Mariano Azuela (ahs-WAY-lah) is considered the leading Mexican novelist of the first half of the twentieth century. He produced not only the highly acclaimed cycle The Underdogs, but until his death chronicled assiduously the unfolding drama of Mexican history in his times. Azuela was born into a middle-class family; he studied medicine in Guadalajara and returned to his native city to practice in 1900. Soon his office became a meeting place for members of the local intelligentsia. He married that same year, and he and his wife had ten children together. He seemed assured of the peaceful, comfortable life of a recognized provincial doctor.
In 1907 he published María Luisa, which is based on a tragic case he observed during his student years in Guadalajara. Already in his earliest writing, Azuela raised his voice against the social ills he perceived in Mexico, which was undergoing the first stage of modernization under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. Azuela reached the peak of his early maturity in the novel Marcela: A Mexican Love Story, a powerful indictment of the feudal landholding system still prevalent in Mexico at that time. In its melodramatic story line, naturalistic precision, social critique, and depiction of the confrontation of human beings and nature, the work is characteristic of the Latin American “novel of the land” of the 1920’s and 1930’s. In Mexico the mystique of the land was suffused with history.
When the Mexican Revolution erupted, Azuela, who supported Francisco Madero’s side, was named political head of his native town. Yet he realized very soon how skewed the revolutionary process was and how self-destructive the idealist Madero. At the first opportunity he resigned from active participation in events. In Andrés Pérez, maderista, he documented his critique of the failing revolution. Azuela’s prudence probably saved his life after the old forces returned to power under General Victoriano Huerta. Toward the end of 1914 some allied forces of Pancho Villa reached Lagos de Moreno, at which point Azuela was able, though belatedly, to join the revolution. He was unprepared for the revolutionaries’ split into warring factions, or for chance marking him as one of the “villistas,” who were the losing faction in the internecine struggle.
Azuela underwent a year-long odyssey that led him through half of Mexico, from one defeat to the next, in the strategic and many times chaotic retreat of Villa’s forces to their northern base. There, however, they were confronted with the U.S. support of their adversaries. It was under these circumstances and from the perspective of the crushed in the revolutionary process that Azuela started to plot his greatest novel, The Underdogs, one of Mexico’s founding fictions. By the time he slipped out of his war-torn country and reached El Paso in the fall of 1915, he had completed the bulk of the first version, and he finished the novel as it was being printed as a weekly supplement of a local paper. There were several subsequent book editions, but the novel remained largely unknown until it was discovered in the mid-1920’s and became a contemporary classic.
Azuela substantially reworked the novel for the 1920 edition; he strengthened its structure, achieving a narrative carefully planned and masterfully executed with attention to the smallest detail, yet he managed to maintain the freshness of the original version. In the story, the effaced narrator lets his characters engage in a truly polyphonic dialogue. The discourse mixes lyricism, rough language, and satire, and it is saturated by references to the popular culture produced by the revolution. Nature symbolism and a story line that proceeds concentrically give the narrative a mythical frame. In the work personal experience, myth, history, and culture blend into a powerful expression.
In the chaos that ensued after...
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