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The Book of Lamentations

The Book of Lamentations

by Rosario Castellanos, Esther Allen (Translator), Alma Gullermoprieto (Introduction)

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Set in the highlands of the Mexican state of Chiapas, The Book of Lamentations tells of a fictionalized Mayan uprising that resembles many of the rebellions that have taken place since the indigenous people of the area were first conquered by European invaders five hundred years ago. With the panoramic sweep of a Diego Rivera mural, the novel weaves together


Set in the highlands of the Mexican state of Chiapas, The Book of Lamentations tells of a fictionalized Mayan uprising that resembles many of the rebellions that have taken place since the indigenous people of the area were first conquered by European invaders five hundred years ago. With the panoramic sweep of a Diego Rivera mural, the novel weaves together dozens of plot lines, perspectives, and characters. Blending a wealth of historical information and local detail with a profound understanding of the complex relationship between victim and tormentor, Castellanos captures the ambiguities that underlie all struggles for power.

A masterpiece of contemporary Latin American fiction from Mexico’s greatest twentieth-century woman writer, The Book of Lamentations was translated with an afterword by Ester Allen and introduction by Alma Guillermoprieto.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A classic of Mexican literature since its publication in 1962, this historical epic appears in its first English translation with fortuitous timing. It takes place in the impoverished southern Mexican state of Chiapas, where, since 1994, Mayan rebels known as the Zapatistas have won sympathetic media attention for their grievances against the Mexican government. Castellanos (1925-1974) takes events that occurred in 1712 and 1868 and resets them in the 1930s to create a complex tale of race, class and gender. Constructing an entire provincial society, she portrays macho landowners, exploited Indians, submissive wives, misguided politicians and corrupt religious officials clashing with one another and among themselves in a thirst for power. At the center of the landowners' elite circle is political aspirant Leonardo Cifuentes, who incites fear and hatred of the Indians, claiming they pollute the region's civic, moral and religious values. The indigenous community, long abused by the landowners, revolves around Catalina, an ilol, or prophet, who instigates a rebellion when she creates a cult around three stone idols. The major confrontation occurs at Easter, when indigenos crucify a boy conceived in a rape of a young Indian girl by Cifuentes years before. The novel features intriguing interior monologues and indirect discourse, but the third-person omniscient narration doesn't quite unite the many characters and plot lines or satisfactorily compress the immense volume of historical detail into digestible form. Still, this is an always panoramic and often moving novel that brings Mexico's turmoil to complex, tragic life. (Dec.) FYI: In 1974, Castellanos was electrocuted while trying to plug in a lamp in Israel, where she served as Mexico's ambassador.
Library Journal
Although several of Castellanos's works have been translated into English (Nine Guardians, Readers International, 1992), she has not enjoyed the acclaim in this country as have Gabriel Garca Mrquez and Isabel Allende. Yet this novel, originally published in 1962, with its lush prose and bleak characterizations, predates both authors. Set in the 1930s in the Mexican state of Chiapas, it is a dark epic of oppression, greed, and genocide, climaxing with an Indian uprising and a harrowing ritual crucifixion of a child. All the characters, from the Maya leader and the richest landowner, to the Indians and townspeople who form a tragic chorus, contribute to a quest for power that leads to death. Castellanos's narrative is intricately layered and her characters are finely crafted. Highly recommended.Ellen Flexman, Indianapolis-Marion Cty. P.L., Ind.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.21(w) x 7.62(h) x 0.84(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

San Juan, the Guarantor, he who was there when the worlds first appeared, who spoke the yes that started the century on its way and is one of the pillars that keep stable what is stable, stooped down one day to contemplate the land of men.

His eyes travelled from the sea where the fish glides to the mountaintop where the snow sleeps. They passed over the flatlands where the fluttering wind scuffles, over the beaches' buzzing sands, over the forests, refuge of wary animals. Over the valleys.

The gaze of San Juan Guarantor paused at the valley called Chamula. He was pleased by the gentle slope of the hills that come there from far away to meet, their ravines gently heaving. He was pleased by the sky, hovering near in the early morning mists. There rose up in the soul of San Juan a desire to be worshiped in this place. That was why he turned all the white sheep in the flocks grazing in that valley to stone: so there would be no lack of materials to build his church and so his church would be white.

And there the rocky outcrop remained, silent and unmoving, sign of a divine desire. But the tribes that dwelled in the valley of Chamula, those called Tzotzils, the People of the Bat, did not know how to interpret this marvel. Neither the eldest among the elders nor the men of the Council were able to express a worthy opinion; they produced only confused stammerings, lowered eyelids, arms falling in gestures of fear.

