The Underdogs – Mariano Azuela (tr. Sergio Waisman)

Underdogs

“I’m telling you that’s no animal. Listen to how Palomo is barking…That must be a man.”

So opens the novel ‘The Underdogs’, my second foray into the literature of the Mexican revolution (1910-1920). Change is imminent, there is danger lurking, the dog is sending a warning. Augustín Yañez’s ‘The Edge of the Storm’, which I looked at earlier in the week, also opened with a dog this time it was howling not barking.

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.

In ‘The Underdogs’ the dog is called Palomo, Spanish for a kind of dove or pigeon, a symbol of peace? In ’The Edge of the Storm’ he is Orión, godfather of hunting in the underworld. In both novels the dog is killed, peace and hunting destroyed by the future.

Although very different novels in style, narrative, even the timing (‘The Edge of the Storm’ being mainly pre-revolution and ‘The Underdogs’ being solely set during the revolution), the opening paragraphs both warn the reader, there is uneasiness out there.

Whilst Augustín Yañez’s novel addresses the conditions of “oppression” prior to the revolution, ‘The Underdogs’ is set firmly within the revolution itself. As the translator’s ‘Introduction’ points out, part of the route that the revolutionaries take “in the course of the novel parallels that of another leader of a Villista revolutionary band: Julián Medina…The relevance here is that Mariano Azuela  joined Medina’s group and served as its medical officer during almost exactly the same period covered in the novel.” Here we have a novel that draws directly on the author’s own experiences during the many events we read in the text.

‘The Underdogs’ is a novel heavy in dialogue, the author even explaining this melting pot of jumbled words;

They constantly interrupt each other, seizing the words from each other’s mouths. And while they recount their adventures with macho fervor, women with olive-colored skin, bright eyes, and ivory teeth – with revolvers at their waists, cartridge belts across their chests, and large palm-leaf sombreros on their heads – roam from one group to the other like street dogs.

This short novel primarily covers the fates of two protagonists, Demetrio Macías, the leader of a band of disaffected peasants that become a feared revolutionary fighting force, and Luis Cervantes, a city aristocrat, or curro, whose disgust with the injustice of his country’s society has led him to embrace the growing Mexican revolution. Cervantes, a well-read medical student, attempts to give the illiterate Macías an education in political idealism, and for a time they appear to share a vision of a new and better Mexico. (Partially lifted from the Penguin Classic’s website).

Although Cervantes could be a thinly veiled disguise of the author himself, Mariano Azuela, and Macías the Odysseus/Ulysses leader this is less a novel of characters and more a story of societal changes, the collapse of structures and beliefs:

“God bless you! God help you and lead you along the road! Today you are heading out. Tomorrow, we’ll run too, running from the draft, chased by those damned government criminals who have declared a war to the death on all us poor people. You know that they steal our pigs, our chickens, and even the little bit of corn that we have to eat. You know that they burn our houses and take our women. And then, whenever they track you down, right there and then they finish you off as if you was a rotten dog.”

(SPOLIERS)

A novel broken into three parts, the first an idealistic propagandist portrayal of the rebels:

“Esteemed leader,” Cervantes continued, “ever since we met, you and I have gotten along very well, and I have grown to care for you more and more as I have come to know how valuable you are to the revolution. Allow me now to be entirely frank, I believe that you do not yet understand your true, your high, your most noble mission. You are a modest man, without any ambition. You have not yet opened your eyes and seen the very important role that you are to play in this revolution. You are not really out here just because of the cacique don Mónico. You have risen up against the cacique system itself, the system that is devastating the entire nation. We are constitutive pieces of a great social movement that will lead to the exaltation of our motherland. We are instruments of destiny for the revindication of the sacred rights of the people. We are not fighting in order to defeat one miserable murderer. We are fighting a fight against tyranny itself. And that is what it means to fight for one’s principles, to have ideals. That is what Villa, Natera, and Carranza are fighting for. And that is what we are fighting for.”

In the second part the revolutionaries descend into chaos, replicating the same behaviours of the despised Federales, stealing pigs, chickens and what little corn the peasants have, burning houses and taking the women. As disenchantment creeps in:

“I imagined a flowering prairie at the end of the road…and instead found myself in a swamp. My friend: there are events and men out here who are nothing but pure bile. And that bile drips on one’s soul one drop at a time, until everything becomes soured, poisoned. Enthusiasm, dreams, ideals, joy…nothing! Before long none of that is left. Either one turns into a bandit just like them, or one disappears from the scene, hiding behind the walls of an impenetrable and fierce selfishness.”

The men ogle and treat girls of twelve and fourteen as chattels, destroy homes, burn peasants’ houses to the ground, steal their corn and beat them if they complain. The ideals of the revolution have disappeared. The third, and final, part opens with a letter from Luis Cervantes, from El Paso in Texas, he’s abandoned a cause he could no longer morally support.

(SPOLIERS END)

The book moves through a range of historical arguments defending, or condemning, the revolution. From Aztecs, to Spanish colonialism to the revolution:

The landscape clears, the sun peeks out from behind a scarlet girdle over the diaphanous sky.
gradually the cordilleras emerge like variegated monsters with sharply angled vertebrae: hills like the heads of colossal Aztec idols – with giant faces, grimacing frightfully and grotesquely – which alternately make one smile or leave one with a vague sense of terror, something akin to a mysterious foreboding.

As the translator, Sergio Waisman, points out in his wonderful ‘Introduction’ “the novel not only has a title that refers to the economic and social condition of its main characters, it also develops a vertical (up/down) metaphor throughout the text that repeatedly plays off the title.” There are numerous examples of the vertical (up/down) metaphor in play throughout:

She walked around a gigantic eroded boulder and ran suddenly into Luis Cervantes perched atop a large stone, where he was sitting with his hat off and his legs dangling down.

Camilla looked up at the blue sky, trying to hide her eyes from him. Up above, a dry leaf broke from a treetop and drifted slowly down, falling at her feet like a small, dead butterfly. She bent over and grabbed it gently.

Generally, the women are “down”, and the men are “up” the Federales are “Down” and the rebels are “up”. When the rebels get down it is to kiss the ground “Juchipila, crib of the revolution of 1910, blessed land, land watered with the blood of martyrs, with the blood of dreamers…of the only good men!”

This is a newer translation from Penguin Classics, by Borges scholar and professor of Spanish at the George Washington University, Sergio Waisman, where he retains certain Spanish words, but translates nicknames, adding a different layer to their characters. There is a comprehensive set of notes relating to events, untranslated words etc. adding to the reader’s understanding of events and the literary style. With a short ‘Foreword’ by Carlos Fuentes, there is also context about the Mexican revolution together with an explanation of “critical independence” in Mexico, and a short history of Mariano Azuela. The translator also suggests further reading of the sub-genre of revolution novels, “Martín Luis Guzman’s 1928 El águila y la serpiente [The Eagle and the Serpent] and Nellie Campobello’s 1931 Cartucho [Cartucho].”

The Nellie Campobello novel has been added to my Mexican revolution literature reading pile, and I may try to source the Martín Luis Guzman title (although a cursory glance shows it to be quite expensive).

In the last two novels I’ve read, I’ve covered the lead up to the revolution and the revolution itself, now time to read a post revolution story, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo.

4 thoughts on “The Underdogs – Mariano Azuela (tr. Sergio Waisman)

  1. Pingback: Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez (two contrasting forewords) | Messenger's Booker (and more)

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

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s