for the loss of his wife; he yearns for her love and takes to drinking and carousing. While at a religious festival with his friend Timoteo Teo Timoteo, he encounters the Mulata. Drunk and instantly overcome with lust for this ripe and haunting woman, Yumí marries her in a civil ceremony and carries her home. There, in their marriage bed, Yumí discovers that the Mulata, much to his chagrin and embarrassment, is bisexual and dangerous. As much animal as human, she dominates and torments him in such a way that Yumí finds it excrutiatingly terrifying to lie with her. He tries to undo the bargain with Tazol, and he succeeds in reacquiring Catalina, who has been turned into a dwarf by Tazol. Catalina comes to live with Yumí and his new wife, and the Mulata at first accepts her as a living doll with which to play but quickly tires of the idea and prefers to mistreat her. Yumí and Catalina hope to rid the household of the Mulata, and Catalina, in a clever ruse, with the help of the Mulata’s bear, lures the Mulata to the cave of the Grumpy Bird and seals her in, but the Mulata eats the bird and escapes, provoking in the process a cataclysmic volcanic eruption that destroys Quiavicús and all of Yumí’s wealth.

Now, even more destitute than before the bargain with Tazol, Yumí has no idea of what to do. Catalina, who in her dealings with Tazol and the Mulata has acquired a taste for witchcraft, convinces Yumí to journey with her to Tierrapaulita, the city where all those who wish to learn the black arts must go. Unable to traverse the devil’s nine turns, they turn back, then try again. This time, Catalina fastens to her chest a cross in Tazol’s image, fashioned of dry corn leaves, and the devil’s powers are neutralized. In this way, they make their way to Tierrapaulita with Tazol as protector, even though the devil himself fears entering Tierrapaulita.

Yumí and Catalina find Tierrapaulita such a fantastic and terrifying place that, despite their lust for the power that witchcraft will bring them, they decide to leave. Cashtoc, the Immense, the red earth demon of Indian myth, prevents them from leaving, employing other demons from Xibalba, the Mayan hell. Catalina gives birth to Tazolín (having been impregnated through the naval by Tazol) and is pronounced the great Giroma, the powerful mother witch. Taking vengeance on Yumí for his bargain with Tazol and his marriage to the Mulata, Catalina turns him into a dwarf, only to change her mind later, when, jealous of the attentions paid him by the dwarf Huasanga, she transforms him into a giant.

This act and Huasanga’s cries precipitate an earthquake during which Cashtoc calls his legions together and...

(The entire section is 1,282 words.)