The Spanish word historia can be translated as either “history” or “story.” This bit of information kept coming back to me the more I thought about the short fiction of Mexican writer José Emilio Pacheco. Pacheco is virtually unknown in the United States, but in Mexico his books are classics, required reading for many high school students.1 Even Café Tacuba, Mexico’s biggest rock band of the 1990s, paid tribute to Pacheco’s 1981 novella Las batallas en el desierto. This would be like Green Day saving space on their album to pen a tribute to Hester Pryne. Yet the only translation of Pacheco’s fiction available in English is New Direction’s slim 1987 collection Battles in the Desert and Other Stories (translated by Katherine Silver), which includes selected stories from two other books, El viento distante (The Distant Wind) and El principe de placer (The Pleasure Principle). How is it that a piece of literature that is so important in one country is so seldom read in a neighbor it shares a 3,000-mile border with?
Without diminishing their intrinsic literary merit, I think we could call some books national classics, read for what they say about a country’s enduring anxieties. In the United States, Huck Finn and The Scarlet Letter would fall into that category. In Mexico, one work would certainly be Octavio Paz’s El laberinto de soledad (Labyrinth of Solitude), and another would be Las batallas. Las batallas is about adolescence, both of a boy named Carlos and of his country, Mexico. It is a look at memory—individual and collective—and the way that collective memory fuses into history and national identity. It is also a specifically Mexican look at the economic and cultural shifts of the 20th century.
The epigraph to Las batallas (printed in English in the Spanish edition) is the first two sentences of J.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” It’s an enigmatic statement: Does this mean that we can never understand the past? Or that any attempt to understand will only reveal more about the teller? Either way, we keep returning to that mysterious place called the past and looking at real foreign countries through their literature. As Israel writer Amos Oz recently wrote, “If you read a novel, you obtain a ticket into the most intimate recesses of another country and of another people.”
In some ways, reading another country’s history is like reading another person’s history, but in a book like Las batallas it’s doubled: here we absorb both personal and shared memories. I think of this process as “historia”: both story and history.
I. I Remember: Story
“I remember, I don’t remember.” With these words, Pacheco opens Las batallas. Carlos, our narrator, relates an event from decades before when he was a Mexico City schoolboy during the postwar presidency of Miguel Alemán (1946-1952). Basically, he falls in love with his friend Jim’s mother, Mariana. One day Carlos, who seems to be junior-high aged, leaves school, goes to Jim’s apartment, and confesses his love to Mariana. To Mariana and the reader, the love is something pure; to his friends and family, who send Carlos to the priest and psychologist, it is ridiculous and even disgusting. Carlos never sees Mariana or Jim again, though he does hear a rumor that she had committed suicide. It is a simple story of growing up—about the loss of “painful innocence” as Pacheco describes it in his story “August Afternoon,” or “the violent beauty of awakening to the adult world” according to writer Vicente Alonso in his recent article “Crónicas de un País Extraño” (Chronicle of a Strange Country)2.
José Emilio Pacheco
But it’s not really an adolescent’s story; this is the story of an adult man remembering. He equates what is largely seen as an optimistic period in Mexico’s past with a event that has scarred him. We are reminded of his classmate, Jorge, who in “The Pleasure Principle” says “If . . . what I’m living now is the ‘happiest period of my life,’ what must the others be like, goddamn it.” Pacheco cuts through the blurry haze of memories to remind us how acute the pains of adolescence—personal and national—really were.
As the epigraph has warned, the past is infinitely remote from us: we can’t understand it or even judge it. Time and again, Carlos reminds us that the Mexico City he remembers is one that no longer exists. But this is no valentine to a bygone era—echoing the opening paragraph, the last two paragraphs read:
I remember, I don’t remember even what year it was. Just these bursts, these flashes of light that bring everything back and the exact words. . . . How ancient! how remote! What an impossible story! . . . They demolished the school; they demolished Mariana’s building; they demolished my house; they demolished the Roman Quarter. That city came to an end. That country was finished. There is no memory of the Mexico of those years. And nobody cares: who could feel nostalgic for that horror?
As Vicente Alfonso writes, Pacheco’s fiction is the opposite of nostalgia: “His stories are trips to the past, but to the horror of the past.” The characters “try to exorcize the ghosts that still remain from then.”
Most of the stories in Battles in the Desert and Other Stories concern precocious adolescent boys growing up in Mexico City in the postwar years. With one character after another, we see the boys’ preternatural predictions of how their memories will haunt them. “August Afternoon” (told in the second person), begins and ends with the lines, “You will never forget that August afternoon.” In Battles in the Desert, Carlos has a similar sentiment. “I am going to keep my memory of this moment intact because everything that now exists will never be the same again.” They are obsessed with how moments will be remembered. As Jorge in “The Pleasure Principle” writes in his diary, he “wanted to write it all down and save it to see if one day in the future all of this that is so tragic now will seem like a comedy.” Tragic, romantic, or comic, the present is almost more important for the memories it will create than for the lived experienced.
