To many Mexicans, the Revolution of 1910 is the great and inescapable fact in their country’s destiny and their own personal identity. A second conquest of the land and the past, it was the climax of four centuries of turbulent history and the adumbration of all that had happened since. The revolution did more than topple the paternal dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz: It tore a nation apart with fratricidal strife and put it together again in a strange new way that continued to disturb and puzzle its citizens. The war swept away lingering remnants of colonialism, brought a long-lived oligarchy into being, created a new middle class, moved Mexico into the twentieth century, and helped to shape a literature both ancestral and prophetic in its depictions of a sad and violent land.
In some ways, the situation can be compared to the aftermath of the Civil War in the United States, where for decades Americans tried to see their fraternal conflict in perspectives of cause and consequence. Among American Southerners, especially, there remained a sense of the uniqueness of the experience, a sense of national tragedy. A somewhat similar spirit prevails in some aspects of Mexican life, but on a greater scale and complicated by a growing belief that the revolution failed and the real revolution was still to come. In fact, Mexican intellectuals in the late twentieth century were often self-conscious in much the same manner that William Faulkner and writers of his generation were self-conscious, obsessed with feeling for place, burdened by the past, uneasy in the new society and with what had been lost in the process of change, and seeking to reclaim old values in their stories and poems. Feeling that history had isolated them in their own particular moment in time—the parochialism of the revolution—Mexican writers often turned inward to create a literature veering between fury and outrage and the poetry of nocturnal silence. They lived, to borrow a phrase from the poet Octavio Paz, in a “labyrinth of solitude.” It was José Luis Cuevas, the avant-garde painter, who first used the term “Cactus Curtain” in protest against the isolation of the Mexican artist. In an earlier novel, La región más transparente(1958; Where the Air Is Clear, 1960), Carlos Fuentes said that it is impossible to explain Mexico but only to believe in it with anger, a feeling of outrage, passion, and a sense of alienation.
This statement makes clear that the author rejects Mexican life of his time but at the same time uses it in his novels to test his sensuous powers and dramatic vigor. The country he writes about is not the land that tourists see or a land of tradition; it is the country of art, a place and people transformed by compelling imagination into something rich, strange, and meaningful. This is one explanation for his restless technical experiments with broken narrative structures, shifting points of view, solemn hymns to landscapes and time, and the interior monologues by which he tries to probe the conscience and consciousness of his people. If he has not yet assimilated in his own writing the influences he has absorbed from such varied figures as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Faulkner, John Dos Passos, and Thomas Wolfe, he has nevertheless put his borrowings to brilliant use in catching the tempo of Mexican life in its present stage of uncertainty and indirection.
Although his methods may vary in his discontinuity of form and the labyrinthine turnings of his style, his theme remains constant. His novels are studies in the responsibility that power, knowingly or unknowingly, brings and the corruption that almost necessarily accompanies power. He began with Where the Air Is Clear, a novel set against the background of Mexico City, where the extremes of poverty and wealth allowed a study in breadth of what had happened on all levels of society after the revolution failed to fulfill its promises. Central to...
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