Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2528
In 1931 there was not one novel of importance published [in Mexico] that did not deal with the [Revolution] … in one way or another. (p. 205)
There were two facets to the Revolution, even during its military phase: one was predominantly political and looked toward a genuinely democratic, capitalistic society; the other was social and anticipated fundamental changes in the economic structure. One was middle class, the other was proletarian. The first was the initial and predominant force. The second, whose principal exponent during the military phase was Emiliano Zapata, came later and was in the position of having to exert its influence on the middle-class, political revolt that had already started. (pp. 205-06)
The Revolution had been a combination of heterogeneous forces. It was chaotic; and although sporadic moments of glory were apparent, the tragedy of civil war was even more so. The Revolution as an entity, as an achievement of men in search of freedom from a static society, could not possibly have been felt in the years immediately following, when the sense of tragedy prevailed. Because the interpretation of the Revolution was ambiguous, and its presence persistent, the need to discover its nature arose; and the first step was to look at what had happened.
The wave of novels of the Revolution in 1931 shows several different ways of telling the story, but with some characteristics that are common to most books on this theme: they are lineal accounts, episodic, with sketchily drawn characters. In general, everything—structure, style, characterization, even ideology—is subordinate to each author's need to tell what it was like. (p. 206)
The best novel of 1931 was Gregorio López y Fuentes' Campamento, which is important not only for its intrinsic merit, but also for what it forecasts of a distinguished literary career, Campamento is less a story than an illumination of a revolutionary encampment. The author's view flashes across the entire scene and reproduces the reality of a night, a moment in the long struggle…. The reactions of the revolutionaries are an intensification of ordinary human emotions. They are in a special situation which is becoming commonplace. They take advantage of the freedom that comes from the anonymity of belonging to the revolutionary band. The author accepts their state of anonymity as reality, and focusses his attention on the band rather than on individuals. Individuals do appear, but their real identity is with the group rather than as separate people. What matters in Campamento is what "the revolutionaries" do. López y Fuentes cultivated this device of the group protagonist in later novels, and also continued the same flashy style of obvious satire, easy irony, and broad antithesis. His prose is not beautiful, it is "catchy."
A year later, López y Fuentes published Tierra, a story of the whole course of the Revolution, with emphasis on the zapatista movement. Although this book is not a profound study, it is one of the clearest pictures of what happened from the end of the dictatorship to the end of the military phase of the Revolution. The lineal character of the narrative is emphasized by the use of dates as chapter titles. The real protagonist of the novel is the movement of the Revolution. Its effect on the ranchería (where the peons live on a large hacienda) is the central theme. It is mildly disconcerting that none of the characters, not even Zapata, is a protagonist; and it is possible to misread the novel if one tries to make it conform to a more conventional narrative method.
Tierra opens on a scene in which the...
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peons are changing the boundaries of the hacienda. They know that the owner is able to do this because he has the power to influence the necessary authorities. But they are resigned to the facts of life. Several narrative sketches of the peons' life follow: payday, a death, a birth. The effect of these sketches is not surprising. They show the same picture of feudal society under the Díaz regime that is found in many different places, including the novels of José López Portillo y Rojas. López y Fuentes, however, makes a generalization of the condition, instead of allowing for individual differences as his predecessor did. He wins the reader's sympathy easily by quick character sketches that make you comprehend a man's social condition even though you don't know him very well. The peons on Don Bernardo's hacienda are not all stupid by any means. But the author makes it clear that they have absolutely no hope of freeing themselves from bondage. They vacillate between placid acceptance of Don Bernardo's patronizing despotism and unhappy recognition of the obvious inequality. They have no thought of rebellion. They are as static as the ruling class.
