Mexican Masks – Carlos Fuentes & Octavio Paz


More Mexican literature from the 1960’s, today something a little different again. Carlos Fuentes’ novel ‘The Death of Artemio Cruz’, translated by Alfred MacAdam, covers, in non-linear fashion, the period 1889 to 1960, by joining Artemio Cruz on his deathbed, where various prompts that cause him to recall his past are presented to the reader.

At some later stage I will present my thoughts on the novel as a whole, however early in the book there is a passage that aligns wonderfully with Octavio Paz’s ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’, more specifically the Spanish and Aztec history. Artemio Cruz, on his death bed, is thinking and addressing himself in the second person:

Because you will have created the night with your closed eyes, and from the depth of that ocean of ink, a stone boat – which the hot and sleepy midday sun will cheer in vain – will sail toward you: thick blackened walls raised to protect the Church from Indian attacks and also to link the religious conquest to the military conquest. The rough soldiers, Spanish, the troops of Queen Isabella the Catholic, advance toward your closed eyes with the swelling din of their fifes and drums, and in sunlight you will traverse the wide esplanade with a stone cross at its center and with exterior chapels, the prolongation of the native religion, theatrical and open-air, at its corners. At the top of the church built at the end of the esplanade, the vaults made of tenzontle stone will rest on forgotten Moorish scimitars, sign of yet one more bloodline imposed on that of the conquistadors. You will advance toward the portal of the early, still Castilian, baroque, already rich in columns wound with profuse vines and aquiline keystones; the portal of the Conquest, severe and playful, with one foot in the old, dead world and the other in the new world that didn’t begin here but on the other side of the sea: the new world arrived with them, with a redoubt of austere walls to protect their sensual, happy, greedy hearts. You will go further and will penetrate into the nave of the ship, its Castilian exterior conquered by the macabre, smiling plenitude of this Indian heaven of saints, angels, and indigenous gods. A single, enormous nave will run toward the altar of gilt foliage, somber opulence of masked faces, lugubrious and festive prayer, always urgent, for this freedom, the only one granted, to decorate a temple and fill it with tranquil astonishment, with sculpted resignation, with the horror of emptiness, the terror of the dead times, of those who prolonged the slow deliberateness of free labor, the unique instants of autonomy in color and form, far from that exterior world of whips and branding irons and smallpox. You will walk to the conquest of your new world through a nave devoid of blank spaces: angel heads, luxuriant vines, polychrome flowers, red, round fruits captured in trellises of gold, white saints in chains, saints with astonished faces, saints in a heaven invented by Indians in their own image and likeness: angels and saints wearing the face of the sun and the moon, with the hand to protect harvests, with the index finger of the hounds, with the cruel, unnecessary, alien eyes of the idol, with the rigorous face of the cycles. The faces of stone behind the pink, kindly, ingenious masks, masks that are, however, impassive and dead: create the night, fill the black sails with wind, close your eyes, Artemio Cruz…

Octavio Paz writes extensively on the image of the mask, Chapter Two of ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’, translated by Lysander Kemp, is titled “Mexican Masks”. It opens;

The Mexican, whether young or old, criollo or mestizo [Criollo: a person of pure Spanish blood living in the Americans, Mestizo: a person of mixed Spanish and Indian blood.], general or laborer or lawyer, seems to me to be a person who shuts himself away to protect himself: his face is a mask and so is his smile. In his harsh solitude, which is both barbed and courteous, everything serves him as a defense: silence and words, politeness and disdain, irony and resignation. He is jealous of his own privacy and that of others, and he is afraid even to glance at his neighbor, because a mere glance can trigger the rage of these electrically charged spirits. He passes through life like a man who has been flayed; everything can hurt him, including words and the very suspicion of words. His language is full of reticences, of metaphors and allusions, of unfinished phrases, while his silence is full of tints, folds, thunderheads, sudden rainbows, indecipherable threats. Even in a quarrel he prefers veiled expressions to outright insults: “A word to the wise is sufficient.” He builds a wall of indifference and remoteness between reality and himself, a wall that is no less impenetrable for being invisible. The Mexican is always remote, from the world and from other people. And also from himself.

I also love Carlos Fuentes’, ”one foot in the old, dead world and the other in the new world that didn’t begin here but on the other side of the sea” a beautifully simple explanation of the Mexican psyche.

There are extensive chapters in Fuentes’s novel that address the Mexican Revolution, my starting point for this reading project, however the breadth of his work is possibly better to be explored at a broader level, but more on that when I finish the novel and check in again.

Rosario Castellanos – Monologue of a Foreign Woman (tr. Maureen Ahern)


Some Mexican poetry from the 1950’s, a period of literary production where the recently read and reviewed Juan Rulfo’s ‘Pedro Páramo” (1955) falls.

