Under the Fifth Sun

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

The subtitle of Under the Fifth Sun—“A Novel of Pancho Villa”—indicates that this is historical fiction. Because fiction is a portrayal of an imaginary, invented reality, and written history is a narrative of the reality known to the reader as his own, the historical novel presents enormous problems to the artist who creates it and to the critic who seeks a responsible method of dealing with it. In Earl Shorris’ epic portrayal of the life of Pancho Villa, the problem is more complicated than in many historical novels. Under the Fifth Sun is a detailed recounting of Villa’s career as the bandit turned Revolutionary General, and the details are historically accurate. Almost all the characters are “real,” and what they do is what they actually did, according to the most reliable contemporary accounts of the Revolution. Although there is no acknowledgment of sources in the novel, it is likely that Shorris relied consistently on the Memoirs of Pancho Villa, a compilation and elaboration of Villa’s personal archives by the Mexican novelist Martín Luis Guzmán, author of The Eagle and the Serpent and intimate friend of Villa. Guzmán’s work, which is itself a kind of novelization of Villa’s autobiography, reads like an authentic memoir. Shorris takes the form further into the realm of fiction by transforming it into an account told by someone else, but he does not let his fictional mode interfere with the authenticity of his history.

The novel by Earl Shorris is primarily history only in the sense that most of the events narrated are either historically true or else based on traditions so generally accepted that they are included in many respectable history books as probable. Yet, the novel is a novel, and as such, it portrays an imaginary world created by an artist. Shorris is a skilled writer who is able to transform a multitude of historical facts into the kind of intimate, integral experience that fiction provides. He accomplishes this transformation through his choice of narrative perspective.

The narrator of Under the Fifth Sun is Tlamatini Popoca, a descendant of the Aztecs, who describes himself as “smoke and flowers, night and wind, keeper of the tonalpohualli, reader of the tonalamatl, and thinker of inquiries.” He is the last of his kind, “the only defiance that remained.” The narrator does not explain his comment about defiance, but it becomes clear throughout the novel. It is a defiance of the modern world, the scientific world that has taken the place of the ancient one in which truth is to be found in the signs of the natural world. Death, like all events, is a predestined confluence of place and time. Four times the world has been destroyed: “after the flood, men were changed into fish; after the fire, men became birds; after the wind, men became donkeys; and when the world was the place of giants, the jaguars came and ate them.” The last world is the present, the Fifth Sun, which will be destroyed in earthquake and fire.

This is the concept of existence proclaimed by the narrator of this panoramic account of the Mexican Revolution. Even though the narrative is a series of events which one might call “historical,” the novel is not simply a report, rather the fictional world created here consists of but one thing: the telling of the events. Because the experience of the storytelling itself is fiction, and the narrator is imagined, the history of Pancho Villa becomes a fictional reality quite like that of any novel. That reality, of course, has its parallel in reality, but it is a fiction, regardless of the authenticity or...

(The entire section is 1492 words.)