Yet at the same time that certain moments seem destined to last forever, Carlos forces himself to recognize that time continues. He sees a photograph of Mariana as an infant and says:
I felt a great wave of tenderness come over me when I thought about something one never thinks about because it is so obvious: Mariana had also been a little girl, she had been my age, and she would be a woman my mother’s age and then an old lady like my grandmother. But at that moment she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
Here, Carlos is wavering between his individual sense of time, this moment that is frozen forever (just like the photograph he looks at), and the historic time in which being born, falling in love, aging, and dying are the most ordinary occurrences in the world. The last sentence of the story reflects his attempts to integrate these two senses of time. Looking back as an adult, not sure if Mariana is still alive, he remarks, “If she is, she would be sixty years old.3 As a personal history his emotions are stuck in that extraordinary, life-freezing time, but as a collective memory Mariana’s life marches along with the passing of time and is forgotten.
II. The Mexican Miracle: History
If reminiscence is individual memory, then history is the sublimation of collective memory. Las batallas’s first chapter, “The Ancient World,” locates the narrative in a specific time by invoking collective memories. “We already had supermarkets, but still no television, only radio,” it begins and goes on to discuss who the sports commentators were, what cars were popular, what songs people listened to, and the disasters (polio, floods) that struck. There is an intimacy, almost coziness, to the narration, as the narrator seems to assume we remember the same time as he does. In fact, even for those of us who were not alive in the 1940s and 1950s, and who grew up in other countries to boot, these descriptions evoke a very particular time. Yet in the very second sentence, Carlos claims that, despite these precise cultural references, he does not know what year it was. Absolute historical reference is lost in the swarm of memories, the interpretation of history overpowering the fact of it.
As these references to collective events make clear, this isn’t just a book about a personal past, but about the specific past of Mexico. These historical and cultural explanations take up about half the space of the text, while Carlos’s interactions Jim and Mariana take up the remainder. It is as if Pacheco wanted to show that that individual and collective memories are equally significant in evaluating the past. Yet Pacheco himself is said to believe that no one outside of Mexico City would be interested in his books, as if cultural memory could belong only to those who have lived it. Of course this isn’t true—literature wouldn’t exist if we didn’t transcend the boundaries of our experience. Yet a little knowledge of Mexican history does help.
Most probably know that Mexico is defined by wars and marked by alternating periods of chaos and repression. It came into being as a nation in 1810 when it declared independence from Spain, though it took 11 bloody years for Spain to give up its colony. After winning independence, the country was invaded by both the United States and France. Then, strongman Porfirio Diaz came to power in 1877 and brought stability, but his 33 years of dictatorship so stifled the country that the opposition finally rebelled, initiating the decade-long Mexican Revolution during which two million were killed. Even after the Revolution, Mexico has been marked by several, albeit far smaller, episodes of violence and attempted rebellion, including the Cristero Rebellion by conservative Catholics who opposed the anti-clericism of the state.
For all of history’s continuing presence in Mexico, young Carlos finds it hard to believe that he does in fact live inside the progression of history and not in some post-historic age. He knows that the widow of former President Madero lives in his neighborhood, but finds it “unbelievable to me that I could see, even from afar, someone whose name appeared in the history books, a participant in events that had occurred 40 years before.” For Carlos, the Revolution, just one generation old, seems so ancient as to be irrelevant. He and his friends play in a courtyard with a secret passage that Cristeros (like those in his mother’s family) used during the Rebellion. “We thought this underground area was a vestige of some prehistoric era. Nevertheless the Cristero war was closer to us at that time than our infancy is to us now, ” he says. Wars and revolution seem part of another world. Yet for his parents “this was difficult . . . to believe, because their childhood, adolescence, and youth were spent against a background of constant battles and executions.” The question is, are the battles really over, or have they just moved into a new sphere?
In Carlos’s youth, President Alemán jump-started 20 years of rapid economic growth known as the “Mexican Miracle”—and also brought corruption into the heart of Mexican politics, something that Pacheco’s characters frequently discuss. As historian John W. Sherman says in his essay “The Mexican ‘Miracle’ and Its Collapse”:
Under Almena, Mexico pinned its economic hopes on a process of rapid industrialization. Largely financed through U.S. capital, this strategy made close ties to American business interests essential. Those ties, which had been disrupted earlier in the century by the Revolution . . . flourished anew in the postwar years.
The year that Carlos meets Mariana, an earthquake strikes and a comet appears. “It was said that these presaged an atomic war, the end of the world, or, at the very least, another revolution in Mexico,” he reports ambiguously. Instead of expanding upon this vision of revolution and apocalypse, the paragraph ends in pure prosaicism, telling how Carlos’s father sells his failing soap company, which couldn’t compete with American detergents, and becomes manager of the foreign company that bought him out. Something had indeed happened, just not the revolution they had envisioned. This time, leftists were co-opted, the middle class grew richer, and the “so-called Revolutionary government had ceased to be revolutionary,” according to historian Sherman. For some, Battles in the Desert suggests that as long as Mexico is financially and even culturally dependent on the United States, the Revolution has not succeeded, and Mexico isn’t really free.