Rosario Castellanos wrote the novel ‘Balun Canán’ (1957), translated by Irene Nicholson as ‘The Nine Guardians’, another work credited as being “indirectly associated” with the Mexican Revolution. Whilst I await the (delayed) mail and my copy of Rosario Castellanos’ novel, I thought I would share a poem of hers taken from ‘A Rosario Castellanos Reader’, a collection of short fiction, poetry and essays published by the University of Texas Press.

Monologue of a Foreign Woman

I came from far away. I’ve forgotten my own country
and I no longer understand the language they
use there for trade or work.
I’ve reached the mineral muteness of a statue.
Sloth, scorn and something
I can’t distinguish have defended me
from this language, that heavy jewel-studded
velvet that people where I live
use to cover their rags.

This land, like that other one of my childhood,
still bears on her face
a slave’s brand,
burned in by fire, injustice, and murder.
As a girl I slept to the hoarse crooning
of a black dove: a conquered race.
I hid beneath the blankets
because a huge animal
crouched out there in the dark, hungry
but patient as a stone.
Compared to him, what’s an ocean, a catastrophe,
or the bolt of love
or joy that annihilates us?

I mean
that I had to grow up fast
(before terror devoured me),
go away, keep a firm hand
on things and run my life.

I was still very young
when I spit on places the mob held sacred.
In crowds I was like a dog
that offends with its mange and copulation,
its startling bark in the midst
of a ritual or major ceremony.

So you,
although serious, was not entirely fatal.
I recovered, healed, and learned to gauge
the pulse of success, prestige,
honor, wealth, with a clever hand.
I possessed what the mediocre envy, the victors
dispute, but only one carries off.
It was mine but it was like eating foam
or passing my hand across the back of the wind.

Supreme pride is supreme renunciation.
I refused to become
a dead star
that takes on borrowed light to come alive.
Without a name or memories
I spin in spectral nakedness
in a brief domestic orbit.

But I still simmer
in the turbid imagination of others.
My presence has brought
a salty gust of adventure
to even this sleepy inland city.

When men look at me they remember that fate
is the great hurricane that splits branches,
uproots tall trees,
imposing merciless cosmic law
— above and beyond the meanness of humankind —
throughout its empire.

The women pick up my scent from afar, dreaming,
like draft animals when they smell
the brutal bolt of the storm.
for the elders
I fulfill that passive role
of the generator of legends.

At midnight I open wide the windows so anyone
keeping watch at night, meditating on death,
suffering the pangs of guilt,
or even the adolescent
(a burning pillow under his brow)
can question darkness through my being.

Enough. I’ve kept quiet more than I’ve told.
High mountain sun has tanned my hand
and on my fourth finger, “that points to the heart,”
as they say here,
I wear a golden ring with a carved seal.

A ring used
to identify corpses.


“Spanish American Women Writers: A Bio-bibliographical Source Book, edited by Diane E. Marting, says of Rosario Castellanos’ poetry:

The reconstruction of female experience in her long poem, “Lamentación de Dido” (Dido’s lament), dramatized a woman of antiquity, which the speaking voice of “Malinche” reversed the Mexican ethnic and gender stereotypes that cast this woman as a symbol of betrayal. If male myth has distorted the image of woman, the language that encode it alienates her in “Monólongo de extranjera” (“Monologue of a Foreign Woman”).
Although many critics have attempted to explain Castallenos’s poetry through an obsession with death, it is only one element of a much wide concept that permeates all her writing: The exploration of the other, whether that other be woman, indigenous culture, language, silence or writing itself.

This is a wonderful example of the “exploration of the other”, she is a “foreign woman”, clearly alienated, a stranger who is not accepted. Although nostalgic for the land of her “childhood”, she has “forgotten” her “own country”.

Interestingly the “Reading Rosario Castellanos” book also says (I am assuming they are the same writer as the second paragraph is also repeated verbatim – I’ve not a credit for the Biographical Source book):

If male myth has distorted the image of woman, the language that encode it alienates her. “I’ve forgotten my own country/and I no longer understand the language they use there / … that heavy jewel-studded velvet that people where I live use to cover their rags” declares the female speaker in “Monologue of a Foreign Woman.” It was one of Castellanos’ favorite poems, she told Margarita García Flores: “I wasn’t aware of it at the time that I wrote it. I thought I was telling the story of another woman but when I finished I realized that I was talking about myself, that it was my own story that once again I had transformed and used in that oblique form of reference that creates distance between the object and expression…that is perhaps aesthetic distance” (“La lucidez como forma de vida,”). There transformations became twelve volumes of poems.

