Mariano Azuela knew firsthand the materials of this novel, for he had served as a military doctor with Pancho Villa’s Golden Boys. His vivid account of revolutionary Mexico was first published serially in a small El Paso newspaper. Almost forgotten, it was revived in 1924 and won immediate fame for its author. Pessimism marks this story of “those below”—los de abajo—at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. This is no overall picture of the revolution but rather a blending of excitement, cruelty, and beauty as seen through the eyes of a man practically pushed into the struggle, a soldier who fought because the enemy was in front of him. Best known of Azuela’s sixteen novels, The Underdogs has appeared in dozens of Spanish editions and has been translated into many languages.
This favorite story about the Mexican Revolution still merits its international fame. It has both literary and sociological worth. Azuela’s honesty glitters in it because he does not overly caricature the Porfirista enemy even while lampooning him. Neither does Azuela spare the hypocrisies of his own side. His characterization is true to life, and his action scenes are fast and clear. Violence, pathos, beauty, and tragedy are etched against Jalisco’s night-blackened hills, so that the reader receives an indelible image of revolutionary pageantry, with its women soldaderas, bandoliered rebels, uniformed federales, and greedy nouveau riche who muddy the pond of revolutionary ideals. While painting only local vignettes of a nationwide holocaust, The Underdogs presents both the seedy and the inspiring aspects of the entire event.
The genuine worth of this novel was not recognized until almost a decade after its publication. By the mid-1920’s, however, it had been translated into various languages and was considered both a Latin American and a Mexican classic. It was written almost literally amid powder smoke, when Azuela was in despair because he saw that the revolution was drowning some injustices in blood only to spawn others as bad and as self-perpetuating. The virtue of the novel thus lies in its eyewitness impressions of intense, futile events. Azuela captures the excitement of times when bandoliered peons rode and marched off to war to the strains of the “Zacatecas March” or “La Cucaracha,” when the Victorian, Bourbonic, ordered age of Porfirio Díaz was dying. Lamentably, it was being supplanted by a violently conceived but stillborn new order that was not even to attempt many of its reforms until many dismal years later.
Ranked internationally as the best novel of the Mexican Revolution, The Underdogs helped transform the novel into the most important literary genre of Latin America. (Before 1910, novels by Latin American authors had inspired few translations and little fame beyond the local regions in which the individual novels were produced.) The Underdogs may also be the first Latin American novel whose singular literary style was shaped by the subject matter rather than by academic tradition. For example, in this work, time is telescoped to reflect the rapidity of events, and linguistic nuances tinge different aspects of the novel, including characters, scenes, and episodes. Individual members of Demetrio’s command symbolize certain features of Mexican society—one soldier is a former barber, others are peons, both poor and prosperous, and there are also prostitutes, virtuous countrywomen, a former waiter, and many other types. Although the venal characters are city dwellers and never country folk, the latter are sometimes ignorant.
Using an elliptical style, Azuela selects and spotlights a few specific characteristics of a person, a scene, or a situation so as to describe it deftly. He thus uses disjointed scenes, rather than systematic chapters, to strengthen the overtone of violent eruption. Selfishness wins, idealism is crucified, and the novel’s true protagonist—Mexico’s poor—does not march out of misery.
Although fragmented into many swift scenes, the novel is divided into three basic sections. The first section has twenty-one chapters and reflects hope; the last two sections have a total of twenty-one chapters and reflect failure. It is in the latter two portions of the novel that the filth, nastiness, and lewdness of war are best painted, when persons such as Cervantes realize that the revolutionary issues will not be decided by logic or delicacy but by brute power, as symbolized by self-made, upstart generals who care little for ideals.
Azuela uses colors and details well. The natural dialogue is regionalistic but not difficult and, although each personality uses special shades of language that subtly characterize him or her, a high percentage of the characters speak in standard Spanish.
The revolution ultimately disappeared without having helped the common people who needed help; rather, it had made their lives more difficult. Azuela’s sympathy in The Underdogs is thus always with the poor, whom he neither idealizes nor attacks. For the opportunists who betrayed the revolutionary ideals, he reserves a special sarcasm.
Azuela’s masterpiece became the standard novel of the revolution, which was the first significant socioeconomic upheaval in Latin America. Most other revolutionary movements of the preceding years had not sought to aid the submerged masses, the mestizo, the Indian, the laborer, the underdog in general. Following Azuela’s example, many Mexican and other Latin American novelists took up the fight for reform, denouncing tyranny and championing the cause of the forgotten. Since 1916, numerous starkly realistic novels have been published throughout Latin America that defend the underdog.