Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand: A Novel of Adam and Eve
By Gioconda Belli. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden Harper, US$23.99 210 pp.

Reviewed by Susan Salter Reynolds

The creation story is the best improv exercise ever invented. Creation and destruction, self and no-self, story and history, fiction and nonfiction chase themselves in endless circles. The creation story is the Mobius strip, the double helix, the pattern language of art.

For an artist to take it on, she must feel that she is really ready to take it on. It is an act of calligraphy – too much ego and the mirror that is the story cracks, the pool ripples. Narcissus remains deluded. Told with pure intent, imagination and clarity, the story is generous, capacious. The story becomes The Story.

So you will be glad to hear that Gioconda Belli, who is not a restrained sort of writer, keeps her creation story simple. First, she peels off the old layers of morality – her creation story is hardly a cautionary tale. Second, good and evil, if they exist at all, are two sides of the same state of being. The lovers, who try to figure out who this “Other” is and why he punished them so harshly, even wonder whether the serpent is God’s Eve, if the serpent was taken from the Other, just as Eve was from Adam.

This is important, for if there is a new evolved religion, surely it must embrace the possibility that we are pure at heart, that we do the best we can. To Belli’s Adam and Eve, things that are good feel good; things that are bad feel bad. Belli’s Eve sincerely believes that God wouldn’t have put the tree or the fruit or the knowledge of good and evil in their path unless he had wanted them to partake.

Eve has a vision, before she eats the fruit, of history unfolding: “She watched herself biting into the fig, and then, evolving from that seemingly irrelevant incident, came a gigantic spiral of ephemeral and transparent men and women who multiplied and spread across magnificent landscapes, their faces alight with a myriad of expressions, their skins reflecting shades from the gleam of wet tree trunks to the pale petals of the rhododendron.”

Eve tells a terrified Adam: “I will not die. I know. He wants me to do it. That is why he made me free.”

Certainly in the beginning of Belli’s tale, Adam seems a little numb. He just wants things to stay the same. He spends hours teaching his dog, Cain, to obey. For Adam, the constant gaze of the Other is almost maternal; to live without it would be to cease to exist. He is so mortified when they are first cast out that he tries, with Eve, to kill himself by plunging off a cliff.

The casting out is perhaps the most creative part of Belli’s story, for it is then that instinct, will and parturition all take place. As part of God’s punishment, Adam and Eve experience pain, hunger, separation from the animals and the terrifying certainty of time – days and nights, life and death.

Poor Adam must step up and confront the issue of hunger. Still the keeper of their flagging morality, he prevents Eve from eating fruit. He thinks it will displease God. He thinks they still have a prayer of readmittance to the garden. This infuriates Eve. Because Adam was cruel, he had forced her “to watch as he buried the fruit … he had decided for both of them. He had acted as if her words had no weight, no sound, as if he didn’t hear them. … He was aware that he hadn’t listened to her. Listening to her made him weak, muddled his intentions.”

But it is Adam who suffers the indignity and hard labor of providing food. It is Adam who brings home the first dead animal to assuage their hunger. Eve is disgusted; at Eve’s insistence, they turn to the sea for their meat. Still, in their division of labor, it is Adam who worries most and misses the days when he did not have to spend every waking moment keeping his family safe from hunger and cold.

Eve gets pregnant, and it is the serpent who is most helpful, telling Eve what to do and how to feed her newborn twins. God’s silence is, by contrast, oppressive. Knowledge, the serpent reminds the new parents, is particularly useful when you have to survive. Adam, periodically, blames Eve for listening to the evil serpent. “Evil, Good, all the things there are, and will be,” the serpent tells Eve, “originate right here: in you, in your children, in the generations to come: Knowledge and freedom are the gifts that you, Eve, were the first to have and that your descendants will need to learn for themselves.”

Eve gives birth to two sets of twins, Cain and Luluwa, and Abel and Aklia. Luluwa’s beauty is a source of disturbance. In Belli’s telling, Cain and Abel fight over Luluwa; Adam, ever the keeper of morality, has insisted that Cain and Luluwa will not be husband and wife because they came from the womb together (Abel and Aklia were born later). When Cain murders Abel, the family experiences a banishment even more painful than the original expulsion. Aklia becomes silent and eventually retreats into the trees with the monkeys. Eve somehow understands that this return to a pure animal nature will be the salvation of the species.

Belli’s God is a forgetful, capricious God whose only gift is creation. Once God has set things in motion, he pretty much exits stage left. Eve’s powers of creation – giving birth but also having the power to make art (she is left in the cave, dreaming and drawing most days while Adam is out providing) – come the closest to the existence of God: “Everything that was hidden within her came out to keep her company.” As for the garden, it is a dim and distant memory. Eve envisions them, “crude beings making their way, overcoming obstacle after obstacle,” carrying “the landscape engraved in their memories, and attempting to return to the pale splendor of the Garden.”

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