Rosario Castellanos’ entry in “Latin American Women Writers: An Encyclopedia” explains:

The large-scale sociopolitical transformations that took place in Mexico after the Revolution played a decisive role in Castellanos’ intellectual formation. With President Lázaro Cárdenas’ sweeping land reforms of 1941, the Castellanos family lost their vast landholdings and decided to migrate to Mexico City….

In 1950, she completed her master’s thesis in philosophy, entitled Sobre la cutura femenina (On Feminine Culture). Although the text has been criticized as being too pessimistic and lacking in strong scientific base, the study is important in that it clearly signals the beginning of Castellanos’ pointed examination and questioning of the role of women in a male-dominated cultural tradition.

The poem I’ve presented today, touching on these themes. And I chose this poem, because there’s the dogs again this time it “offends with its mange and copulation”.

As I work through another longer novel I may present another Rosario Castellanos poem, stay tuned.

A fascinating writer, who died tragically before reaching age fifty, she was electrocuted in her home in Tel Aviv, where she was the Mexican Ambassador to Israel, when she switched on a lamp after leaving the shower. Her novels, stories, poems and plays exploring a raft of feminist, indigenous and Mexican themes, she is a writer I will explore in a lot more detail as I continue my Mexican journey.

If you would like to read more about Rosario Castellanos there’s an article at ‘The Paris Review” that is worth exploring “Feminize Your Canon”.

Pedro Páramo – Juan Rulfo (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden)


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. 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)….

Again, the opening paragraph for the section dedicated to Mexican literature in the text-book style reference work ‘The Contemporary Spanish-American Novel: Bolaño and After’ Edited by Will H. Corral, Juan E De Castro and Nicholas Birns, however, having completed ‘The Edge of the Storm’ and ‘The Underdogs’ , I have moved to the books that are “indirectly” associated with the Mexican Revolution.

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. Late in the novel Pedro Páramo (“living bile”), as a landowner who exploits the local peasants, is to be targeted by the revolutionaries:

“Th-they ignored me. But they t-told don Fulgor to get off his horse. They s-said they were r-revolutionaries. And th-that they wanted your land.”

A little later the revolutionaries arrive at Pedro Páramo’s property:

“We’ve rebelled against the government and against people like you because we’re tired of putting up with you. Everyone in the government is a cork, and you and your kind are nothing but a bunch of lowdown bandits and slick thieves. And as for the governor himself, I won’t say nothing, because what we have to say to him we’ll say with bullets.”

As a work that switches back from the present to the past, and to various times in the past, there is a difficulty in understanding a linear view of the narrative, however this is not the intention of the author and this fragmented style is one of the major contributing factors in the novel’s longevity, along with the first seeds of “magic realism” (there’s a whole study in that term alone, so I will steer clear of it here).

We have a, brief, mention of the Cristeros war (1926-29), a rebellion “in central-western Mexico in response to the imposition of secularist and anti-clerical articles of the 1917 Constitution of Mexico, which were perceived by opponents as anti-Catholic measures aimed at imposing state atheism.” (Wikipedia).

There are a few common themes that also appeared in Mariano Azuela’s ‘The Underdogs’ (1915) and Augustín Yañez’s ‘At the Edge of the Storm’ (1947). The former novels both opened with howling or barking dogs, a warning, here they appear much later, the abandoned decaying town of Comala:

“This town is filled with echoes. I’m not afraid anymore. I hear the dogs howling, and I let them howl. And on windy days I see the wind blowing leaves from the trees, when anyone can see that there aren’t any trees here. There must have been once. Otherwise, where do the leaves come from?”

Another common link is the padre questioning his beliefs, going mad:

He rapped on the window of the confessional to summon another of the women. And while he listened to ‘I have sinned,’ his head slumped forward as if he could no longer hold it up. Then came the dizziness, the confusion, the slipping away as if in syrupy water, the whirling light; the brilliance of the dying day was splintering into shards. And there was the taste of blood on his tongue. The ‘I have sinned’ grew louder, was repeated again and again: ‘for now and forever more,’ ‘ for now and forever more,’ ‘for now …’

As a work that encompasses the Revolution and periods prior and post, there are numerous examples of this pivotal time in Mexico’s history. How a nation moved away from, and then became stuck again, in feudal landownership, how Catholic faith ebbed and flowed:

Nights around here are filled with ghosts. You should see all the spirits walking through the streets. As soon as it’s dark they begin to come out. No one likes to see them. There’s so many of them and so few of us that we don’t even make the effort to pray for them anymore, to help them out of their purgatory. We don’t have enough prayers to go around. Maybe a few words of the Lord’s Prayer for each one. But that’s not going to do them any good. Then there are our sins on top of theirs. None of us still living is in God’s grace. We can’t lift up our eyes, because they are filled with shame. And shame doesn’t help. At least that’s what the Bishop said. He came through here some time ago giving confirmation, and I went to him and confessed everything:
“I can’t pardon you,” he said.
“I’m filled with shame.”
“That isn’t the answer.”

