The 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.
– ‘The Contemporary Spanish-American Novel: Bolaño and After’ Edited by Will H. Corral, Juan E De Castro and Nicholas Birns
The Mexican Revolution, a field rich with characters, narrative, metaphors, and stories. Not only a political turning point but a pivot in Mexican literature’s history. Whilst there are numerous titles using the Revolution as a setting or indirectly referring to the fallout and subsequent events, I have chosen eight books, written by Mexican writers, that have been translated into English and although some may be obscure, they are available as I have only recently filled my shelves with a number of these titles.
The numbering here is not a ranking, I’m simply presenting eight fiction titles you could read to understand the Mexican Revolution and its impact on the political and literary scene of Mexico.
- The Underdogs – Mariano Azuela (tr. Sergio Waisman)
Even the cover gives this one away “A Novel of the Mexican Revolution”. Mariano Azuela himself served as a medical officer for Pancho Villa’s Northern Division where his experiences led to this work. Set firmly in the Revolution 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.
Cervantes being Azuela’s alter ego this book has been available in English translation since the 1920’s and is widely available. The Penguin Classics edition including an “Introduction” by Carlos Fuentes.
2.The Old Gringo – Carlos Fuentes (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden & the author)
In December 1913 American writer, journalist and Civil War veteran, Ambrose Bierce travelled through Louisiana and Texas to El Paso in Mexico to gain first-hand experience of the Mexican Revolution. In Ciudad Juárez he joined Pancho Villa’s army as an observer and witnessed the Battle of Tierra Blanca. He travelled onto the city of Chihuahua, writing a letter to a friend dated 26 December 1913. He was not seen again.
Although not specifically pointing out that the “Old Gringo” is a fictionalised Ambrose Bierce there are enough breadcrumbs throughout the text alluding to him, he’s a journalist who works for William Randolph Hurst, he refers to his two sons who had died, one by his own hand the other from complications due to alcoholism, the character carries books written by Bierce. Therefore, naturally a number of readers head to Bierce’s works to enrich their reading of Carlos Fuentes’ ‘The Old Gringo’. However, whilst the work is a fictionalised account of the American writer’s last days in Mexico, it is also a much deeper work than simply an exploration of an American writer, the novel reflects on subjects such as the border between Mexico and the United States, the Holy Trinity, identity, the desert and writing itself.
3.The Edge of the Storm – Augustín Yañez (tr. Ethel Brinton)
A novel that reflects on this central event in Mexico’s history by presenting the eighteen odd months prior to the revolution, we are on the edge of the storm. As Augustín Yañez explains in a short note at the start of the book:
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 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, and the ingrained way of life.
4. Cartucho – Nellie Campobello (tr. Doris Meyer)
Born in April 1900, Nellie Campobello is possibly the lone female voice of the Revolution. Living in the North and experiencing the Revolution first-hand, her book ‘Cartucho’ is a collection of fifty-six short vignettes, characters studies of the players in the Revolution. Broken into three sections, “Men of the North”, “The Executed”, and “Under Fire” these images are childlike in their innocence (Nellie Campobello was a child observing the Revolution). As our Translator’s Note points out:
Cactucho, first published in 1931, is a vivid evocation of war seen through a young girl’s eyes. Often called a novel, it is in face a blend of autobiography, history, and poetry. In fifty-six rapid sketches that have the quality of cinematic vision – “children’s lives, if no one emprisons them, are an uncut film”, wrote Campobello – Cartucho is both a tribute to the common soldier and a denunciation of war. The language of the child narrator is direct, unadorned, and authentically Mexican. But Campobello has said elsewhere that what seems so naïve was in fact a deliberate technique or “discipline.” Choosing a child’s voice and viewpoint, born of her own experience and knowledge, allowed her “to use its apparent unconsciousness to convey what I knew had to be said sincerely and directly.” The result is so convincing that many readers have overlooked the artistry that llies behind it.
5. Recollections of Things to Come – Elena Garro (tr. Ruth L.C. Simms)
Elena Garro’s (1920-1998) debut novel, ‘Recollections of Things to Come’, depicts life in a small Mexican village, Ixtepec, during the Cristero rebellion. The Cristero rebellion (1926-1929) was a widespread struggle in central and western Mexico in response to the imposition of secularist and anticlerical articles of the 1917 Constitution of Mexico. These were perceived by opponents as anti-Catholic measures aimed at imposing state atheism. Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles sought to eliminate the power of the Catholic Church and all organizations which were affiliated with it and to suppress popular religious celebrations in local communities.
Elena Garro’s novel uses a unique style, the village is the omniscient narrator, the players floating in and out of the action, the village reflecting on the history of Ixepec. As the ‘Itroduction” advises, This “is a book of episodes, one that leaves with the reader a series of vivid impressions. The colors are bright, the smells are pungent, the many characters clearly drawn in a few bold strokes.” The village survives, humans are fleeting. This is obvious from the opening paragraph:
Here I sit on what looks like a stone. Only my memory knows what it holds. I see it and I remember, and as water flows into water, so I, melancholically, come to find myself in its image, covered with dust, surrounded by grass, self-contained and condemned to memory and its variegated mirror. I see it, I see myself, and I am transfigured into a multitude of colors and times. I am and I was in many eyes. I am only memory and the memory that one has of me.
