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The Underdogs

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Mariano Azuela, The Underdogs [El Paso; 1915]

I keep giving five stars lately, but also lately I keep picking up books that the historico-critical consensus has assured me are world-class and reading them and discovering that yeah they're pretty good.

Mariano Azuela's Los de abajo (Those Below) is THE novel of the Mexican Revolution, and a remarkable piece of writing even outside of any sociopolitical context (which why would I try to separate it from its sociopolitical context, what kind of white deviltry), both grimly reportorial and plainly lyrical, far from the sentimental astheticization of the nearly-exhausted modernista movement, but neither having any truck with the word games and philosophizing of the nascent Spanish-American literary vanguard, who were mostly contemptuous of his proletarian, hypermasculine, land-and-struggle fiction. Which isn't really a fair cop here: Azuela's women can be as hilarious and as savage as his men.

What I wasn't expecting, knowing this novel's stern reputation as a central text in Latin American literature of the period, was how funny it often was. The first half especially is almost like a Pedro Infante film with its comic situations and squabbling minor characters; but of course as the Revolution becomes less idealistic and more of an outright power struggle, the local-color regionalismo drains away and as the central character gains power the world around him becomes more brutal and arbitrary. Azuela was a medic with a revolutionary band for a couple of years, and his professional frankness in terms of violence, sex, and disease gives Los de abajo a strikingly modern, even (to use an inappropriately Anglocentric term) a hardboiled veneer.

The translation I read was occasionally clunky -- I'd like to read the first English translation because I like to get period translations for period books (I don't have any patience for "this translation is dated" because so is the original), but I'd also like to read the original. Which I'm sure I have around here somewhere too; but the rest of my reading calls.

March 26, 2017