Catholicism is questioned:

I want to think that your parishioners are still believers, but it is not you who sustains their faith. They believe out of superstition and fear.

Once “Juan Preciado, the ‘I’ of the first sentences” arrives in Comala he cannot leave, it is a town of spirits, a place where spirits of the past haunt, and there is no road out, “all the roads are grown over. You might get lost.” I thought that maybe Comala was representative of Mexico itself, it is a town not far from the coast, west of Mexico City, a place where there is no future as it is haunted by its past. However, that is probably a simplistic view. It also crossed my mind that Pedro Páramo’s only love, Doña Susana, could represent Mexico, attached to a patriarch who is overthrown, she becomes tied to another “leader”, again possibly too simplistic.

A novel that shimmers with possibilities, it is an interesting text to have included in my Mexican reading journey;

‘I will cross my arms and Comala will die of hunger.’
And that was what happened.

Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez (two contrasting forewords)

Reading literature about, or associated with, the Mexican Revolution (1910-20) I was struck by the contrasting styles in two of the forewords I read in two back-to-back titles. Whilst this is a post that doesn’t directly address the literature of the revolution, the different approaches by Carlos Fuentes in his “Foreword” to ‘The Underdogs’ by Mariano Azuela (tr. by Sergio Waisman) and Gabriel García Márquez,  ‘Pedro Páramo’ by Juan Rulfo (tr. by Margaret Sayers Peden) piqued my interest and I thought it may also interest other readers.


Carlos Fuentes opens his short piece with a precis of the events of 1910-20:

The Mexican Revolution (1910-20 in its armed phase) began as a united movement against the three decades of authoritarian rule of General Porfirio Diaz. Its democratic leader, Fransisco Madero, came to power in 1911 and was overthrown and murdered in 1913 by the ruthless general Victoriano Huerta, who promptly restored the dictatorship and was opposed to the united forces of Venustiano Caranza, Álvaro Obregón, and Francisco “Pancho” Villa in the north and those of the agrarian leader Emiliano Zapata in the south. But when Huerta, defeated, fled in 1915, the revolution broke up into rival factions. Zapata and Villa came to represent popular forces, agrarian and small town, while Caarranza and Obregón were seen as leaders of the rising middle class that Díaz had suffocated under the patrimonialist regime of huge haciendas using low-paid peon labor.

He then explains Mariano Azuela’s direct involvement with Carranza, then Villa, and continues:

The people of Mexico are “the armies of the night” in Azuela’s book. They give the reader the impression of a violent, spontaneous eruption. But be warned. The immediacy that Azuela brings to the people is a result of the long mediacy of oppression: half a millennium of authoritarian rule by Aztec, colonial, and republican powers.

This “foreword” gives context to the Revolution, and Azuela’s novel’s place in it and the issues his book addresses. “’The Underdogs’ thus present us with a wide view of the social, political, and historical traits of Mexico and, be extension, of Latin America: it is a degraded epic but also a chronical of political failure and of aspiring nationhood.”

Carlos Fuentes then goes on explain how dictatorships “censor writing, burn books and exile, imprison, or murder writers”, musing on the question of authoritarian repression and the importance of literature.


Gabriel García Márquez’s “Foreword” to ‘Pedro Páramo’ by Juan Rulfo is translated by N.J. Sheerin and opens:

My discovery of Juan Rulfo – like that of Kafka – will without doubt be an essential chapter in my memoirs. I had arrived in Mexico on the same day Ernest Hemmingway pulled the trigger – the 2nd of June 1961 – and not only had I not read Juan Rulfo’s books, I hadn’t even heard of him. It was very strange: first of all because in those days I kept up to date with the latest goings on in the literary world, and even more so when it came to Latin American novels; secondly because the first people I got in touch with in Mexico were the writers who worked with Manuel Barbachano Ponce in the Dracula’s Castle on the streets of Córdoba, and the editors of the literary magazine Novedades, headed up by Fernando Benitz. Naturally, they all know Juan Rulfo well. Yet it was at least six months before anyone mentioned him to me. Perhaps because Juan Rulfo, contrary to what happens with most great authors, is a writer who is much read but little spoken of.

As you can see Gabriel García Márquez places himself front and centre, even drawing a long-bow connection between himself and Ernest Hemmingway, he is heavily involved in the Mexican literature scene, the names he drops etc. The tone of the “foreword” continues in the same vein – what apartment he lived in, who he lived with, his living conditions, where he wrote, the novels he’s published, how Elena Poniatowska had lost his short story collection drafts. “I was already a writer with five underground books”.