For reasons that are entirely unjust, Don Bernardo has Antonio Hernández, a young peon, sent away as an army recruit. When Antonio returns, well before he was expected, he informs the hacienda of the Madero revolt. The news does not impress the peons greatly. The action in the north is far removed from them. But Don Bernardo is frightened because his assumption that the revolt will not amount to much is shaken by the obvious feeling of freedom on the part of Antonio. It costs Antonio some effort to gather a small band, but he does so and wins a few skirmishes. When Madero is successful, Don Bernardo and other porfiristas take the lead politically, carefully including Antonio in their company but keeping him in his place. The peons' condition has not changed.
López y Fuentes introduces Zapata into the novel as an ideal and develops him into a legend. Antonio Hernández and his men join the zapatista forces. From this point on, the novel contains perhaps an overdose of Zapata's idealistic insistence on immediate redistribution of the land. More effective than Zapata's words is the author's description of the zapatistas as a farming army, taking time out from the Revolution to cultivate their crops on land that should belong to them. The Revolution does not give them what they need, and they continue the fight against the post-Revolutionary government until Zapata is killed treacherously. Antonio Hernández, the physical symbol of the Revolution, is killed in battle. Toward the end of the book, the author uses one of his literary tricks very effectively when he says that everyone knows Antonio is dead but no one knows where he is buried, everyone knows where Zapata is buried but no one knows he is dead. Zapata has become a legend. The peons think they see him or hear him ride by, and their hope lives. Even if the Revolution physically ended in Antonio Hernández, its movement continues because the course that has been set cannot be reversed. (pp. 209-11)
López y Fuentes published his last novel of the Revolution, strictly speaking, in 1934. Mi general is the story of a humble man who becomes a general during the Revolution and is unable to find a place for himself after the fighting is over. The book adds very little to what the author has already said about the Revolution. (p. 213)
Although the Revolution continued to be … [Mexican novelists'] major preoccupation, the works published in 1935 and 1936 show two tendencies away from the account of revolutionary action: description of regional customs, and examination of the social problems that were apparent in post-Revolutionary Mexico. (p. 214)
The desire to tell what happened to the country is similar to the desire to describe the nation's way of life. And it may be a good idea to observe here that, aside from the Mexican Revolution, this kind of costumbrismo was common in the novel throughout Spanish America. It was a process of self-observation that amounted to a necessary step toward self-awareness.
Post-Revolutionary costumbrismo is different from the novels of the late nineteenth century, because the new costumbrismo shows no inclination to cling to tradition. Its intent is more in the nature of an examination than of nostalgic reflection. And, of course, such an examination is only a step away from social protest. (pp. 214-15)
Foremost among [predominant social problems in which one element was unable to defend itself] was the question of the Indian and his position in the changing society.
López y Fuentes turned from the Revolution itself to the problem of the Indian (El indio, 1935) in what became one of Mexico's best known and most influential novels. Recognition of the Indian's separation from society was, of course, a part of the Revolution's awakening effect. In earlier literature, when the Indian appeared at all, it was in an idealized interpretation that exalted the virtues of primitivism and gave the Indian enough of the white man's standards to make him acceptable on the latter's terms. Such make-believe could not go on forever.
Mexico is one of several Spanish-American countries that have very large Indian populations. From the moment of contact of the two civilizations, the dominant European tried to ignore the Indian except when he wanted to take advantage of him…. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, there began a slow-growing tendency in Spanish America to recognize the social injustice faced by the Indian, and later to take into account the ethnic characteristics that isolate Indian groups. The question is extremely complicated because it involves all kinds of considerations; ethnic, economic, social, political. And we must add to these difficulties the problem of plain human prejudice. The theme has become a major one in twentieth-century, Span ish-American literature, and López y Fuentes' novel set the stage in Mexico.
The people in El indio are not referred to by names, but by occupation, social function, or physical characteristics. This technique affects the reader in several different ways, and they are not all good. The anonymity produces a group characterization, and that, apparently, is what the author wanted to do. However, if López y Fuentes intended to spur his readers to active sympathy, he would have done better had he individualized his characters. Anonymity also emphasizes the primitive state of the people, perhaps more than the author intended. And it occasionally produces a "wise-old-chief-has-spoken" effect that is dangerously close to the noble savage foolishness of a century earlier.