That was why the other men had to come, later. And it was as if they came from another world. They carried the sun in their faces and spoke an arrogant language, a language thatwrenches the hearts of those who hear it. A language not like Tzotzil(which is also spoken in dreams), but like an iron instrument of mastery, a weapon of conquest, the striking lash of the law's whip. For how could orders be given or condemnations passed down, if not in Castilla? How could punishments or rewards be meted out, if not in Castilla?

The newcomers did not fully understand the enigma of the petrified sheep either. They understood only the command that work be done. So they with their heads and the Indians with their hands began to construct a church. By day they dug the foundations, but at night the foundations filled in and became level again. By day they built the walls, and at night the walls fell down. San Juan Guarantor had to come in person, pushing the stones himself, rolling them down the slopes one by one until they were all gathered in the place they would remain. Only then did the men's efforts come to fruition.

The building is white, as San Juan Guarantor wanted. In the air consecrated by its vault resound the prayers and chants of the Caxlan, the pleas and laments of the Indian. Wax burns in perfect self-immolation; incense exhales its fervent soul; sedge clears and perfumes the air. From the altar's most conspicuous niche, the refined profile of the brightly painted wooden image of San Juan looks down, larger than the other images: Santa Margarita, the smallfooted maiden who pours out blessings; San Agustin, tranquil and robust; San Jeronimo, with a tiger in his belly, the secret protector of brujos; the Virgen Dolorosa, with a storm cloud darkening her horizon; the enormous Good Friday cross, expectant of its annual victim, leaning precariously, ready to drop like a catastrophe. There are also hostile powers that had to be tied down to keep their forces from erupting; anonymous virgins, mutilated apostles, inept angels fallen from the altar to the portable platforms and from there to the ground where they were knocked over: inanimate matter, forgotten by piety and disdained by oblivion. Hearing dulled, heart indifferent, hand closed.

These, it is said, are the things that have taken place since the beginning. It is no lie. There are witnesses. All of it can be read in the three arches of the church portal, where the sun takes its leave of the valley.

This is the center. Around it are the three sections of Chamula,the principal town of the municipality: a town with both religious and political roles, a ceremonial city.

The leading men of even the most distant regions of the Chiapas highlands where Tzotzil is spoken come to Chamula. Here they take up the burden of their duties.

The greatest responsibility falls on the president, and after him, the secretary. The two of them are assisted by alcaldes, regidores, elders, gobernadores and sindicos. The mayordomos are there to supervise the worship of the saints, the alfereces to organize the celebration of holy days. The pasiones are assigned their tasks for Carnival.

These duties last twelve months and those who carry them out, transitory inhabitants of Chamula, live in the huts scattered along the hillsides and the valley floor, supporting themselves by working the land, raising animals and guarding flocks of sheep.

When their term is over, these representatives return to the places they came from, enveloped in dignity and prestige. Now they are "former authorities." They have deliberated in the presence of their president and their deliberations were entered into the record by the secretary, inscribed on the paper that talks. They have established boundaries, mediated rivalries, dispensed justice, formalized and dissolved marriages. Most importantly, they were custodians of the divine. They saw to it that no one was remiss in care and reverence. This is why the chosen ones, the elite of the race, are not permitted to enter the day in the spirit of labor: they must enter it in the spirit of prayer. Before commencing any task, before pronouncing any word, the man who serves as an example to others must prostrate himself before his father, the sun.

Morning comes late to Chamula. The cock crows to chase away the darkness. As the men grope toward wakefulness, the women find their way to the ashes where they bend and blow to reveal the embers. The wind circles the hut, and below the roof of palm fronds, between the four walls of mud and twigs, cold is the guest of honor.

Pedro Gonzalez Winikton spread apart the hands that had been joined in meditation and let them fall along his body. He was an Indian of good height and solid muscles. Despite his youth (marked by the early severity typical of his people), others looked up to him as an elder brother. The wisdom of his decisions, the energy of his commands and the purity of his habits ranked him among men of respect, and only there did his heart expand. So he was content when, obliged to accept investiture as a judge, he took his oath before the cross in the portal of the church of San Juan Chamula. His wife, Catalina Diaz Puilja, wove a serape of thick, black wool that amply covered him down to his ankles, to make those assembled hold him in greater esteem.

