Mexican literature

Yours for a mere £156.99

Every year at around this time, I focus on the literature of one particular country. Last year, it was Japan. 2015 it was Russia. 2014 it was Iceland. This year, as you can see from the title, it is Mexico. Three years ago, I wrote a blog post on contemporary Mexican literature. I intended to do a a better job of following up by reading and reviewing some of the books mentioned in that post but this did not happen for a variety of reasons. One key reason, however, was the difficulty of obtaining Mexican novels in the UK. They are either not available or very expensive to obtain. Federico Vite‘s Fisuras en el continente literario, for example, is available from a well-known online bookseller for a mere £156.99 at the time of writing, while Juan José Rodríguez’s Mi Nombre Es Casablanca is available for a mere £107.51. While they can often be obtained cheaper from the United States, postage now tends to run to around $25-30 from booksellers like MyLibro.

However, I have managed to amass what may or may not be a suitable selection. There are twenty novels, all by different authors. Sixteen were published in the twenty-first century. This is not because there were not excellent Mexican novels in the twentieth century – of course there were – but more because I wanted to give exposure to more recent novels. Eight of the books are by women, reflecting the fact that women authors have been prolific in Mexico in recent years and written some first-class novels. Some of these novels have been translated into English and some, sadly but inevitably, have not. Three of the authors can already be found on my website. Inevitably, the difficulty was not in what to include but in what not to include. I could easily add another twenty authors/books to the list.

The Dresden Codex, an early Mayan codex

There is enough about Mexican literature on the web but, nevertheless, here is a (very) potted history. Mexican literature actually started well before Columbus, though a lot of it was oral. We know of a few Mayan codices, though many were destroyed by the Conquistadors. Works such as Historia de la literatura Náhuatl are available (at a price) and you can read some of the documents in In the Language of Kings, published by Norton in 2002, and still very much in print in the UK and the US. As this article shows, some of the indigenous languages of Mexico are still in use.

Writings, particularly about the Conquest, the New World and related topics abound in the 16th and 17th century. Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s The Conquest of New Spain, for example, is a Penguin Classic, as is Bartolomé de las Casas’ A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies . There have been claims that José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi‘s El Periquillo Sarniento (The Mangy Parrot) is the first Latin American novel. An abridged version is in print in English.

Nnineteenth century literature in Mexico has not worn well, particularly outside the country. Ignacio Manuel Altamirano‘s Clemencia (Clemencia) is sometimes called the first modern Mexican novel. This and many other of Altamirano’s novels were translated into English but are mostly out of print, though you can still find El Zarco the Blue-eyed Bandit, a colourful and enjoyable adventure tale. Altamirano was part-Indian and his mother tongue was Nahuatl. Federico Gamboa‘s Santa tells the story of the rise and fall of a Mexican woman, Santa, and had considerable influence in Mexico. It was translated into English and though out of print, is readily available. Two novellas by José Tomas de Cuéllar have been published together under the title The Magic Lantern. They mock the pretensions of Mexican society, particularly its attempts to emulate the Europeans.

The beginning of the twentieth century saw the Mexican Revolution and Civil War and there were Mexican novels about this conflict. Mariano Azuela was the first great novelist dealing with this subject, particularly in his Los de abajo (The Underdogs). Many other great Mexican novelists wrote about the subject, including Carlos Fuentes, Elena Garro, Jorge Ibargüengoitia, Elena Poniatowska and Angeles Mastretta.

Carlos Fuentes is perhaps the best-known Mexican writer, although, of the Boom writers, he was clearly in the shadow of Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. However, Mexico has arguably produced more worthwhile novelists than any other Latin American country. Martín Luis Guzmán‘s El águila y la serpiente (The Eagle and the Serpent) and La Sombra Del Caudillo (not translated) are both about the Mexican Revolution. Agustín Yáñez‘s Al filo del agua (The Edge of the Storm) ends just as the Revolution is about to start and clearly all Mexican readers would have been well aware of this.

Juan José Arreola is best known for his Confabulario (Confabulario and Other Inventions), a biting satire on human folly. José Rubén Romero is best-known for his La vida inútil de Pito Pérez (The Futile Life of Pito Perez). It is a very funny picaresque novel about the drunk Pito Pérez. José Agustín was part of the Onda movement. He has not been translated into English. He is a lover of rock music and best-known in Mexico for his novel De perfil [In Profile], which tells of four days in the life of a young man about to enter university.

