Tag Archives: Mexico

Utopian dreams: a post-mortem

In August 1940 Leon Trotsky, one of the architects of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution, was assassinated in Mexico City, where he lived in exile. It was the second attempt on his life in less than three months. The assassin, Ramón Mercader del Río, was a Spanish Communist whose orders came directly from Joseph Stalin.

Stalin had banished Trotsky from the Soviet Union in 1928, but Trotsky continued to write harsh criticism of the revolution’s direction under Stalin’s increasingly tyrannical regime. In 1936, in one of Stalin’s first show trials, a Soviet tribunal tried Trotsky in absentia for treason along with sixteen other high-ranking Bolsheviks arrested by the secret police. All were sentenced to death and all but Trotsky were summarily shot.

Four years later, in Mexico, Mercader, who claimed to be a Belgian named Jacques Mornard but also used a Canadian passport with the alias Frank Jacson, gained Trotsky’s trust by forming a relationship with his secretary. On August 21, while Trotsky worked at the desk in his library, Mercader plunged a sawed-off ice ax into Trotsky’s skull. Despite the blow Trotsky lived until the next day. Mercader, who was apprehended by Trotsky’s bodyguards at the scene, spent the next twenty years in a Mexican prison.

Trotsky's study as it was on the day he died. Photo: Museo Casa de León Trotsky

Trotsky’s study as it was on the day he died. Photo: Museo Casa de León Trotsky

From these bare facts Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura has written a fine historical novel that is Russian in scale, spanning much of the 20th century’s experimentation with Communist utopias. The Man Who Loved Dogs begins in post-revolutionary Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Iván Maturell, a self-censored writer who works as a proofreader for a veterinary magazine, tells how he met a mysterious Catalan with two Russian wolfhounds on a beach outside Havana in the late 1970s. Over the next few years, in intermittent encounters, the eponymous man who loved dogs relates the life story of Trotsky’s assassin.

22474310In alternating chapters Padura moves three separate stories forward until they collide: that of Trotsky’s wandering exile from Kazakhstan to Turkey and Norway and finally to Mexico, where the Communist painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo persuaded Mexico’s leftist president, Lázaro Cárdenas, to accept the unwanted revolutionary; that of Mercader’s journey from the trenches of the Spanish Civil War to the Soviet Union during Stalin’s purges, then to France and Mexico in pursuit of his target; and finally, that of his depressed narrator, Iván Maturell, who occupies the terrible days of economic crisis in Cuba after the Soviet collapse with his compulsive desire to uncover the truth about the story the man on the beach told him.

Padura spent over ten years conceptualizing, researching and writing this novel, and it shows. The book breathes life into the character of Trotsky—a zealous, ruthless revolutionary who rues the destruction of his life’s work at Stalin’s hands. It makes real the transformation of a young, unthinking ideologue-soldier into a hardened assassin of Stalin’s secret police. And it is rich in describing the complex political currents facing Europe in the 1930s as two violent ideologies—Fascism and Communism—ripped Spain apart.

Today, the house where Trotsky lived in Coyoacán—an affluent suburb of Mexico City—is a museum. Trotsky’s study has been left much the way it was on the day he died, with his wire-rimmed eyeglasses, pages of correspondence and books in Russian and other languages on the table. Outside, in a courtyard garden surrounded by high walls  and protected by a guard tower and steel doors, a stone monument bearing a hammer and sickle marks Trotsky’s grave.

Trotsky's ashes lie beneath a monument in the garden of the house in Coyoacán. In the background, the guard house on the walls that failed to protect him. Photo credit: Museo Léon Trotsky.

Trotsky’s ashes lie beneath a monument in the garden of the house in Coyoacán. In the background, the guard house on the walls that failed to protect him from his enemies. Photo credit: Museo Casa de Léon Trotsky.

When I visited the museum on a cloudy, humid summer day in 1976, there was an oppressive atmosphere to the place; it felt more like a prison than a sanctuary. I remember thinking Trotsky’s life in Mexico would make a fascinating story. Padura, visiting the museum in 1989, had a similar thought, and he turned out to be the perfect writer to pull it off. Having lived through the Cuban Revolution, he knew firsthand the optimistic fervor of its early days, when Cubans embraced the great utopian dream of Communism espoused by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Padura also saw the gradual corruption of the dream and its decline into diminished freedoms, increasing authoritarianism and hopeless poverty for all but the elite few.