6. Here’s To You, Jesusa – Elena Poniatowska (tr. Deanna Heikkinen)
Another female writer, along with Nellie Campobello and Elena Garro, Elena Poniatowska born in 1932 and winner of the prestigious Miguel de Cervantes Prize in 2013, specialises in the disenfranchised, women and the poor. Her novel, Here’s To You, Jesua, opens with an Introduction, Jesua is eighty-seven and close to the end of her days:
Over there where Mexico City starts getting smaller, where the streets get lost and are deserted, that’s where Jesua lives. It’s so warm there’s no ice left in the freezers, just water, and the Victoria and Superior beers just float around. The women’s hair sticks against the nape of their necks, beaten down by sweat. Sweat dampens the air, clothes, armpits, foreheads. The heat bizzes, like the flies. The air in those parts is greasy, dirty; the people live in the very frying pans where they cook garnachas, those thick, filled tortillas covered in chile sauce, and potato or pumpkin-flower quesadillas, the daily bread that the women heap on tables with uneven legs along the street. The dust is the only dry thing, that and a few gourds.
As the cover blurb explains;
Having joined a cavalry unit during the Mexican Revolution, Jesua finds herself at the Revolution’s end in Mexico City, far from her native Oaxaca, abandoned by her husband and working menial jobs. So begins Jesusa’s long history of encounters with the police and struggles against authority. Mystical yet practical, undaunted by hardship, Jesusa faces the obstacles in her path with gritty determination.
Another work that reflects on the impact of the Revolution on women and those on the fringes.
7. Pedro Páramo – Juan Rulfo (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden)
From a narrative point of view, Susan Sontag sums up this novel perfectly in her ‘Afterword’:
The novel’s premise – a dead mother sending her son out into the world, a son’s quest for his father [Pedro Páramo] – mutates into a multi voiced sojourn in hell. The narrative takes place in two worlds: the Comala of the present, to which Juan Preciado, the ‘I’ of the first sentences, is journeying; and the Comala of the past, the village of his mother’s memories and of Pedro Páramo’s youth. The narrative switches back and forth between first person and third person, present and past. (The great stories are not only told in the past tense, they are about the past.) the Comala of the past is a village of the living. The Comala of the present is inhabited only by the dead, and the encounters that Juan Preciado will have when he reaches Comala are with ghosts. Páramo means in Spanish barren plain, wasteland. Not only is the father he seeks dead, but so is everyone else in the village. Being dead, they have nothing to express except their essence.
And this is a haunting tale of essences mingling, pieces of human existence slowly dissolving and becoming scarce. Although in some circles this is considered a canonical work, it is not for the narrative style that I visited this novel, it was for its references to the Revolution and to understand the development of Mexican literary production in the 40/50 years after the revolution. It takes quite some time before the historical placement of this work is revealed.
8. Carlos Fuentes – The Death of Artemio Cruz (tr. Alfred MacAdam)
Two works by Fuentes featuring on this list, ‘The Death of Artemio Cruz’ as opposed to ‘The Old Gringo” is less specifically focused on the Revolution covering the full life of Artemio Cuz.
The novel opens with Artemio Cruz on his death bed. The work is constructed through flashbacks and the present-day musing of his relationships with his family at his bedside, or the church. It is not long into the novel before we discover Artemio is a corrupt and vile man, (similar to Pedro Páramo, “pure bile”). His life is full of manipulations, for example landowners so he can seduce the daughter.
Mixing first, second and third person, it is at times a confusing work. Artemio reflecting, in the second person:
You admire their efficiency, their comforts, their hygiene, their power, their will, and you look around you and the incompetence, the misery, the filth, the languor, the nakedness of this poor country that has nothing, all seem intolerable to you.
Late in the Revolution, May 1919, Artemio manipulates a landowner:
“It’s important to know how to make distinctions,” murmured the old man as he wiped his lips with his napkin. “For example, business is one thing, and religion is something completely different.”
“See him there so nice and pious, taking Communion every day with his little girl? Well, that same mane stole everything he has from priests, back when Juárez auctioned off Church property and anybody with a little cash could buy huge tracts of land…”
This later period of the Revolution allows Fuentes to present the outcomes, the land grabbing and the change in ownership, power.
9. The Labyrinth of Solitude – Octavio Paz (various translators)
How could any list referring to Mexican literature not include Octavio Paz’s masterwork? I’ve included this as title eleven on a list of top ten as it is non-fiction but it is an important key work when looking at Mexican history.
Not a book specifically about the Mexican Revolution but a monumental work, that addresses Mexican identity, culture and character, obviously touching upon the events of 1910-20 due to their significant contribution to Paz’s opinions. As he says himself
I need hardly warn readers that my opinions are a series of reflection, not a consistent theory. (P 381)
Consistently referred to as a canonical text when discussing Mexico, this needs to be included on the list simply because it will enlighten your views on Mexican society and culture.
There are many more examples that could feature on this list, Elena Poniatowska in her ‘Introduction’ to Nellie Campobello’s ‘Cartucho” says:
From Azuela (‘The Underdogs’) on, the novel of the Revolution takes off at a gallop: Martin Luis Guzmán produces La sombra del caudillo and El águila y la serpiente (The Eagle and the Serpent), giving Mexico the best prose it had known to date. Guzmán is followed by Gregoria López y Feuntes, Rafael F. Muñoz, José Ruben Romero, José Vasconcelos, Fransisco L. Urquizo, José Mancisidor, Mauricio Magdelano, Agustin Yáñez, and José Revueltas.
Unfortunately, not a lot of these works have been translated or are very hard to acquire. Are there any novels you think I should have added?