Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Mariano Azuela: THE UNDERDOGS

I stumbled across this book among the cheap paperbacks at my local used bookstore. The back of the book tells me that it was originally published in “small El Paso paper” so I had to read it. It was written in 1915 and tells of the recent chaos of a generally chaotic Mexican Revolution, as seen by one Demetrio Macías. Demetrio becomes a revolutionary out of anger at the cruel policies of the Federales. He puts together a small army that become renowned for its fantastic marksmanship, which leads to a few stunning victories over much larger groups of government troops. But the real story of the novel is the degeneration of Demetrio—who is far from an ideologue—from acting as an instrument of revolution to a war-loving tool of tyrants. As such the real purpose of the books is to describe Azuela’s own disillusionment with the country and the revolution that he fled, coming to the United States where he wrote his novel. He does this by peopling his book with small-minded peasants and crazies and drunkards, who barely, if at all, understand what they are fighting for or against, and by the end don’t even seem to care if they are being used.

The best parts of the book hint at grand themes of revolution and illusion and disillusionment and all the darker aspects of human nature, even if it does not explore them very deeply. The most important episode is the appearance of a journalist turned revolutionary named Luis Cervantes, clearly a stand-in for the author. Demetrio is impressed by the aptly named Cervantes because he articulates the high-minded if somewhat quixotic, goals of the revolution that Demetrio is only dimly aware of. The other members of the group are impressed, and one comments about how great it would be to be able to read and write. Gradually, Cervantes himself is reduced to countenancing the petty thefts and crimes that go along with being part of a wandering guerrilla army in the countryside, though he then tires of its pointlessness and retreats, like Azuela himself, to El Paso. There he writes to his friend with a final gesture of farewell to the revolutionary sentiment, a suggestion that the two of them enter fully into the bourgeosie:

I have an idea which may prove profitable to both of us and which may improve your social position, as you desire. We could do a fine business here if we were to go in as partners and set up a typical Mexican restaurant in this town. I have no reserve funds . . . but I have something much more valuable than money; my perfect knowledge of this town and its needs.

The second inriguing portion of the book concerns the appearance of the characters Blondie and War Paint. Blondie is a skilled soldier who quickly ingratiates himself with Demetrio. War Paint Paint is his sometime lover who seems to be trying to bed Demetrio. Blondie is cruel to everyone around hm, torturing a prisoner and killing a man who complains about having his corn stolen. War Paint seems to be amused by his cruelty, though she occasionally shows glimmers of human compassion, in particular for a young girl who has attached herself to Demetrio. Of course, the whole thing falls apart. Blondie shows some trace of normal emotion when he finally become impatient with War Paint’s lack of faithfulness and spurns his lover. The elements of soap opera and cheesy Western make me wish that this book could be made into a movie. One could round out the characters, bring out the latent emotional conflicts, throw in a few sex scenes amidst grandiose war scenes and voila, Hollywood blockbuster! Unfortunately, Azuela only hints at the interesting aspects of his characters and conflicts but lets them come and go just a bit too quickly. In his all-encompassing cynicism about the revolution, he is a little too eager to show the sinister sides of his characters before one really has a chance to sympathize with them.

It’s difficult to say much about the quality of the prose itself from this Signet Classic edition. Though the book has been published many times and in many different translations, the one I picked up, an old one from 1963 done by E. Munguia, Jr., is truly wretched. I haven’t seen the text in Spanish and so can’t speak of accuracy, but the English is quite bad in its own terms—I can only guess that it is a highly literal translation of the original text into into a highly old-fashioned English. There are such things as “revolutionist” for revolutionary, and longer passages that are in their way fun to quote: “At high noon, when the reflection of the sun on the calcareous soil burned their shoulders and made the landscape dimly waver before their eyes, the monotonous, rhythmical moan of the wounded rose in unison with the ceaseless cry of the locusts.” Or: “A hole amid a debris of crumbling stone offered a refuge of safety.” And the trouble with this edition stretches to include an introduction by Ana Castillo, which, though generally quite informative, repeatedly refers to the hero of the novel “Demetrio Martínez.” I guess that’s what you get for two dollars.

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