This book consists of five semi-linked novellas. I say semi-linked because you can certainly read them individually and the connections between each are subtle. However, when read together, they flow and they really do make the best sense as a whole. There is a sense of moving through time, a sense of connection through history and place. Mexico is at the heart of each story and in each story is placed an orange tree, each with its own meaning and significance.
The stories are set a little bit in a chronological order (it’s hard to pinpoint the final story The Two Americas) and so we begin with Cortes and the arrival of Spain in Mexico. Reading the first two stories, both of which heavily reference Cortes, had me realizing how little I know about Mexico’s history, particularly the history before the Spanish arrived there. Fuentes does a powerful job throughout each story of showcasing a country invaded by others. There is a deep sense of Mexico as a land with its own people and history before Cortes shows up. Fuentes shows the ruthlessness of the conqueror as well as the far-reaching effects of colonization. (This is especially apparent when the stories are read as one book, the stories set in more recent times being read in light of the stories of the colonizers.)
Fuentes leans heavily into the physical details. Blood, guts, the body. While this brings his writing alive and often keeps the reader focused on the true horrors of what is occurring, it did make certain sections difficult to read. There is also a lot of focus on the female body in a way that frequently felt more like objectification than characterization to me. The characters here are largely male and the women who are here are side characters. They’re important but they’re not the primary focus. In Apollo and the Whores, Fuentes does deliberately make a switch partway through the story so that we begin to see the seven women in it as individuals rather than caricatures or objects but there remains a heavy focus on their bodies and their sexual behaviour.
Although I’d never read him before, Fuentes is a major name in Mexican literature and I can see why. His writing is thoughtful and filled with imagery and his story-telling is compelling. At this point in time, he read to me very much as a male writer of the 20th century with a very male-centric perspective but I greatly appreciated the way The Orange Tree made me think about colonization and Mexican history in a way I hadn’t considered before.