Mariano Azuela, “The Underdogs” (1915) (translated from the Spanish by Frederick Fornoff) – We get a worm’s eye view of the Mexican Revolution in this novel, which as far as I can tell is considered the great novel of that war. Indigenous Mexican peasant Demetrio takes to the hills with some friends after federales burn his house. Azuela doesn’t explain the whys and wherefores- that’s just what the war causes men to do. The politics of the war impede on its logic only from high above. Demetrio and his friends know they hate the federales, the rich, and the reactionaries, and the three tend to meld together. They win some fights and soon enough become a sort of military unit, promoting Demetrio to their leader with self-declared ranks and joining up with other revolutionaries.
They’re all fighting the murderous Victoriano Huerta government, but really the war, Azuela takes pains to note, has its own logic. Demetrio and company “live off the land-” that is, by looting, rich people where they can, anyone else in a pinch. Drunkenness, concubinage, random violence and general disorder become the order of the day, in a way reminiscent of such wars from the Thirty Years War onward. This is contrasted to the high-sounding rhetoric of Luis, a city-slicker “curro” who joins Demetrio’s unit, from whom the sort of patriotic revolutionary speeches contrast to his behavior tolerating and reluctantly participating in the abuses of the revolutionary forces.
Talent will take you far in such a chaotic situation, and Demetrio winds up a general in Pancho Villa’s army. But those who know the conflict or just know about romantic rebels like Villa realize he’s doomed. After taking part in the overthrow of Huerta, Villa loses the great battle of Celaya to his erstwhile allies, which Demetrio only finds out about from some refugees he might otherwise rob. Demetrio’s men go down fighting against a better organized and equipped force. The end, no moral! My edition is a critical edition with a bunch of essays, one of which compares “The Underdogs” to epic literature, and I think that’s right- Demetrio has the gigantism and ineptitude of epic heroes, and the war is largely it’s own point, as they tend to be in epics. It was interesting to read such a modern epic about a war largely neglected in the States. ****’