Eventually Gabriel García Márquez is prompted to read ‘Pedro Páramo’:

That night I couldn’t sleep until I had read it twice. Not since the awesome night I read Kafka’s Metamorphosis in a down-at-the-heels student boarding house in Bogotá – almost ten years earlier – had I been so overcome.

Carlos Fuentes does rate a small mention in Márquez’s “foreword”, apparently Carlos Velo and Fuentes asked Márquez “to read and critique their screenplay for a film adaptation – the first – of ‘Pedro Páramo’.

This is a “foreword” that adds little to the setting, placing, timing of Rulfo’s novel, the approach being and extended blurb on the wonder of the book. Márquez does acknowledge his self-obsession, closing with:

I wanted to write all this to say that my profound exploration of Juan Rulfo’s work was what finally showed me the way to continue with my writing, and for that reason it would be impossible for me to write about him without it seeming that I’m writing about myself.

Both book covers feature a statement “Foreword by xxx”, neither have the names of the translators of the books on their cover, I wonder if “foreword’s” make any difference to sales?

The Underdogs – Mariano Azuela (tr. Sergio Waisman)


“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.”


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.


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.

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


The Labyrinth of Solitude – Ocatvio Paz (various translators)


Octavio Paz, Nobel laureate in 1990, winner of the Miguel de Cervantes Prize in 1981 and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1982, a writer and diplomat and my first stop in a journey I intend to take through Mexican literature.

‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’ is not a book you “review”, just like you don’t review an encyclopedia, it is a monumental work, revered for almost sixty years.

I need hardly warn readers that my opinions are a series of reflection, not a consistent theory. (P 381)

 My edition, published in 1985 by Grove Press, contains a translation of the original 1961 book length essay ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’ (translated by Lysander Kemp), an essay “Critique of the Pyramid” written after the student uprisings in October 1968, which forms part of an extended section titled ‘The New Mexico’ (translated by Lysander Kemp) that “develop and amplify the Hackett Memorial Lecture…delivered at the University of  Texas at Austin on October 30, 1969.” There is also  a conversation with Claude Fell, titled “Return to the Labyrinth of Solitude” (translated by Yara Milos), a reprint of an article that appeared in ‘The New Yorker’ magazine on 17 September 1979, titled “Mexico and the United States” (translated by Rachel Phillips Belash) and a reprint of “The Philanthropic Ogre” (also translated by Rachel Phillips Belash) which appeared in ‘Dissent’ magazine in the Winter 1979 edition.

‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’ was an exercise of the critical imagination: a vision and, simultaneously, a revision – something very different from an essay on Mexican-ness or a search for our supposed being. (P215)

 A monumental work, that addresses Mexican identity, culture and character, I chose to read this as a precursor to a longer reading journey through Mexican literature. If Octavio Paz could reveal something of the hidden character it may lead to a deeper understanding of other literary works.

…the Mexican does not want or does not dare to be himself. (P73)

The journey through Paz’s essays was more enlightening than I had originally imagined, their depth, strong arguments and simple explanations. Covering major historical events from the time of the Aztecs, through to Colonisation, Independence (1810), the Revolution (1910-20), student uprisings of 1968 the book is a masterful reference tool. Looking at politics, the explosiveness of fiestas, architecture, and of course the relationship with the USA, there is a plethora of information to digest.

On economists and their statistical models:

For example, wheat and corn have been chosen as two of the indices of development: the eating of wheat bread is among the signs that one has crossed the line between underdeveloped and the developed; the eating of corn tortillas indicates that one has not. Two reasons are put forward to justify the inclusion of wheat among the signs of development: it has greater nutritive value and it is a product whose consumption reveals that the leap from a traditional to a modern society has been made. This criterion condemns Japan to eternal underdevelopment, for rice is less nutritive than wheat and is no less “traditional” than corn. Besides, wheat is not really “modern” either, since little distinguished it from rice and corn except its belonging to a different cultural tradition, that of the West (although the Hindu chapati is made of wheat)! So actually the intended meaning is that in all ways, including even diet and cuisine, Western civilization is superior to others and that, within it, the North American version is the most nearly perfect. (P285)

Every page throws up another point to ruminate, even as an outsider who is ignorant of Mexican society and culture, parallels can be drawn to other societies who have undergone colonialization.