In the October 23, 2013 issue of the New Yorker, Jon Lee Anderson wrote an insightful article about contemporary Cuban literature that highlighted Leonardo Padura. Since the Revolution, most Cuban writers have either had to write dull, non-controversial books in order to pass the censors or see their books banned. Padura was the exception. By devoting himself to detective novels, he managed to slip social criticism into his fiction elliptically, avoiding the ire of the state. This made him one of the most popular writers in Cuba. The Man Who Loved Dogs is his most openly critical book, and although he won a national literature prize for it, it’s noteworthy that, after years of skirting trouble in Cuba, Padura now lives in Berlin.

If there is one history lesson from the 20th Century that echoes throughout Leonardo Padura’s important novel, it is this: Any ideology—political, religious, or economic—that must compel people to change their behavior in order for the system to succeed inevitably becomes abusive, corrupt and cruel, and is inherently doomed to fail. All three of Padura’s protagonists love dogs but only one, his questioning Cuban narrator, shows any compassion for his fellow man.

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The talking dead

Traditional grave-side offerings--cigarettes, decorated bread, fruit, beer and mescal--in Oaxaca. Phot credit: T. Gething

Traditional Day of the Dead graveside offerings in Oaxaca: cigarettes, tortillas, mole, decorated bread, fruit, beer and, of course, mescal.
Photo credit: T. Gething

Yesterday marked the end of los Días de los Muertos—the Days of the Dead—that syncretic Mexican celebration of Mesoamerican and Catholic beliefs encompassing Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. During this time Mexican families traditionally clean up and adorn the graves of their relatives, then spend a night of vigil, eating and drinking, singing and playing music, praying for and remembering the deceased.

Two great novels capture the mood of this annual event. One is Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, which takes place on November 2, 1938. It’s a masterpiece for many reasons, not least for its atmospheric descriptions of this largely indigenous celebration.

38787The other book isn’t directly linked to the Day of the Dead but might as well be. It’s Juan Rulfo’s enigmatic masterpiece, Pedro Páramo. I spent part of yesterday rereading this little gem, a novella of less than 50,000 words that is perhaps the greatest and most influential Mexican fiction yet written.

This is the fourth time I’ve read it—twice in a translation by Lysander Kemp, once in the original Spanish, and now in a newer and more faithful translation by Margaret Sayers Peden. The first time I read it during the graveyard shift while working as a security guard at the university library in Tucson forty years ago. I remember being transfixed by the spare, poetic magic of Rulfo’s prose. I am still spellbound by it.

Juan Rulfo

Juan Rulfo

Rulfo published only two slim books in his lifetime, a collection of stories, El llano en llamas (The Burning Plain and Other Stories) and Pedro Páramo. The former was published in 1953 and the latter in 1955. Rulfo spent much of his career as a traveling tire salesman and pursued another artistic passion, photography, as he made sales trips around the country. Although there were rumors he was working on another novel, La Cordillera, he revealed shortly before his death in 1986 that he had destroyed his work in progress.

According to Susan Sontag who wrote the introduction to the most recent English edition, Rulfo once said: “In my life there are many silences. In my writing, too.”

That statement summarizes the mystery of his writing, but it hardly explains how he accomplished it. Rulfo’s prose is inimitable and perfect, whether he was writing about illiterate adulterers who have murdered her husband and are obsessed by their sin, as in the haunting story “Talpa,” or about desperate revolutionaries ambushed in a canyon, as in “The Burning Plain.” Rulfo’s economy with dialogue and narrative exposition, his use of non-chronological sequences and time shifts add a strange intensity to his writing; his prose burns with unspoken emotion. (Not surprisingly, his black-and-white photographs express the same silences and economies, as if they were renderings of his books in images.)

Juan Rulfo's photography mimics the spare stark style of his fiction. Published by the Smithsonian Institute

Juan Rulfo’s photography mimics the spare, stark form of his fiction. Published by Smithsonian Books (2002).

Here’s an example of Rulfo’s prose from the early pages of Pedro Páramo, but really any section of the book matches it in tone:

It was during the dog days, the season when the August wind blows hot, venomous with the rotten stench of saponaria blossoms.

