The Underdogs: A Novel of the Mexican Revolutionby Mariano Azuela
The greatest novel of the Mexican Revolution, in a brilliant new translation by an award-winning translator
The Underdogs is the first great novel about the first great revolution of the twentieth century. Demetrio Macias, a poor, illiterate Indian, must join the rebels to save his family. Courageous and charismatic, he earns a generalship in Pancho Villa's/b>… See more details below
The greatest novel of the Mexican Revolution, in a brilliant new translation by an award-winning translator
The Underdogs is the first great novel about the first great revolution of the twentieth century. Demetrio Macias, a poor, illiterate Indian, must join the rebels to save his family. Courageous and charismatic, he earns a generalship in Pancho Villa's army, only to become discouraged with the cause after it becomes hopelessly factionalized. At once a spare, moving depiction of the limits of political idealism, an authentic representation of Mexico's peasant life, and a timeless portrait of revolution, The Underdogs is an iconic novel of the Latin American experience and a powerful novel about the disillusionment of war.
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MARIANO AZUELA (1873-1952), the most prolific novelist of the Mexican Revolution and the author of its most important novel, was born in a small city in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. He studied medicine in Guadalajara and served during the revolution as a doctor with the forces of Pancho Villa, which gave him firsthand exposure to the events and characters that appear in The Underdogs. Azuela is buried in the Rotonda de Hombres Ilustres, Mexico’s equivalent of Westminster Abbey.
SERGIO WAISMAN has translated Ricardo Piglia’s The Absent City, for which he received a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Award, and three books for Oxford University Press’s Library of Latin America series. He is the author of Borges and Translation: The Irreverence of the Periphery and the novel Leaving, and is an associate professor of Spanish at The George Washington University.
CARLOS FUENTES is the author of more than twenty books, including This I Believe, The Death of Artemio Cruz, and The Old Gringo. His many awards include the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, the National Prize in Literature (Mexico’s highest literary award), the Cervantes Prize, and the inaugural Latin Civilization Award. He served as Mexico’s ambassador to France from 1975 to 1977 and currently divides his time between Mexico City and London.
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This translation first published in Penguin Books 2008
Translation copyright © Sergio Waisman, 2008 Foreword copyright © Carlos Fuentes, 2008 All rights reserved
Los de abajo published in the United States of America in 1915.
ISBN : 978-1-4406-3852-7
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“Revolutions begin fighting tyranny and end fighting themselves. ” So said Saint-Just, the French revolutionary who in 1794 was guillotined in the combat between the factions once united against the monarchy. Is this the fate of all revolutionary movements? It does seem to be the case: Russia, China, Cuba. The United States completed its exclusive 1776 revolution and faced Shays’ Rebellion only through civil war and battles over civil rights.
The Mexican Revolution (1910-20 in its armed phase) began as a united movement against the three decades of authoritarian rule of General Porfirio Díaz. Its democratic leader, Francisco Madero, came to power in 1911 and was overthrown and murdered in 1913 by the ruthless general Victoriano Huerta, who promptly restored the dictatorship and was opposed by the united forces of Venustiano Carranza, Álvaro Obregón, and Francisco “Pancho” Villa in the north and those of the agrarian leader Emiliano Zapata in the south. But when Huerta, defeated, fled in 1915, the revolution broke up into rival factions. Zapata and Villa came to represent popular forces, agrarian and small town, while Carranza and Obregón were seen as leaders of the rising middle class that Díaz had suffocated under the patrimonialist regime of huge haciendas using low-paid peon labor.
Mariano Azuela (1873-1952) was a country doctor who joined first Carranza, then Villa. In 1915, right in the middle of the war, he sat down and wrote a disenchanted tale of revolution sprung from one man’s experience. A chronicle, a novel, a testimony, The Underdogs is all of this, but above all it is a degraded epic, a barefoot Iliad sung by men and women rising from under the weight of history, like insects from beneath a heavy stone. Moving in circles, blinded by the sun, without a moral or political compass, they come out of darkness, abandoning their homes, migrating from hearth to revolution.
