Al filo del agua (literally, on the edge of the water) is a Spanish phrase with two meanings. It signifies the moment that the rain begins. The phrase is also used in reference to something imminent. The imminent in Agustín Yáñez’s novel, the Mexican Revolution, was brought on by dissatisfaction with the political situation and by social unrest. The Roman Catholic Church was one of Mexico’s institutions on which the unrest was focused; hence the emphasis on religion in the novel. Reform of the political system and land distribution were other causes for the revolution.
By 1910, Porfirio Díaz had been dictator of Mexico for more than thirty years. He had ruled with an iron hand, and only recently had the dream of political freedom and social improvement begun to filter through to the many semi-isolated towns of Mexico. The same few families had always been the social leaders and political bosses in the towns, and Díaz’s thirty-odd years of rule had done nothing to lessen this inequity or to improve the lot of the common people. Education was nonexistent except for the privileged few, and superstition was rampant.
Another force that held the people in its grip was the Church, a circumstance especially true in rural areas where Juarez’s 1859 Reform Laws seldom reached. These laws had greatly reduced the political power of the church, and such things as processions and public religious festivities were forbidden. In the small towns, however, the priests often continued such ecclesiastical activities in spite of the law.
Yáñez paints against this historical background a series of character studies portraying the effects of a narrow, rigid, dull, and conventional life on people of different ages, with varying degrees of education and exposure to outside influences. These influences, being, in the eyes of the village, outside ones and therefore bad, include such things as freemasonry, bright clothing, strangers, uncensored writings, fun, spiritualists, and people who had been to the United States. The list could go on and on. Yáñez creates a sense of monotonous gloom with the sure hand of an artist who has experienced this kind of life himself. The fictitious but typical town in which the action takes place is set in the state of Jalisco, of which the author was a native.
Each morning the church bells in this town call the people out of their beds as early as four o’clock to begin another dreary, quiet, prayerful day. Life is taken very seriously. The women wear dark, somber colors and do not leave the house except to go to church or to do necessary errands. There is no visiting except in the case of extreme illness or a death in the house of a neighbor. There is little laughter, dancing, or singing. Strangers and strangeness are condemned. Nonconformity, even in small things, starts tongues wagging. At the end of each unvarying day, the church bells send the people to bed, an act that for many means the onset of sleepless hours of anxiety or of wrestling with guilty consciences and of wondering when and in what form God’s wrath will be brought down upon their heads.
With this daily pattern providing the atmosphere, broken only by funerals, special fiesta days, and an occasional scandal, the action in the story begins as the people are preparing for their Lenten and Easter activities. The panorama of people and events proceeds through the year, displaying the special religious days of June; the expected deaths, illnesses, and bad luck in August; the celebration of patriotic holidays in September; the scandalous prank of the students home for vacation in November; and the Christmas season with its festivities, which continues on into the New Year, at which time the people are awaiting the appearance of Halley’s Comet. This event is being anticipated so intently by Lucas Macías, the soothsayer, that the rest of the people prepare for trouble, for Lucas has from the start associated the appearance of the comet with the stepping onto the scene of Francisco Madero, the man who is to...
(The entire section is 1660 words.)