A stray dog bites the left ankle of 12-year-old Sierva Maria de Todos los Angeles. She and her peculiar parents live in a country near the Caribbean Sea during colonial times. Her father belongs to the class of decaying nobility. He is a weak man with poor judgment. Her scheming mother is a nymphomaniac who abuses cacao tablets and fermented honey. Sierva Maria is more or less raised by the family's slaves whose culture she assimilates. The youngster has luxuriant copper-colored hair and a penchant for lying--"she wouldn't tell the truth even by mistake" according to her mother. (p. 16)

Before long, the dog dies of rabies. When Sierva Maria begins exhibiting bizarre behavior, no one is quite sure of the cause even though everyone seems to have his or her own theory. Is the girl displaying signs of rabies? Is she possessed by a demon? The physician Abrenuncio doubts either diagnosis. The powerful Bishop believes the girl may require an exorcism. Perhaps Sierva Maria is simply eccentric or maybe even crazy. Ninety-three days after being bitten by the dog, she is locked in a cell in the Convent of Santa Clara.

The Bishop appoints his protégé, 36-year-old Father Cayetano Delaura, to investigate the matter. The priest is immediately infatuated with the girl. When the Bishop learns of Cayetano Delaura's love for Sierva Maria and his unacceptable actions, the priest is disciplined and then relegated to caring for lepers at the hospital. The Bishop next takes matters into his own hands by performing the rite of exorcism on Sierva Maria. After five sessions, she is found in bed "dead of love." (p. 147)


Ruin is rampant in this story. Many lives are wasted. Others are destroyed. If decay is inevitable, then what of any value can be salvaged or preserved? The novel affirms both the power and the necessity of love but questions our ability to handle the emotion. It can save us, transform us, annihilate us, or just drive us crazy.

The characters are fascinating and none more so than the fictional physician, Abrenuncio, who is quirky and philosophical. Although he specializes in foretelling the time his patients will die, it is rumored that he once resurrected a dead man. Abrenuncio sometimes plays a harp to sedate his patients. This doctor has even invented a pill that purportedly extends human life but has the side effect of transient mental derangement. Is it any wonder then that he is the only person who has risked swallowing it? He astutely points out that "No medicine cures what happiness cannot." (p. 33)

The novel requires readers to consider the possibility that the distinction between fantasy and reality is hazy. How can we know the truth? How do we account for what we cannot explain? Apparently it all depends on perspective. The novel acknowledges that some people will find answers in science and some people will find them in religion. Others will merely admit to the uncertainty of life.


Translated by Edith Grossman


Alfred A. Knopf

Place Published

New York



Page Count