The people of Mexico are “the armies of the night” in Azuela’s book. They give the reader the impression of a violent, spontaneous eruption. But be warned. The immediacy that Azuela brings to the people is a result of the long mediacy of oppression: half a millennium of authoritarian rule by Aztec, colonial, and republican powers. If this weight of the past at least partly explains the brutality of the present, it applies not only to the mass of the people but also to the protagonists, the leaders, the individuals that Azuela thrusts forward: the revolutionary general Demetrio Macías and the revolutionary intellectual “Curro” Cervantes, accompanied by a host of supporting players. Like the people, Macías and Cervantes are heirs to a history of authoritarian power and submission. But if the rebellious mass is moving, however blindly, against the past, Macías and Cervantes are repeating the past. They are rehearsing the role of the Indian, Spanish, and republican oppressor, Macías on the active front and Cervantes on the intellectual side. They both see Mexico as their personal patrimony. They want to be fathers, judges, teachers, protectors, jailers, and, if need be, executioners of the people, but always in the name of the people.
The Underdogs thus presents us with a wide view of the social, political, and historical traits of Mexico and, by extension, of Latin America: it is a degraded epic but also a chronicle of political failure and of aspiring nationhood. There are no Latin American novels prior to independence in the 1820s. I might say that it is the nation that demands its narration, but also that narration needs a nation to narrate. This, indeed, links the origins of both the North American and Latin American novel. Whatever they actually are, they first appeared along with “the birth of the nation.”
The novel is a critical event. Religion demands faith, logic demands reason, politics demands ideology. The novel demands criticism: critique of the world, along with a critique of itself. While literature and the imagination are deemed superfluous (especially) in satisfied societies, the first thing a dictatorship does is to censor writing, burn books, and exile, imprison, or murder writers.
Do we need authoritarian repression to demonstrate the importance of literature, the critical freedom of words and the imagination? I cannot separate Azuela’s moral and literary significance from the fact that he drew a critical portrait of the Mexican revolutionary movement as it was happening, setting a standard of critical freedom that has prevailed in my country in spite of seven decades of authoritarian rule by a single party. There has been repression in Mexico—of political parties, individuals, unions, agrarian movements, journalists—but writers have maintained a high degree of critical independence. This is thanks to a very early exercise of this independence by Mariano Azuela and The Underdogs, followed by the critical chronicles of Martín Luis Guzmán, José Vasconcelos, and Rafael Muñoz.
This critical tradition against all odds should be compared with the silence imposed on Soviet writers by Stalinism, the exile of German writers from Nazi Germany, or the persecution of North American authors during the McCarthy era. The margin of critical and creative freedom, menaced by the political powers—always, everywhere—was maintained in Mexico thanks, in great measure, to the stakes planted by Mariano Azuela.
Azuela began his writing career with a Zolaesque naturalist novel, María Luisa (1907), and went on to register the foibles of politics (Andrés Pérez, maderista, 1911), political bosses (Los caciques, 1917), the middle classes (Tribulaciones de una familia decente, 1918) and the labor movement (El camarada Pantoja, 1937). The Underdogs (Los de abajo), nevertheless, remains his signature book, and its universal import is well taken as he describes human conduct that has the troubling quality of repeating itself everywhere and in all historical periods. The forces of social ascent and corruption: “Now we are the swells,” the grotesque camp follower La Pintada [War Paint] says as she assumes the heritage of the former proprietors.
Corruption unites the best and the worst. In one of the greatest scenes of the novel, several characters, pretending to sleep, see the others in the act of stealing. A common language of dishonesty, cover-up, and government by kleptocracy is born. It is a thieves’ pact of worldwide resonance. This is, indeed, a disenchanted epic, in which fatality engenders bitterness and bitterness enhances fatality, both illustrated by the scene where General Macías rolls a stone down a hill, murmuring: “Look at this stone, how it cannot stop.”
And yet, perhaps this epic of failures (or failed epic) is a great novel because, for all its realism, even in spite of its cynicism, it is astonished by a world it no longer understands. And it is this wonderful sense of surprise that gives Los de abajo its lasting wonder.
The Underdogs is the most important novel of the Mexican Revolution. In its pages, we follow the actions of a band of revolutionaries—led by the protagonist, Demetrio Macías— at the height of the revolution’s armed phase, from 1913 to 1915. The novel works mainly with realism to portray many of the harsh details and effects of the revolution, indirectly drawing our attention to the possible motivations that drive Demetrio Macías and his men to fight. The novel is written in fragmentary prose, and although it is interspersed with moments of beautiful description, it is driven primarily by the dialogue of the protagonists and the surrounding characters themselves. This, combined with frequent, jarring narrative changes—such as alterations in verb tense; choppy, staccato exchanges in the dialogue; and temporal and spatial jumps—serves to reflect the jarring experiences that the characters encounter.
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