Xavier Icaza is not much read today but his Panchito Chapopote is an excellent satire on the exploitation of the Mexican oil industry by both the US and corrupt local officials, a subject that will occur again in Mexican literature. José Revueltas was as much known for his political activity and spent much time in prison because of it, even while still a minor. However, he did write some worthwhile novels. His El luto human, which has been published in English as Human Mourning, tells the tale of a cast characters who suffer and die because of poverty or because of betrayal by the Mexican Revolution or by God.

Born the same year as Revueltas (1914), is Octavio Paz, who will not appear on my website as he writes non-fiction and poetry but is deserving of mention, not least because he may be the best-known Mexican writer after Fuentes. He is best-known for his work El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude), a work which may well be the best introduction to the Mexican character.

Juan Rulfo is best-known for his novel Pedro Páramo (Pedro Paramo: A Novel of Mexico), which is considered as one of the great Latin American novels. It is a novel that uses magic realism, something that is less common in Mexico than in other parts of Latin America, but it also uses superb poetic imagery to give the feeling of death.

Sergio Galindo is another Mexican writer – there are all too many – who is little known in the English-speaking world, though four of his novels were translated into English. Otilia Rauda (Otilia’s Body), his last novel, was one of these and tells the story of a fiercely independent and sensual woman, at a period when women were meant to be neither.

There were also women writers during that period. Elena Garro was the first wife of Octavio Paz though, more importantly, she was also a fine writer. Her initial love was for the theatre. She wanted to be actress (Paz held her back) and then a playwright. Her best novel is her first: Los recuerdos del porvenir (Recollections of Things to Come). Here is another Mexican novel using magic realism. The novel is narrated by a town and tells of a town occupied by the Mexican army and mistreated by them (another common theme in Mexican literature).

Rosario Castellanos has been translated into English. Her best-known novel is Balún-Canán (The Nine Guardians) is concerned with another theme common to Mexican (and other Latin American) literature, namely the exploitation of the Indian population by the whites. Two of Margo Glantz‘s novels have been translated into English. El rastro (The Wake) is about Nora, who returns to her old house for the wake of her ex-husband, who has died of a heart attack. The book is about her meditations on the body (the heart in particular, of course), her readings and her life, linked to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It has even become a theatrical piece with readings from it, accompanied by a cello.

Aline Pettersson has not been translated into English, which is a pity. Her La noche de las hormigas [The Night of the Ants], linked to the legend of Iphigenia, is an excellent novel.

Back to the men, Vicente Leñero was a realist. He won a prize for his third novel Los albañiles [The Bricklayers] (not translated into English), a detective novel but also a novel which shows different aspects of Mexico City, with all the main characters having a motive for killing the victim. El evangelio de Lucas Gavilán [The Gospel of Lucas Gavilan], the only one of his novels translated into English, is about Jesucristo Gómez, a Mexican bricklayer rather than Jewish carpenter, who is killed by the police when he stands up for the downtrodden.

Sergio Pitol, from a remote Mexican village and orphaned at the age of four, may be best known for his poetry and his memoirs (two of which have been translated into English), as well as being a very accomplished translator, but he did publish a few novels. His first novel, El tañido de una flauta [The Sound of The Flute], is about Carlos Ibarra, a man who wanted to be a novelist but has spent his time wandering the world and is now on the steady slope downwards. The story is narrated by a man who knew him well, a celebrated painter, and also involves a film director putting on a controversial film at the Venice Film Festival. Much of it is about building up the picture of Ibarra and the world from various perspectives.

Salvador Elizondo was an experimental writer. His best-known novel, Farabeuf, is his only novel translated into English. The title comes from the French surgeon of that name. The centrepiece of the novel is a distinctly unpleasant photo of an execution during the Boxer Rebellion. Farabeuf is portrayed as French secret agent in Peking and attends an execution. However, there is no plot to this novel. Indeed, Elizondo eventually said it was not a novel. It was clearly influenced by authors such as Cortázar and Joyce though more unpleasant than both.

