(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In the first few decades of the twentieth century, the novel in Latin America focused on two interrelated themes: struggles over political space (that is, the identity of the nation) and struggles over geographic space (namely, national territory). Although Azuela’s fiction, like that of his contemporaries, concentrated on the struggle for political and geographic space (specifically in the context of the Mexican Revolution), it had the advantage of offering something entirely new to contemporary readers. Azuela was one of the first writers in Latin America to introduce two of the techniques of cinematography into the novel: the description of the appearance of things as if the camera were simply rolling and the use of the cinematic cross-cut from one scene to the next as a means of echoing the chaos of war. It is noteworthy that, of the twenty-four novels Azuela wrote, nearly two-thirds of them either name a particular individual in the title (such as María Luisa) or refer to groups of individuals (such as los de abajo, the underdogs), which suggests that the Mexican writer was interested in how individuals function within society—that is, the interplay between individual and collective psychology.

The Underdogs

Azuela’s detractors have argued that The Underdogs presents the events of the Mexican Revolution from too provincial a perspective. They also charge its author with failing to understand (or reveal) the ideological causes of the revolution. It is true that the revolution as depicted in this novel is largely confined to Jalisco, Aguascalientes, and Zacatecas (these were the areas in which Azuela had witnessed the events), and that the characters in Azuela’s version of the drama seem strikingly ignorant of the larger picture. The decisive battles of the revolution occur “offstage” in Azuela’s novel; Demetrio and his followers, for example, only find out about the Battle of Celaya, which occurred in the spring of 1915 and in which Villa was decisively defeated by Obregón, when they question some soldiers they suspect of being deserters. None of the various political manifestos that shaped the course of the revolution is even mentioned by the characters in the book. Pancracio manages to mispronounce Carranza’s name, calling him Carranzo, and Valderrama expresses lack of interest in Villa, Obregón, or Carranza; they are simply meaningless names to him.

The geographic limitations of the novel are the judicious restraints of a seasoned artist rather than those of a timid one. Azuela pointed out, for example, in a speech given on January 26, 1950, when he was awarded the Premio Nacional de Ciencias y Artes, that he saw his role as one of describing rather than explaining events. He said, “As a novelist I have tended to describe our evils and point them out; it is the task of others to find a solution for them.” Indeed, in this novel Azuela homes in on the dangers involved in an idealized version of reality. The intellectual who accompanies Macías’s army, Luis Cervantes, for instance, describes the revolution as a time when the underdogs...

(The entire section is 1275 words.)