A slender thread of story, concerning two lovers, connects episodes that the author chose to illustrate the Indian culture. The structure is typical of López y Fuentes. The episodes can be understood as an account of contemporary life, or as symbolic of the history of the confrontation of cultures. White men appear in the isolated Indian village. They look for gold and demand the Indians' help. They abuse the Indians' hospitality. The Indians retaliate and are in trouble. Later, a teacher comes. The Indians are obliged to work for both the Church and the State, to the detriment of their own interests. They observe the existence of two standards of justice, one for the white man and another for the Indian.
López y Fuentes' view of the Indian is the view of a social reformer, not an ethnologist. Basically, the trouble is a question of prejudice. The Indian is not a part of society because he is regarded as "other." The pictures of his life are shown in the costumbrista fashion; and although the author shows them with sympathy, he does not really enter into the Indian's being, as some later novelists have done. He sees what the Indian does, but he sees from his own point of view rather than from the Indian's. In general, this point of view does not greatly affect the novelist's intent, but it does have a tendency to make the book picturesque rather than profound. (pp. 215-17)
[From 1942 to 1946, novels] of protest outnumbered accounts of the Revolution. Regionalism is an important factor even in novels where it is not fundamental. Very gradually and subtly the novel probed more deeply into the meaning of the Mexican circumstance. A few books made understanding of the individual primary, and relegated the external social facts to a secondary position; but the common procedure was still to examine the new Mexico and to place people within the scene. The novel was hesitant: there was very little experimentation, yet the need to observe and describe was losing the intensity that characterized it ten years earlier. The nation itself was changing, also hesitantly. In the opposition of introversion and extroversion during the years since the Revolution, national introversion had been the stronger force. Mexico needed to be concerned for its internal problems, and the novels that examined the state of the country are a reflection of this need. (p. 226)
In his second indigenista novel, Los peregrinos inmóviles (The Immovable Pilgrims)—published in 1944—López y Fuentes changed his position from outside to inside in such a way that the novel would not see the Indian as "other," but would see what "other" signified from the standpoint of the Indian. The people are uprooted, disputes arise, divisions take place, the white man imposes himself, the place to settle is found. The crossroads is the center of the world. The Indian stops—indeed, in a sense, he has never gone anywhere—and resists the insistent intrusion of the "other." He sits, defensively, and awaits the attack.
The author's new position anticipated the approach taken by more recent novelists, most notably Rosario Castellanos. Unfortunately, López y Fuentes' efforts did not produce really satisfactory results, because his position is not consistent. The tendency to move inside is modified by the author's apparent desire to see the Indians' story as a gigantic symbol of the history of Mexico. He moves outside to get this view. And he fails because the story is partly related to time and partly removed from time. The reader is prompted to identify the symbolism historically, and then is deceived because symbol and history won't fit together. The result is that, after a first reading, he is likely to feel that he has missed something in a novel that is probably very good. But a second reading shows that he really didn't miss anything at all. The book tries to do two things that are not at all compatible, and the result is failure in both directions. What is left is an abortive attempt to see the world from the standpoint of the Indian, an unsatisfactory symbolism, and a wealth of external information about what the Indian is like. However, the movement toward the interior world of the Indian is sufficient to cast an entirely different light on the problem of his incorporation into society. Los peregrinos inmóviles emphasizes the egocentricity of the Indian point of view. El indio showed him living in a different world, but the later novel indicates that the separation of the two worlds is based on the assumption, held by both white men and Indians, that the world in which one lives îs reality, and everything else is apart, unrelated, and naturally of little consequence. (p. 213-232)
John S. Brushwood, "The Mirror Image (1931–1946)," in his Mexico in Its Novel: A Nation's Search for Identity, University of Texas Press, 1966, pp. 205-34.∗