Consequently, after December 31st of that year, Pedro Gonzalez Winikton and Catalina Diaz Puilja came to Chamula. They were given a hut to live in, a plot of land to farm. The cornfield was there, already green and promising a good harvest. What more could Pedro wish for? He had material abundance, prestige among his equals, the devotion of his wife. A smile lasted only an instant on his face, little practiced at expressing happiness. His features hardened. Winikton saw himself as the hollow stem, the stubble that is burned away after the harvest. He compared himself to ashes. He had no children.

Catalina Diaz Puilja, barely twenty years old yet already dry and withered, was given to Pedro from childhood by her parents. The early times were happy. The lack of offspring was seen asnatural then. But later, when the companions with whom Catalina spun, gathered wood and carried water began to settle their feet more heavily onto the earth (because they walked for themselves and for the child to come), when their eyes filled with peace and their bellies swelled like granaries after the harvest, then Catalina probed her fruitless hips, cursed the lightness of her step and, turning suddenly to look back, saw that her feet left no mark behind her. This, she thought with anguish, was how her name would pass over her people's memory. From that time on she was inconsolable.

She consulted with the elders, yielded her pulse to the diviners' ears. They questioned the cycles of her blood, investigated the facts, intoned invocations. Where did your path swerve, Catalina? Where did your spirit take fright? Catalina sweated, immersing herself in the smoke of miraculous herbs. She did not know how to answer. And her moon did not return white like that of women who have conceived, but stained with red like the moon of spinsters and widows. Like the whore's moon.

Then the pilgrimage began. She approached the wandering peddlers who brought news from far away. She stored the names of the places to be visited in the folds of her mind. There was an old woman in Cancuc who could work harmful magic but was also a healer, depending on what was needed. In Biqu'it Bautisti, a brujo went deep into the night to interpret its designs. An enchanter practiced in Tenejapa. Catalina brought them humble gifts: the first ears of corn, jars of liquor, a young lamb.

In this way the light was gradually hidden from her and she was caught up in a dark world ruled by arbitrary wills. She learned to placate those wills when they were threatening, to excite them when they were auspicious, to transmute their signs. She chanted mind-numbing litanies. She ran through flames, unharmed and delirious. Now she was one of those who dare to gaze on the face of mystery, an ilol, a seer, whose lap is a nest of spells. Those she frowned on trembled and those who saw her smile were reassured. But Catalina's belly was still closed. Sealed like a nut.

As she knelt in front of the metate, grinding a portion of posol, Catalina watched her husband from the corner of her eye. At what moment would he force her to speak the words of repudiation? How much longer would he tolerate the offense of her sterility? Marriages like theirs were not valid. One word from Winikton would be enough to make Catalina return to her family's hut back in Tzajal-hemel. She would not find her father or her mother there; both of them had been dead for years. There was no one left but Lorenzo, the brother who was called "the innocent" because of his simple nature and the vacuous laugh that split his mouth in two.

Catalina stood up and placed the ball of posol in her husband's bag of provisions. What made him stay with her? Fear? Love? Winikton's face kept its secret. Without a sign of farewell theman left the hut. The door closed behind him.

An irrevocable decision froze Catalina's features. They would never separate, she would never be left alone, never be humiliated in front of her people.

Her movements quickened, as if she were about to fight an enemy then and there. She came and went through the hut, guided more by touch than by sight; the only light filtered in through holes in the walls and the room was blackened, impregnated with smoke. Even more than touch, habit steered her, keeping her from stumbling against the objects heaped up randomly in the tiny space. Clay pots, chipped and cracked; the metate, still too new, not yet broken in by the strength and skill of the woman who used it; tree trunks instead of chairs; ancient chests with useless locks. And, leaning against the fragile wall, innumerable crosses. One, made of wood, was so tall it appeared to be holding up the roof; the others, woven from palm fronds, were small and deceptively like butterflies. Hanging from the principal cross were the official insignia of Pedro Gonzalez Winikton, judge. And scattered throughout the hut were the professional instruments of Catalina Diaz Puilja, weaver.

The sound of activity in the other huts, increasingly clear and urgent, made Catalina shake her head as if to chase away the painful dream that was tormenting her. Hurriedly she prepared for the day, carefully placing in a mesh bag the eggs she had gathered the night before, wrapped in leaves to keep them from cracking. When the bag was full, Catalina lifted it to her shoulders. The strap digging into her forehead looked like a deep scar.

Around the hut a group of women had gathered, waiting in silence for Catalina to appear. One by one they filed past her, bowing to show their respect. They did not lift their heads until Catalina had quickly brushed them with her fingers while reciting the courteous, automatic phrase of greeting.

