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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Heavens on Earth

Carmen Boullosa

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To purchase Heavens on Earth

Title: Heavens on Earth
Author: Carmen Boullosa
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 395 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Heavens on Earth - US
Cielos de la tierra - US
Heavens on Earth - UK
Heavens on Earth - Canada
Heavens on Earth - India
Cielos de la tierra - España
  • Spanish title: Cielos de la tierra
  • Translated and with a Note by Shelby Vincent

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Our Assessment:

B : creative take, nicely woven together

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 23/10/2017 .
World Lit. Today . 5-6/2018 Felix Haas

  From the Reviews:
  • "Boullosa’s message about how individuals must inculcate the past amid the indifference of the present comes through, making for a thought-provoking, if sometimes trying, novel." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Neither Learo’s repetitious outsider accounts of his fellow men nor Hernando’s somewhat scattered memories keep the promise of Boullosa’s ambitious structure and form. In a good novel, the author disappears behind her story. In Heavens on Earth, the framing too often reveals itself beneath the novel’s thin layer of plot." - Felix Haas, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Heavens on Earth is a creatively-presented story, wrapping one narrative in another, the novel's three layers each transformative and supplemental, adding to the story. The starting point is a late sixteenth century autobiographical account, written in Latin by seventy-one-year-old Hernando de Rivas, who as a young Aztec boy had been installed at a Franciscan institution and given a religious upbringing. The manuscript, which he hid in a specially designed chair, was only discovered in the near-present-day, when a researcher at the Museum of the Institute of Anthropology in Mexico City, forty year-old Estela Ruiz came across it and felt compelled to translate it into Spanish (though the original words she uses are: "to re-write it"). Finally, her version -- the original lost by then -- is translated by a Lear (also known as Cordelia and 24 -- but she begins: "Today my name is Lear", and prefers that loaded name for the duration of the account), in a distant, post-apocalyptic future.
       Boullosa layers Hernando's account within Estela's, and that within Lear's. Each character explains why they are writing, or re-writing, this account, but the bulk of the book then moves mostly back and forth between Hernando's original text and Lear's present- (far in the future) day account of translating it, and of life in her future.
       Hernando and Lear live in strange new worlds, in times of great upheaval; Estela's are not as obvious -- though with the hindsight Lear can offer (the complete devastation of the world has taken place) it's just that it lies ahead for her, while Hernando and Lear are in the midst of theirs.
       "Everyone is dead. Everything has disappeared", Hernando remembers his beloved mother sobbing, as the Spanish invasion completely overturns the long familiar world order in his native land. The bright young boy is taken into this new culture -- at the cost also of eventually being cut off from the last close tie to the old, his mother -- but the upheavals of the times continue to shake around him, and affect the course of his life as well.
       Lear lives in a post-apocalyptic utopia, of sorts, in a safe haven called L'Atlàntide: "suspended in the upper atmosphere of the earth, far enough away to avoid the radiation, the ruins and destruction". This world and society, too, however, are undergoing a major transformation. Conversation has already been banned -- though it lingers on in parts -- and over the course of her account language itself is abolished (by decree). In horror, Lear then sees the wordless collapse of what remained of civilization, with others literally regressing -- and that not only to a primal state.
       Early on Lear explains:

So why books ? I work with books because they survive across time.
       Each of the characters feels similarly. Hernando doesn't expect his account to be discovered for many years, reinforcing his idea of writing very much for the future, while Estela is drawn to this text in particular as a connection to the past (while also translating it for herself, rather than in her institutional role). Lear's world seems in many ways (good and bad) to be near-transcendent, and yet the substantiality of the book (physical and otherwise) appeals to him, a counterweight to what he sees being lost around him -- especially once words themselves are abandoned. Lear, too, is doing this for himself (and posterity); indeed, like Hernando's original writing, Lear's project is unacceptable in the world he lives in. This book gives him hope: "We'll save language and the memory of man" he can still say optimistically at the end of his account.
       The original text(s) also undergo transformations, in Estela's and then Lear's translations, as Heavens on Earth is also a book about translation, in all its senses. Estela, too, spoke of 're-writing' the text, and as Lear notes about Hernando:
I've obliterated him with my liberal translation, I've erased his characteristics by imposing my own intentions and ideas upon him, my expectations of what he should say, what he should have said. Or if he did say them, have I lost track of what is his and what is not ?
       This, too is a part of, and role, for history: we adapt it to our own worlds and situations. Hernando's text is meaningful in different ways to each of its authors -- down to its word-units, transformed anew each time, as each time also works in a different language.
       The stories that unfold -- mainly Hernando's life story, alternating with Lear's account of life in her world, and society's bizarre wordless collapse -- are quite engaging as well. Boullosa offers both a rich historical picture, of life in sixteenth century Mexico, as well as a vividly imagined distant future, as Heavens on Earth is also a work of world-imagining science fiction -- with the limited description of the near-present-day apocalypse out of which Lear's world arose a dark cloud cleverly left looming over the story. Indeed, the connections, between past, present, and imagined future, and the presentation of the materials show how genres ('science fiction', 'historical fiction', realism) can be utilized in conjunction with each other to good effect.
       Contrasting its different worlds -- specifically, a just-conquered Mexico and a fantastical post-apocalyptic future (though with a bit of present-day Mexican grounding as well) -- Heavens on Earth shows there are, in fact, tremendous connections in these worlds apart, specifically in the word-foundations of humanity and society. At times, the novel can seem too obvious in its message, but it still impresses in its presentation and stories.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 December 2017

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Heavens on Earth: Reviews: Carmen Boullosa: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Mexican author Carmen Boullosa was born in 1954.

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© 2017-2018 the complete review

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