The road rose and fell. It rises or falls depending on whether you’re coming or going. If you are leaving, it’s uphill; but as you arrive it’s downhill.

“What did you say that town down there is called?”

“Comala, señor.”

“You’re sure that’s Comala?”

“I’m sure, señor.”

“It’s a sorry–looking place, what happened to it?”

“It’s the times, señor.”

Pedro Páramo is considered a precursor of magical realism; Gabriel García Márquez admired it so much he memorized entire passages. But the novel has more kinship with surrealism than magical realism.

Simply stated, it is the story of Juan Preciado, a young man who goes to Comala, the village of his dead mother, in search of his father, Pedro Páramo. At least that’s how it begins, but soon you realize nothing is quite normal. Pedro Páramo, Preciado learns, is long dead. The town is deserted and voices of the dead fill his ears. The story jumps in time and point of view, from the first person to the third, numerous times. Soon you wonder if everyone isn’t dead, including Preciado, and if these aren’t voices from a horrible past unburdening themselves of their losses and the grief caused by their cruel patrón. Pedro Páramo owned all the land around, controlling and abusing the people subsisting underneath him, taking what he wanted—land, men’s lives, other men’s wives—as he pleased.

Rulfo tapped a deep vein of Mexican experience in his indictment of the greedy landowners who used the turmoil of the revolution to their advantage, behaving like feudal lords in their own isolated worlds. The poor, the illiterate, the weak suffered at their hands, living in terror, haunted by violent death—it is a fatalistic, distinctly Mexican vision that resonates across time and place. For what is the difference between Pedro Páramo and the Mexican drug lords of today who use corruption and intimidation to control their turf? And, as the unearthed mass graves reveal, what awaits those who must live with such terror but death and decay?

Rulfo wrote about another time, about a poor, superstitious and oppressed Mexico devastated by lawlessness from years of revolution and brigandage, but it could be now, and it could be many places.

Photo credit: T. Gething

La Catrina as a sand drawing—here today, gone tomorrow. Photo credit: T. Gething

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¡Viva la revolución!

villa bannerI’ve never been much of a graphic novel fan, mainly because I prefer to have an author’s words ignite my imagination. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the new collaboration by Mexico’s most highly regarded crime novelist, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, and the illustrator Eko.

Cover_Pancho_Villa_Takes_ZacatecasPancho Villa Takes Zacatecas (published by Restless Books in an English translation by Nina Arazoza) celebrates so many things Mexican. For one, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Zacatecas—the bloodiest engagement of the Mexican Revolution—which took place on June 23, 1914.

Under the leadership of General Francisco “Pancho” Villa, the insurgent División del Norte fought the federal troops of President Victoriano Huerta. By routing Huerta’s army and taking the city’s strategic railroad junction, the revolutionaries forced Huerta’s resignation. Afterward, the Division of the North proceeded to Mexico City to meet Emiliano Zapata’s troops coming from the south. Villa’s victory was soon memorialized in the Mexican corrido, “La toma de zacatecas” (listen here).

Paco Ignacio Taibo’s minimal text deploys a fictional character, Colonel Montejo, loosely based on a historical figure, to tell the story of Villa’s famous victory. In the U.S., Pancho Villa is remembered as the “bandit” who shot up and burned Columbus, New Mexico, killing eighteen people, which prompted President Wilson to send General John J. Pershing and 5000 troops into Chihuahua in pursuit. But in Mexico Villa is a revered revolutionary leader.

The illustrations by Eko are the most impressive aspect of this novel. I was unfamiliar with this Mexican artist, but it turns out he has done work for the New York Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and other newspapers. Here, his inspiration comes from the great Mexican caricaturist, José Guadeloupe Posada. Posada used Day of the Dead calaveras to lampoon the political corruption at the height of the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz and during the chaos that followed in the days of the revolution.

posada-revolution

Posada’s depiction of the Mexican Revolution.

In an interview published by Restless Books, Eko says: “Posada to me is the first urban artist, a guerrilla for art. His work is made for the streets and the people. He uses the cheapest paper and makes his prints everyday with gossip, murders, and political criticism. Posada is the teacher of Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and all those new artists. But Posada is different because he worked to the limit, in the middle of a war.”