When this ceremony had been completed, they set off. Though all of them knew the way, none dared take a step that was not led by the ilol. Their watchful gestures, rapidly obedient, anxiously solicitous, showed that these women looked to her as a superior. Not because of her husband's position, since they were all the wives of officials and some were married to men whose prestige was greater than Winikton's, but because of the reputation that transfigured Catalina in the eyes of those whose souls were fearful and unfortunate, those who were avid to ingratiate themselves with the supernatural.

Catalina accepted their respect with the calm assurance of one receiving her due. The other women's submissiveness neither annoyed her nor made her proud. Her conduct was moderate and sensible, in keeping with the tribute she was accorded. Her gift to them was an approving smile, a glance of complicity, a well-timed word of advice, an opportune reminder.And in her left hand she held threats, the possibility of doing harm. Though she kept careful watch on her power. She had seen too many left hands chopped off by vengeful machetes.

Catalina led the procession of Tzotzil women, all uniformly wrapped in thick, dark serapes. All bent beneath the weight they carried (the goods they brought to sell, the small child sleeping against its mother). All going toward Ciudad Real.

The path, made by years of walking feet, coils around the hills. The earth is yellow and loose, easily blown away by the wind. The vegetation is hostile: weeds, curving thorns. Here and there are young bushes or peach trees in their festive garb, peach trees blushing pink from sweetness, from smiling, blushing pink from happiness.

The distance between San Juan Chamula and Ciudad Real (or Jobel, as it is called in Tzotzil) is long. But these women crossed it, untiring and wordless, their attention fixed on the careful placement of their feet and the work spread between their hands, the coils of pichulej that their busy fingers made longer and longer as they walked.

The mass of mountains flowed into a wide valley. Here and there, as if fallen by chance from the sky, were houses. Shingled shacks, inhabited by Ladinos who looked after fields or miserable flocks, precarious shelter against bad weather. Now and then a stately home rose up in all the insolence of its isolation, solidly built but with the sinister look of a fortress or a jail rather than a place meant to lodge the refined softness of the wealthy.

The outskirts; the banks of the river. From here the domes of the churches could be seen reverberating in the humid light.

Catalina Diaz Puilja stopped and crossed herself. Her followers imitated her. Then, with whispers and quick, skillful movements, they redistributed the goods they were carrying. Some women were given all the weight they could bear. Others pretended to stagger under an excessive load, and they went to the front of the line.

Silent, as if they neither saw nor heard, as if they were not expecting anything to happen, the Tzotzil women moved forward.

As they came around the first corner it happened, and although it was expected, habitual, it was never any less fearsome or repellent. Five Ladinas of the poorest class, barefoot, dressed in rags, threw themselves onto Catalina and her companions. Without saying a single threatening word, without working themselves up with insults or excusing themselves with reasons, the Ladinas fought for possession of the bags full of eggs, the clay pots, the fabrics that the Indian women defended in brave, mute furor. But in the flurry of their gestures, both parties to the struggle took care not to damage or break the objects they were contending over.

In the confusion of the first moments, several of the Indian women managed to slip away and hurried toward the center of Ciudad Real. Meanwhile, those left behind opened their bleedinghands, leaving the goods to the attackers who snatched up their booty in triumph. Then, to give an appearance of legality to her violence, the enemy threw down a handful of copper coins that the other woman picked from the dust, weeping.

The Gospel of Corax

By Paul Park


Copyright © 1996 Paul Park.All rights reserved.

What People are Saying About This

Rosario Castellanos
Writing has been, more than anything, explaining to myself the things I don't understand.
Alma Guillermoprieto
The Book of Lamentations is a heroic attempt to re-imagine and understand an atrocious event: the rebellion spearheaded by the inhabitants of San Juan Chamula in 1868 which, according to contemporary accounts, culminated in the crucifixion of a child....[Castellanos] turned herself into a mirror in which the Maya people who brought her up could be reflected, and what she saw still has the authority of truth today

Meet the Author

Rosario Castellanos (1925-74) was born Mexico City and spent much of her childhood in Comitán, in Mayan southern Mexico. After traveling to Europe and to the United States for advanced study in aesthetics, she returned to the province of Chiapas to work with Indian theater groups and the Indigenous Institute of San Cristóbal. Much of her work, even throughout her involvement with the literary group "The Generation of the '50s," tried to traverse the distance between the pre-Columbian and the European cultural traditions of Mexico. While serving as Mexican ambassador to Israel, Castellanos died in a freak household accident in Tel Aviv. In an irony she might have enjoyed, she was buried in the rotunda of Illustrious Men, in Mexico City.

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