Both of Fernando del Paso‘s two main novels have been translated into English. The first is Palinuro de México (Palinuro of Mexico), a novel where the main character might be said to be a city, in this case, of course, Mexico City. Its is bawdy, witty, full of clever references and enormous fun. The second is Noticias del Imperio (News from the Empire), about Emperor Maximilian of Mexico and his wife Carlota. It is 668 pages long and it does help to have a knowledge of nineteenth century European and Mexican history but is still highly enjoyable if you do not.

Arturo Azuela is less well-known and is the grandson of Mariano Azuela, mentioned above. His novel Manifestación de Silencios (Shadows of Silence) has been translated into English (the only one of his works that has been translated), about the political upheavals of the 1960s/1970s in Mexico and, once again, Mexico City can be seen as a character in the novel.

José Emilio Pacheco is best-known as a poet but he did write some novels. His novel Las batallas en el desierto, translated into English as Battles in the Desert is narrated by Carlos, aged forty, but talking about his childhood in the late 1940s in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City. Mexico City, of course, features strongly, but he also talks about the political situation and the influence of pop culture from the United States.

Gustavo Sainz, who is associated with the Onda movement, has had two of his novels translated into English. The best-known is La princesa del Palacio de Hierro, translated as The Princess of the Iron Palace and features an unnamed middle-class female narrator who talks incessantly of her life, her loves and the political situation in Mexico.

Hector Camín is one of the many writers I consider to be underrated. Only one of his novels has been translated into English, Morir en el golfo (Death in Veracruz), first appearing in translation thirty-five years after it was first published in Spanish. It is a political novel, dealing with contemporary events and not a satire and, like his even better La Guerra de Galio [Galio’s War] (not translated into English), a superb work.

Laura Esquivel is well-known both in the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking world for her Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate), made into a successful film. It is about sex, food and love and who can argue with that? Her other work is far less well-known.

Daniel Sada has had considerable success in the Spanish-speaking world though less so in the English-speaking world. His novel Casi nunca (Almost Never) is about machismo and sex and sexual obsession and prostitutes (including the prostitute as Madonna) and is available in English.

If you twisted my arm and asked me to name my favourite Mexican writer, it would be Carmen Boullosa. She is witty, wacky, iconoclastic, post-modern and thoroughly original. Fortunately , many of her novels are available in English. Sadly, some are not. One of her most recent ones, for example, is Texas (Texas: The Great Theft). The English title tells us what it is about.

A couple of Jorge Volpi‘s novels have been translated into English, particularly En busca de Klingsor (In Search of Klingsor), a fascinating novel about atomic physics in Nazi Germany, with a good story and lots of interesting historical details.

Mario Bellatin is another experimental writer whose short novel Salón de belleza (Beauty Salon) is one of several of his works to be translated into English. Salón de belleza (Beauty Salon) tells the story of a man who makes some money working away from home but returns home to open a beauty salon. The novel is about cross-dressing, homosexuality, AIDS and tropical fish

Cristina Rivera Garza‘s Nadie me verá llorar (No-one Will See Me Cry) has been translated into English. It is about a photographer in a mental hospital who is sure that one of the other patients is a prostitute he used to know. He explores the records of the clinic and finds her colourful but not always happy history. It is, of course, linked with the history of Mexico.

Alberto Chimal‘s La torre y el jardín [The Tower and the Garden] is, in my view, one of the most original works I have read in a long time. Of course, it has not been translated into English and nor have his other books. I did start reading another of his works – Los esclavos [The Slaves] – and it was one of those rare works that I soon abandoned. If you like hard-core porn, it might work for you but I have to say I really did not like it.

For information on more recent Mexican literature, please see my earlier blog post.

4 Replies to “Mexican literature”

  1. Exciting plans! Very much look forward to all your Mex reviews.

    I’m off to a good start with my own Mexican reading for this year having loved Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Fiesta en la madriguera and currently enjoying Álvaro Enrigue’s Muerte súbita, which I just started. Novels by Mexicans writing and living in other countries could form its own sub-genre, it would seem. Anyway, felices lecturas to you!

    1. Thanks. Alvaro Enrigue just did not make the cut, despite being the husband of Valeria Luiselli, though Fiesta en la madriguera is coming up. There is really too, too much Mexican lit to read and cutting has been the hardest part.

  2. Hi, I would heartily recommend reading Juan Villoro’s “El Testigo”, a very literary and satisfying political novel. Skip Aguilar Camín, he’s a total hack. Cheers from Mexico City!

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