In Eko’s style there is also a nod to the great muralists of the Mexican Revolution: Orozco, Siqueiros, and Rivera, as can be seen in the page below.

A page from "Pancho Villa Takes Zacatecas."

A page from “Pancho Villa Takes Zacatecas.”

I was somewhat apprehensive buying a graphic novel as an eBook. On an old Kindle the illustrations are okay, but on an iPad they come through crisply, and the ability to enlarge them makes it even easier to admire their many fine details.

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The other Mexico

Letizia of reading interrupted led me to The Book of Lamentations (Oficio de tinieblas) by Rosario Castellanos. Last year, when I noted that Elena Poniatowska had won the Cervantes Prize, Letizia asked if I knew of any other modern Mexican women writers. I needed to ask some of my better-read friends, and the writer most often mentioned was Castellanos.

castellanos

Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974)

A native of Chiapas, the southern state best known today for the 1994 Zapatista uprising led by Subcomandante Marcos, Rosario Castellanos was a poet, novelist and journalist who came to prominence during the Latin American Boom. Perhaps because so many writers of that generation achieved worldwide recognition—García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Carpentier, Cortázar, Borges, Fuentes and Asturias—Castellanos, one of the few women writers of the generation, was somewhat overshadowed.

Perhaps, too, her style conflicted with the magical realism they espoused. For Castellanos was a realist, a feminist, and a champion of indigenous cultures that remained largely voiceless in the worlds of politics and literature.

536848The Book of Lamentations, her last novel, was published in 1962. It is a work of her maturity, solidifying and extending themes she explored in her early stories, novels, and poetry.

Using a third-person omniscient voice more reminiscent of the great 19th Century novels of Tolstoy and Balzac than the narrative experiments of the Boom, Castellanos creates a sweeping epic about the age-old conflict between the Ladinos (descendants of Spanish blood) and the Maya, specifically the Tzotzil-speaking people of Chiapas.

Borrowing a grisly incident from an uprising in 1869, Castellanos places her story in the era of President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40), whose ambition was to fulfill the promise of the Revolution by distributing land to the poor and indigenous peoples of Mexico.

The Ladinos, however, still owned the land, maintained power through corrupt local magistrates, and stubbornly resisted any change. As portrayed by Castellanos, their ingrained racism and blindness to the plight of the indigenous poor is reminiscent of attitudes in the Deep South before integration.

By modernizing the incidents leading up to the rebellion and its dramatic outcomes, including a gruesome crucifixion, Castellanos depicts a recurring story of domination and submission that began with the Conquest and foreshadowed the political agenda of the still unresolved Zapatista rebellion.

A one-time member of the provincial land-owning class, Castellanos moved to Mexico City as a young girl. She wrote poetry from an early age and after studying at the national university worked for the National Indigenous Institute. From this remove, she preserved a compassion for the victims of her story, Ladino and indigenous alike. Power, blindness, and cruelty are not endemic to one side alone.

The 18th Century church of San Juan Chamula is the site of a critical scene in Castellanos’ novel.

While other Boom writers explored the metaphorical uses of magical realism, Castellanos kept to the constraints of realism to tap the truly magical perspective of the Maya. In the Mayan world, sacred stones can talk and a wooden cross—that strangely syncretic symbol—may suggest cultural redemption through violence. The power of myth, as told in the classic Mayan book of creation, the Popol Vuh, lives on in oral tradition. Time is circular, and death leads to life and death again. As a poet thinking in metaphor, Castellanos understands these beliefs, but as a novelist she remains an outsider looking in.

This outsider’s perspective also empowers her sharp criticism of the Ladinos she knew so well—the hypocrisy, ignorance and contempt that prevailed in the provincial world she left behind.

Castellanos described herself as natively shy and emotionally distant; she perceived herself as an outsider who found escape in writing. This helps explain her taste for narrative omniscience and her pessimism that there would ever be a bridge between the two cultures she wrote about. Her fine novel in the end is a tragedy, as the epigraph she chose, a quote from the Popol Vuh, foretells:

Whereas your glory is no longer great;
Whereas your might exists no more
—and though without much right to veneration—
your blood will still prevail a while…
 
All the children of dawn, the dawn’s offspring,
will not belong to your people;
Only the chatterboxes will yield themselves to you.
 