The colonial order was imposed from above and its social, economic, judicial and religious forms were immutable. It was a society rules by divine right and an absolute monarchy, having been created in all its aspects as an immense, complicated artifact designed to endure but not to change. (P110)

A work to be revisited again and again and as I start my reading journey through a number of Mexican literary works it will be a book that I will reference many times. For anybody who is interested in the Mexican psyche this is mandatory reading, for readers of Mexican literature I cannot recommend this highly enough and for readers who are simply interested in essays that explore a nation’s culture you should pick this up. An invaluable book for any collection.

Here is my current intended reading list of Mexican literary works (hopefully I will write up my thoughts on these here as I finish them). I have intentionally left off recent writers such as Mario Bellatin, Valeria Luiselli, Guadalupe Nettel & Yuri Herrera, writers I have read a lot of, as they are more contemporary and the start of my journey is for texts taking in the Mexican Revolution, maybe at some later stage I’ll move to more contemporary concerns:

Augustin Yáñez – The Edge of the Storm
Elena Garro – Recollections of Things to Come
Mariano Azuela – The Underdogs
Juan Rulfo – Pedro Paramo
Rosario Castellanos – Short Fiction
Elena Poniatowska – Here’s To You, Jesusa
Ignacio Padilla – Shadow Without A Name
Carlos Fuentes – The Death of Artemio Cruz & Terra Nostra

I own a few other texts that may make their way onto this list as I dedicate a few months to Mexican fare. Stay tuned.

The Old Gringo – Carlos Fuentes (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden & the author)


What they call dying
is merely the last pain
– Ambrose Bierce (epigraph)

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.

The novel centres on three main characters, the nameless “Old Gringo” an American travelling to Mexico “to die”, rebel leader Tomás Arroyo and Harriet Winslow and American schoolteacher who has travelled to Arroyo’s lands to teach English to the children of the Estate (they have left, being overthrown before she had arrived).

Are these three the Holy Trinity?

…the body of Christ (the mystery that enlivened her memories, the mystery that teased her imagination: a body in a piece of bread, the body of a man born from a woman who had never known man’s flesh, you know, Miss Winslow, we speak in terrible circumlocutions here, we were taught as girls never to say legs, but that’s what I walk on, never buttocks, but that’s what I sit on – she laughed softly, almost sighing; the body of a man who was God, the body of a man who shares his Godliness with two other men; she imagined them as men: a second bearded man, old and mighty, sitting on a throne, who was at the same time the young man nailed to the cross; and a third, spectral, ageless man, a magician who called himself a Ghost, and Holy at that, and who was surely responsible in her childish imagination for all the other transformations: one into three, three into one, one into the virgin, then out of the same virgin, then dead, then resurrected and presumably back into three without ceasing to be one and then three-into-one into wafer, many, many millions of tiny pieces of bread all containing Him, and the Magician working away, the Ghost of a Spectral World). (pgs 150-151)

Besides the physical movement across borders, by the old gringo and Harriet Winslow, the clash of cultures, and national identities bubbles along;

…each of us carries his Mexico and his United States within him, a dark and bloody frontier we dare cross only at night (p187)

“They’re right when they say this isn’t a border. It’s a scar.” (p185)

The desert, a harsh environment, where the oppressive heat shimmers are reflected in the oneiric prose. I recalled French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s descriptions of the desert in his work ‘America’ (translated by Chris Turner) – although America, the desert descriptions felt apt;

Geological – and hence metaphysical – monumentally, by contrast with the physical altitude of ordinary landscapes. Upturned relief patterns, sculpted out by wind, water, and ice, dragging you down into the whirlpool of time, into the very remorseless eternity of a slow-motion catastrophe. The very idea of the millions and hundreds of millions of years that were needed peacefully to ravage the surface of the earth here is a perverse one, since it brings with it an awareness of signs originating, long before man appeared, in a sort of pact of wear and erosion struck between the elements. Among this gigantic heap of signs – purely geological in essence – man will have had no significance. (p 3)

Desert: luminous, fossilized network of an inhuman intelligence, of a radical indifference – the indifference not merely of the sky, but of the geological undulations, where the metaphysical passions of space and time alone crystallize. Here the terms of desire are turned upside down each day, and night annihilates them. But wait for the dawn to rise, with the awakening of the fossil sounds, the animal silence. (p 6)

A diversion by myself, however I feel this landscape description, from another writer, is warranted as Carlos Fuentes prose in ‘The Old Gringo’ reflects the harsh desert environment, a shimmering dreamlike approach where each of the character’s thoughts and musings meld into a blur of experience. And their experiences are looked at in detail, a reflection of themselves;

“Did you look at yourself in the mirror?” (p 43 – and repeated many times)

The mirrors in the ballroom of the estate have been preserved, with the local workers finding amusement in being able to see their reflections, the old gringo and Miss Winslow using the mirror to muse on their own places here.