In Mexico, the term malinchismo describes the tendency to view Mexican things as necessarily inferior to foreign things. (La Malinche was an indigenous Mexican who became Cortes’s mistress and enabled his conquest by translating for him; thus she is both the original traitor and the symbolic mother of the mixed-race mestizo people.) Malinchismo is related to the Mexican tendency to love American things but feel guilty about it, and in describing the postwar American influence on Mexico, Pacheco often hits with deadly accuracy: “Our parents got used to drinking jaibol [highballs], even though at first it had tasted to them like medicine. Tequila is prohibited in my house,” Carlos says. At Jim’s house, Carlos admires his American toys, their Sears furniture, and the concoction of processed foods that Mariana calls Flying Saucers.
Carlos’s family exemplifies the Miracle; when Carlos’s father owns the declining soap factory, they are part of the sliding middle class. Recognizing his future, the father goes to night school English classes and listens to records at home. “I know of no other adult who learned English in less than a year. Clearly, he had no choice,” observes Carlos. Yet once the now-bilingual father starts working for the international company, the entire family changes. Carlos now plays tennis at the Junior Club, while his older brother studies at the University of Chicago and his sisters move to Texas. The whole family plans to meet for Christmas at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Meanwhile, onetime classmate Rosales, whom Carlos had been scolded for calling “that Indian,” is reduced to selling gum on the buses Carlos rides. Subtly, insidiously, Carlos’s family becomes the elite that looks to the United States for guidance, while the indigenous Rosales slides ever deeper into poverty. Although Carlos’s father had once lectured him that in Mexico “we are all Indians,” he seems to have lost contact with that part of himself.
Even more than the Americanization, the book shows an English-ization of Mexico. We see the linguistic malinchismo everywhere from the mandatory English lessons at Carlos’s school and his father’s determined efforts to use the new words that have invaded the language: uasamara (what’s the matter), oquéi (okay), and sorry. Essayist Alfonso points out another facet of imperial English when he asks, “Why is Jim called Jim if he is the son of a politician who dedicated his life to the service of Mexico?”
However, no doubt inadvertently, Silver’s translation lessens the impact of encroaching English because we cannot see what words were in English in the original. When Mariana serves a snack of Flying Saucers, the name is still ridiculous, but not ridiculous and foreign. In the translation, it doesn’t stick out like the words Flying Saucers do in a page of Spanish. More serious is Silver’s changing of names. Are we to believe that Pacheco wrote a story about a Mexican boy named Arthur (not Arturo)? To make it worse, the same character is briefly mentioned as Arturo in Battles in the Desert. In this over-translated environment, the fact that another Mexican boy is named “Jim” obviously loses some of its jolt. (In fact, Jim’s real father is a Californian; his mother is the mistress of a rich Mexican official Jim calls his father.) Likewise, Silver changes place names; the Mexico City neighborhood known as Colonia Roma becomes the Roman Quarter. One almost expects to read that Jim’s father is from the bayside city of Saint Francis!4
For a generation identified in part by American influence, what is a Mexican? Different characters have different ideas. Carlos’s mother is from the conservative city of Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco, and “She detested everyone who was not from Jalisco. She thought that all other Mexicans were foreigners and particularly loathed those from the capital. She hated the Roman Quarter because all the good families were beginning to move out and only Arabs, Jews, and Southerners—people from Campeche, Chiapas, Tabasco, Yucatan—were moving in.” Yet while Carlos’s mother sees all non-Jaliscans as foreigners, Carlos’s school is attended by all kinds of real “foreigners”: Toru, who spent the war in one of Mexico’s Japanese internment camps, as well as Arab and Jewish immigrants. A teacher warns the Arabs and Jews not to fight the battles of their old lands: “You were born here. You are as Mexican as your fellow students,” a sentiment obviously not shared by Carlos’s own mother.
III. The Battles: Historia
Despite all of Mexico’s historical battles, the title of Battles actually refers to nothing in Mexican history. Instead, the “battles in the desert” are a playground game, a sort of current-event-oriented “cowboys and Indians” based on the fighting between Jews and Arabs in the newly created state of Israel. Although these wars seem far removed from Mexico, what ties together Jews, Arabs, and Mexicans of the 1940s and 1950s is nationhood. In Palestine, Jews and Arabs sought independence, to be recognized by both their own citizens and the outer world. Mexico, in the throes of the Mexican Miracle, did as well. Today, with NAFTA, growing immigration, and ever-stronger American cultural influences, those questions are more vital than ever.
The Mexico of his childhood is, as Carlos says, finished, but history has a way of resurfacing, with the same battles being fought over and over again. In the end, we are left asking not only What is a Mexican? but also What is Mexico’s place among nations? Is the revolution over and Mexico independent? How do countries, and people, deal with history, and what is the connection between them?
These are Mexican questions, but obviously American ones as well. In a heterogeneous, multi-cultural society, continuously transformed by immigration, how do we define what an American is? How much influence from other countries can we afford? Will we ever heal the traumas of racism, slavery, and Jim Crow? Sometimes the best way to learn about ourselves is from reading a novel, the story of another. Perhaps, for nations, the same truth holds. If the past is a foreign country, historia can be your passport.
Elizabeth Wadell is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation. Read her essay on the poetry of Frank Bidart from Issue 2.
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