Under the Fifth Sun Analysis
by Earl Shorris

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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 accuracy of the events portrayed.

This transformation of reality to fiction is the process through which the novel may be considered true, even though it is in fact an imaginary, invented story. This novel is a serious attempt to deal with the question of historical truth, and because of that, Shorris has created the story of Villa’s life as a narrative of Mexican history told by an Indian sage. The narrator Popoca is omniscient, although never obtrusively so. Throughout the narrative, he interprets the events in terms of Aztec mythology and legend. The attitude of the narrative always seems to be that things occur as they will occur, because of that inevitable confluence of time and space. The narrator only foresees and interprets what must occur.

This concept of the world is very appropriate to the reality portrayed in Under the Fifth Sun. There is little indication that Villa has any grasp of political realities, a fact borne out by Guzmán’s version of Villa’s memoirs. Rather, his rise from common bandit to charismatic Revolutionary general seems to be preordained. It is never at all clear why he succeeds, why he becomes the leader that he does. While this would be a serious flaw in another novel about Villa, in this one it creates a successful blend of history and mythic interpretation. The unexplained inevitability of the events reflects the narrator’s interpretation of the world.

Shorris uses as one of the epigraphs of his novel the well-known quotation from Octavio Paz’ The Labyrinth of Solitude about machismo as “power, the will without reins and without a set course.” Social life in Mexico, according to Paz, is interpreted as a combat between the strong and the servile, the aggressive, insensitive macho and his victim. In this novel, Villa is portrayed as the ideal macho and even the narrator fails to understand the irony of that portrayal in the context of a mythic world view that proclaims the inevitability of the events. This irony, which is Shorris’ most admirable accomplishment, explains the dedication of the novel: “For Tony, as if lies could be lessons.” The things men do and the reasons they do them are lies. Truth is to be found elsewhere.

The novel creates a society dominated by the concept of a struggle for power on every level. The brutality of the strong against the weak, the horrible suffering endured by both the revolutionary soldiers and the civilians, the widespread evil generated by war, all these details are narrated as if they were the inevitable consequences of living. Through it all, Villa moves on as if he were driven by “the will without reins and without a set course.” His dealings with women are much the same. Liviana Aprisco, his strong-willed wife, is merely the woman he comes home to when everything else is done. His other two wives, whom he weds while still married to Liviana, are only brief pastimes for him. At no point does he allow himself to be vulnerable with a wife, or a lover, or a prostitute, for more than a brief moment.

This portrayal of Villa as the macho creates another of the ironies of the novel. In the last moments of the narrative, Villa encounters Socorro Riendo, a woman who was once his lover but betrayed him to the authorities. He again has sexual intercourse with her, and then is assassinated in the street as he is leaving her home. Popoca, the narrator, who came down from the mountains to see Villa because he realized that the “year of the consideration of endings” had arrived, fails to warn him. Rather than “counting the days,” Popoca allows himself to be seduced by an obscene woman, the “marigold woman,” who then in the morning light appears deformed and drives him away with hideous laughter. For Villa, Liviana had been his “luminous wife, this woman of marigolds and roses.”

The mythic version of Pancho Villa’s life, told by the Aztec wise man, develops an interpretation of the Mexican cultural heritage which coincides with Paz’ analysis in The Labyrinth of Solitude. All Mexican women are descendants of the weeping mother, La Malinche, the mistress of Cortez. They are raped, dishonored, made subservient, yet they are powerful and will persevere. In Villa’s childhood home, “time is a circle turned by an old woman who lives in the secret shade of a cool white house in Canatlán.” It is only when Villa gives up his revolutionary activities and becomes a wealthy landlord that he dies, betrayed by a woman, a daughter of La Malinche, with whom he allowed himself to be vulnerable.

Through his development of the ironies of Villa’s machismo, ironies that fulfill the prophecy inherent in the narrator’s mythic interpretation of the world, Shorris creates a serious portrayal of an enigmatic hero. His novel is successful primarily because the interpretive function of the narrative is unobtrusive and subtle. The novel is a detailed, extensive portrayal of the evil of a war in which atrocities are considered necessary to achieve an end that is good. The treatment of that contemporary theme is balanced by the narrator’s context of the myths of the ancient, native culture of Mexico.