The Edge of the Storm – Augustín Yañez (tr. Ethel Brinton)

EdgeStormThe impact of Mexico’s revolution (1910-20), the last of the great peasant revolts and the first major revolution of the twentieth century was felt on much of the literary production of the country throughout the first two-thirds of the last century. Novels such as Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs (1915), Augustín Yañez’s At the Edge of the Storm (1947), more indirectly in, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo (1955), Rosario Casetllanos’s Balun Canán (1957), Carlos Fuentes’s The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), Elena Garro’s Recollections of Things to Come (1963), Fernando del Paso’s José Trigo (1966), and Elena Poniatowska’s foundational testimonial novel Here’s to You, Jesua (1967), reflect on this central event in the country’s history. Even critical and philosophical works, such as Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), can be read as attempts at coming to grips with the revolution and the political system it set in place. The centrality of the revolution is not surprising.
–  ‘The Contemporary Spanish-American Novel: Bola
ño and After’ Edited by Will H. Corral, Juan E De Castro and Nicholas Birns

This is the opening paragraph for the section dedicated to Mexican literature in the text-book style reference work ‘The Contemporary Spanish-American Novel’. When deciding to dedicate a few months to delve deeper into Mexican literature I chose to begin with the revolution, and that paragraph alone gives plenty of pointers for works to visit.

Before the novel begins Augustín Yañez explains:

The Spanish title of this book, Al Filo del Agua, is a farmer’s phrase for the beginning of the rainy season and is often used figuratively to mean the imminence or beginning of an event.
Those who wish to do so may call the book
In a Village of the Archdiocese, The Old Order, or something of the sort. Its pages tell no preconceived story; it deals with lives – “marbles,” one of the characters calls them – which roll round, which are allowed to roll round in a narrow stretch of time and space, in a village, any village, of the Archdiocese of Guadalajara.

Here is a novel that reflects “on this central event in the country’s history” by presenting the eighteen odd months prior to the revolution, we are on the edge of the storm.

‘The Edge of the Storm’ opens with an “Overture” a snapshot of the town and a generalisation of the folk that live there;

There are no fiestas in the village, only the daily dance of myriads of sunbeams; the only music is the sound of the bells that toll the passing of the dead, or the tuneless, plaintive melodies of religious chants that express the latent sense of oppression. Never any parties. Dancing is held in horror…Not even to be thought of…never, never. Families visit each other only at times of bereavement or illness, or possibly to welcome home a long-absent member.

We are drawn into a deeply religious world, where Spanish colonial Catholicism drips from every page, a world Octavio Paz presented in detail in ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’, but also a world where celebration, fiestas, is absent, a world of oppression. This is “a gloomy village, to lacking in amenities and amusements; it was worse than a convent, it was a graveyard.” And the people who populate this village of oppression?

Long before daybreak, before four o’clock, often at three, even as early as two, the parish priest Don Dionisio María Martínez is awake, his sleep routed by thronging visions of his parishioners. His waking thoughts embrace them all: the fallen, struggling on the threshold of sleep, their eyes full of burning sand; those, living in sin, and dead to remorse, who sleep the sleep of the foolish virgins; those whose dreams are of lust; those who will wake to their old anxieties, temptations, and problems; those over whose heads, over whose souls, hangs the sword of Damocles; chronic invalids, victims of accidents, and those who have no one to look after them; those who have just died, and souls no longer remembered in anyone’s prayers; men who walk about with guns and evil hearts; the unforgiving, keeping fresh the memories of old wrongs; the unhappily married; widows, old maids, young girls, children; this one, that one; young men scheming to cheat the watchful eyes on the riverbanks, and old men obsessed with carnal thoughts; hardened sinners; the strong who resist the wiles of the Devil and the weak who this very day will succumb; the rich man who will commit injustice; the poor who will be ill-treated; the debtor who will be hounded into paying his debts; those who will set bad examples and those who will follow them; those starting out on long journeys or beginning dangerous tasks; those condemned to suffer; half-hearted believers, the troublesome, the wayward.

A difficult novel, as there are many characters and all of these ““marbles,” one of the characters calls them” bump into each other, cross paths, take tangents and move into unexpected spheres.