Harriet looked at the old gringo exactly as he wanted to be looked at before he died. He felt that her gaze completed the fragmented sequence of his imagination of Harriet Winslow that had begun in the reflections in the mirrors in the ballroom that was but a threshold of the road to dream, atomized into a thousand oneiric instants and now joined again in the words that told the old gringo that Harriet would not allow a living testimony to her sensuality, that she was giving the old man the right to dream about her, but not Arroyo. (p149)

A shimmering novel of travel to find oneself to search for one’s own death, this is a complex and multi layered work;

They reminded her of Mantegna’s Christ, so lonely at his death table, His feet, His whole body jutting out of the canvas, kicking the spectator as if wishing violently to arouse him or her to the fact that `death was not noble but base, not serene but convulsive, not promising but irrevocable, unredeemable: the glassy half-opened eyes, the skimpy two-week beard, the ulcerated feet, the breathless half-opened mouth, the clogged nostrils, the blood-clotted flanks, the matted hair soaked in dust and sweat, the terrifying sensation of the presence of the newly dead, of their swearing and bearing and walking and standing erect just a few hours before. (p191-192)

To boil this novel down to a narrative about Ambrose Bierce is too shallow an approach.

Think of the circular hint Carlos Fuentes is providing with the opening and closing sentences being identical, the epigraph about death, the musings on finality, this is a complex but highly engaging novel, one that demands re-reading, the nuances would become more fruitful at each visit.

A wonderful find in the local charity shop, the edition being the 1986 first edition (in English), a bargain for $4, making me happy to extend my Carlos Fuentes collection.

Antígona González – Sara Uribe (translated by John Pluecker) – 2017 Best Translated Book Award Poetry


Today more from Mexico, moving from Valeria Luiselli’s latest book “Tell Me How It Ends” back to the 2017 Best Translated Book Award Poetry longlist. Sara Uribe’s “Antígona González” uses the daughter/sister of Oedipus and the tale where she attempts to secure a respectable burial for her brother Polynices who was killed in battle, and transposes the search for a corpse to the present Mexican landscape where numerous people go missing.

My name is Antígona González and I am searching/among the dead for the corpse of my brother. (p7)

A work that is a grieving book, for a missing brother, for nameless bodies, for an uncaring society that allows disappearances to become the norm.

I came to San Fernando to search for my brother.
I came to San Fernando to search for my father.
I came to San Fernando to search for my husband.
I came to San Fernando to search for my son.
I came with the others for the bodies of our people. (p103)

Our poet’s missing brother is Tadeo and Sara Uribe uses a raft of inputs to explore disappearance, “the verb to disappear”, this is a heart wrenching work gives voice, and life, to the nameless, the anonymous;

 In my dream, I’m certain one of those suitcases is
Tadeo’s. Mamá gave him that name because he was
the one who struggled most at birth. She promised
ninety novenas to Saint Jude if he would save her son.
She prayed those novenas and baptized him in his
honor so that the hope of the hopeless would always
shine on him. So that the smallest of her children
would never forget that from his very birth he had
overcome adversity. (p43)

Through extensive use of space, some pages with central text, others from the top, others from the bottom of the page, the English translation appears alongside the Spanish text. The all-encompassing vastness of the Mexican desert, the missing persons and a fruitless search is relayed through the visual open presentation;

So I head out to my job on an empty stomach and as
I drive I thank of all the gaps, all the absences no one
notices and yet are there. (p81)

The stress, tension of not knowing comes through in the tight language, it is easy to imagine the poet ranting these lines at you, yelling her frustration at you. The book contains fourteen pages of references and notes, a detailed explanation of the resources used to create this multi-layered work, quotes from blogs, italicised text an interloper’s voice, facts including testimonies from victims and family members as compiled by journalists and quotes from other writers, including a sequence of questions by Harold Pinter from the poem “Death”, such as “WHO WAS THE DEAD BODY?” with answers coming from various other sources, the book resembles a performance art piece rather than simply a poetry collection.

All of us here will gradually disappear if no one searches
for us, if no one names us.

All of us here will gradually disappear if we just look
helplessly at each other, watching how we disappear one
by one. (p 165)

A book that explores the impacts of people disappearing, the grief that remains behind, the questioning, “the interpretation of Antigone is radically altered in Latin America – Polynices is identified with the marginalized and disappeared” (p23)

Also including seventeen pages of translator notes;

There is a startling specificity to this Antígona. We are in Tamaulipas, a state along the Gulf coast in Mexico and bordering the Río Bravo/Rio Grande in South Texas. It is a time of brutal violence that strains the very definition of the word “war,” as it evades any previous understanding of what “war” might be. A specific moment and a specific horror.