People of Harm, of War, of Misery,
you who did the wrong,
weep for it.

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Poniatowska wins Cervantes Prize

Earlier this year I wrote about Elena Poniatowska’s masterful study of the 1968 massacre of students at Tlatelolco in Mexico City. Today the jury for the Premio Cervantes, the most renowned literary prize in the Spanish-speaking world, awarded this year’s prize to Poniatowska. She is the first Mexican woman and only the fourth woman ever to win the prestigious award.

Spanish Minister of Education and Culture José Ignacio Wert cited Poniatowska’s “brilliant career in various literary genres,” above all the work she did as a young journalist concerned about human rights, the defense of freedom and the fight against corruption.

“Her work stands out for its strong commitment to contemporary history. Author of emblematic works that describe the twentieth century from an international and inclusive perspective, Poniatowska is one of the most powerful voices in contemporary Spanish literature,” said Wert.

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Tlatelolco and Bolaño’s debt to Poniatowska

On October 2, 1968, just ten days before the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Mexico City, soldiers opened fire on a demonstration of some 10,000 students at the Plaza of the Three Cultures in Tlatelolco, in the heart of the city. At least forty-four people were killed (the actual number has never been determined) and hundreds wounded. Thousands were detained and over 1,200 arrested, some to be imprisoned for days and months without trial.

Plaza de las Tres Culturas

Then as now, the Plaza de las Tres Culturas contained a 16th Century church and pre-Conquest ruins, surrounded by urban housing projects and government ministries. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The massacre exposed the enormous rift between the government, ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for forty years, and Mexico’s youth. The government, which was so anxious to portray Mexico under its leadership as an emerging industrial democracy, instead revealed to the world its own dark, corrupted soul.

La escritora Elena Poniatowska

Elena Poniatowska (Photo credit: Casa de América)

Journalist Elena Poniatowska understood the significance of the tragedy and quickly went to work collecting the testimony of people who were there. In her 1971 book, La Noche de Tlatelolco (in English retitled Massacre in Mexico), she weaves together hundreds of eye-witness accounts to create a tapestry of horror. (Government documents released in 2001 would corroborate much of what Poniatowska described: that army snipers on rooftops began shooting into the crowd on a pre-arranged signal. Worse, they showed complicity for the order to fire at the highest echelons of the government.)

The accounts of the massacre occupy the second part of her incredible book. The longer first section uses the same narrative technique to explore the origins of the student movement. Like a documentary filmmaker, Poniatowska interweaves individual narratives to create a larger, more complex and heart-rending collage. She records the distinctive voices and their amazing stories without editorializing. By letting the voices speak for themselves, she captures the movement’s optimism, idealism and naiveté, as well as the manipulations of some of its leaders and the consternation it created among the older generation.

This is oral history at its finest and most powerful, and I believe it had a direct influence on an aspiring young writer who would emerge as one of Latin America’s great modern novelists: Roberto Bolaño.

the-savage-detectives-roberto-bolanoIn The Savage Detectives, Bolaño uses the same techniques to produce a similar documentary effect. His young Mexican narrator of the novel’s first section, Juan García Madero, possesses all of the idealism and naiveté, even the postured ennui, of those young people from the 1968 student movement.

In the second section of the novel, like Poniatowska Bolaño creates a collage of interwoven narratives to tell the larger, sadder story of the dissolution of the “infra-realist” poetry movement and the disillusionment of its two leaders, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. There is even a narrator in this section based on a legendary woman mentioned by Poniatowska who, during the student protests of ’68, remained on the university campus by hiding in a bathroom for weeks after the army evicted the students and shut it down. Bolaño takes that story and riffs on it in his own inimitable way, turning the woman into a poet whose voice adds more cumulative details about the demise of Lima and Belano.

The narrative arc of Poniatowska’s non-fiction and Bolaño’s fiction is the same. From ebullient, youthful optimism the reader travels across the emotional spectrum, while a compelling gravity draws each story to its inevitable outcome, culminating in violence, disbelief and dismay. Both books, one through meticulous reportage and the other through febrile imagination, brilliantly capture the history of a generation.

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