After the “Overture” the novel opens with an ominous warning, change is coming;

After Don Timoteo Limón had his customary supper that night, neither more nor less than usual, he was already back in his room and telling his beads at the first stroke of curfew. He made his intercession for the most neglected soul in Purgatory or the one that stood most in need of prayer. On reaching the third mystery he was almost distracted by the howls of Orión, the dog he had had for so long, but, with an effort, he controlled his wandering thoughts, managed to ignore the ominous note in the barking, and kept on with his pious exercise.

We then visit a peasant farmer who cannot afford an operation for his dying wife, a young girl who is tempted by the Devil (she has a letter from an admirer) and then we learn of Retreat House, the place for a strict seven day silent retreat so the villagers can reflect on their sins, Marta and María, two orphaned sisters who live with Father Martinez, the bell ringer, Veronica who turns all men’s heads, Old Lucas Macías who can remember everything from the past even events before his birth, or women who can foresee other’s deaths. A world populated by incendiary characters.

The narrative technique reminded me of Dostoyevsky’s use of concealment, we are involved in a journey that is being told retrospectively, the author knows the outcomes, however he chooses to drip feed information to keep us involved. Many times, there are references to somebody’s plans ending in disaster, and as the book is written chronologically we need to read on to find out what that disaster will be.

The marbles were rolling towards their final destiny, some slowly, some swiftly. Some of them hesitated at a cross-slot, and then were pushed violently forward. Just like the games at the Fair, played on painted boards, where the paths are marked out by nails. The ball was rolling! Things were on the move!

There are multiple flagellations, rantings to Gods, prayers that descend into madness, slowly the influence from outside the village drip feeds change, there are fashions beyond the humble black, gaslights in the village square, students and visitors from cities and even musicians (who arrive in December 1909);

How many wounds were re-opened by the playing and singing of the musicians! Their melodies, never heard before – of lover, dreams, tender melancholy, secret joys, emotions long unexpressed – kept people awake and revealed a world, a new language, to adolescents on that night between the eight and ninth of December, a world and language felt to be very near but inaccessible, full of celestial and, at the same time, human charm; a world and a language of daily desires, hitherto hidden, but now magnificently illumined by harmonies, of instruments and voices, which sent words of love and sadness winging forth, common words but transfigured like the dingy rockets that suddenly burst into color and brilliance and trace briefly, in flight, ineffable thoughts. It was a world and a language of desire loosed so freely for the first time in that village. The vibrant cries, which could suddenly die to trembling murmurs in the surrounding solitude, took old men and adolescents by surprise, held them awake in an enchantment new to their ears, so different from the church music to which they were accustomed. Their wakefulness was pieced by darts of melody that passed through the thickest walls, reached the heart and instilled their sweet poison – metallic darts of the ’cello, brittle darts of the violins striking against the roofs, fragile airy darts of flutes, moving upwards towards the crosses to fall on the heart, piercing darts of words sung by tenors, baritones, basses. The village was as if all ears, to miss no single note that sonorous night.

A novel of transition, where the revolution only occurs very very late in the piece, not only a revolution of the peasants but a revolution against the church, the ingrained way of life. A complex study of the era and conditions in the early 1900’s with sufficient character involvement to keep you invested, even if populated with many marbles. A worthwhile place to start with my Mexican revolution reading, and the religious and fiesta cultural references in Octavio Paz’s work added yet another layer to this complex, if forgotten, novel.

My edition I purchased second hand, as part of the University of Texas Press “Pan-American Series” (1969 third printing), the book is still available through the University Press (their print on demand series). Each chapter contains a great illustration by Julio Prieto example below

StormIll

8 thoughts on “The Edge of the Storm – Augustín Yañez (tr. Ethel Brinton)

  1. I had never heard of this novel. Quite clearly., someday I need to read Paz and then read every dang thing he recommends. And also visit Mexico, etc., etc. Fascinating.

    You’ve got Underdogs coming up? It will be interesting to see how you compare and contrast.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for stopping by, I’m nearly finished ‘The Underdogs’ & they are very different books, not just in time, setting, plot but also in style. However I’ve picked up on some shared themes, more on that soon!!

      Like

  2. Pingback: The Underdogs – Mariano Azuela (tr. Sergio Waisman) | Messenger's Booker (and more)

  3. Pingback: Pedro Páramo – Juan Rulfo (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden) | Messenger's Booker (and more)

  4. Pingback: The Labyrinth of Solitude – Ocatvio Paz (various translators) | Messenger's Booker (and more)

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