Antígona González is not Sophocles’ Antigone, though Uribe’s book is inexorably tied to the long trajectory of Sophocles’ tragedy. In his version, Antigone could not bear the dictate of Creon to leave her brother’s dead body exposed and unburied on a dusty plain. In Uribe’s version, Antígona González is bereft of a body to mourn, a body to bury. (p191)

Including a rationalisation process where the poet wonders what to do with Tadeo’s killers, the various stages of grieving are walked through as you become further and further frustrated at the lack of knowledge, the unknown and the endless missing persons, this is a very complex and moving book. Yet another worthwhile inclusion on the 2017 Best Translated Book Award longlists.

Umami – Laia Jufresa (translated by Sophie Hughes)

Three in a row of Mexican women’s writing, with today’s review being the recently released “Umami” by Laia Jufresa (some places have this slated for release next month, however I purchased my copy a few months ago and it has been with me since June!!) I came across the work ‘umami’ a few years ago when my eldest child came home from primary school and explained that there are five basic flavours, sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (discovered by the Japanese), the novel also gives a description;
“Umami is one of the five basic flavours our taste buds can identify. The others, the ones we all know, are sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Then there’s umami, more or less new to us in the West. We’re talking a century or so. It’s a Japanese word. It means delicious.”
But this is not a novel about food. The “umami” here is the name of one house in a collection of five, all named by the landlord Alfonso, an expert in flavour (or more precisely pre-Hispanic diets). These five homes are in an urban environment and from the opening page you know that you are in for a desolate tale:
The three of us looked out of the sliding door to the yard where the picnic table lives. Once upon a time it was folding and portable. The benches on either side slot underneath like the retracting feet of a turtle, and the whole thing transformed into a neat aluminium travel case. Not anymore. It’s probably still fold up, but no one seems keen on picnics these days. Around the table there’s just gray cement (dirty gray), and a row of flowerpots full of dry soil, the remains of some bushes, a broken bucket. It’s a colorless, urban yard, If you spot something green, it’s moss you’re looking at; something red and it’ll be rust.
The future holds no picnics, it is bare, it is urban. But one of our voices, the young Ana wants to start a garden, she is breaking out of the desolation that has befallen these people and she is planning a future.
The book is broken into three sections each containing five chapters, five different voices, the chapters move backwards through the years. 2004 is the voice of a young girl, the older sister of Luz who drowned a number of years ago, 2003 the story of Marina, an unstable adult girl who suffers an eating disorder, 2002 the voice of Alfonso, the anthropologist who studies pre-Hispanic diets, and husband of the recently deceased Noelia, 2001 the immature voice of Luz who drowns in that year and the year 2000 another young girl, Pina.
The five voices live in five different houses named after the five basic flavours,
Bitter House: Marina
Sour House: Pina and her dad, Beto.
Salty House: Linda Walker and Víctor Pérez.
Sweet House: The Pérez-Walker Academy of Music.
Umami House: Alfonso Semitiel…and The Girls.
With wonderfully rich characters and distinctive voices, the culture exploration is also prominent, for example the study of amaranth, the Aztec rituals and how the Spanish wiped out the main grain source, amaranth, creating the now held misbelief that corn was the primary source of grain in Mexico is raised.
Again, although it may appear so with eating disorders, professors of diets, houses names after flavours, this is not merely a novel about food. This is a book that works on many other levels, exploring loss, motherhood, maternal love, and innocence. As well as the allegory of tending a garden, the meticulous work and the slow involvement of others in the “community”, showing the voices who are coming to terms with loss and moving towards a brighter future.
Just like umami, reading this book became a craving, you need a satisfying fill of this group of ordinary humans all coming to terms with ordinariness, death, loneliness, admiration, self-awareness, innocence. With characters that are believable, and small revelations that are peppered throughout the five distinct voices all become similar in their needs. Whilst Marina with her eating disorder believes that she is isolated and alone, Ana looks up to her for her individuality, her determination and her unique fashion style. Whilst Alfonso is living in the past, and the memories of his life with the recently deceased Noelina, Marina lives in the now, the immediate, no past, no future.
Whilst personally I found the voice of Alfonso the most enjoyable to read, that may be because he is the only male voice in the novel, all five voices are distinct, uniquely different and address, from a range of angles, maternal love and loss.
A book that must have been challenging to translate, given the different tone, nuances, styles and ages of all the voices, and as per her wonderful work with Ivan Repila’s “The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse”, Sophie Hughes has brought to life a seamless work in English. I am looking forward to reading her recently translated “Affections” by Rodrigo Hasbun.
A sparkling work that I am sure would reveal even more secrets on a second reading, one that combines all the flavours of the palate, which rounds out nicely and leaves you with a feeling of loss, something “to remember, not to keep”.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery