News from the Empire, Fernando Del Paso (trans. Alfonso Gonzalez and Stella T. Clark). Dalkey Archive Press. 880pp, $18.95.
If there wasn’t so much fiction in News from the Empire, it could be called a work of history. In fact, the focus of this broad work is history itself, as well as the many unrecorded lives and events that history has forgotten from this strange era in Mexico’s early nationhood. Using Emperor Maximilian and his wife, Carlota, as a starting point, Fernando Del Paso both considers what Mexico is and the country’s place in the larger narrative of world history. The book spans the palaces of Europe and the villages of Mexico, yet despite its broad focus News is a book rich in characters and details, a work that opens up this era of Mexican history to readers without specialized knowledge.
Maximilian and Carlota are the focus of the book, and even if they are not explicitly on every page, they are always in the background somewhere, providing the humanizing contradictions that fill it. Maximilian I, who ruled Mexico from 1864 to 1867, was a member of the Hapsburg-Lorraine family that reigned over the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and was placed on the Mexican throne by the French Emperor Louis Napoleon. Although Maximilian thought he was bringing stability to Mexico and restoring some power to the Catholic Church, Napoleon was attempting to take advantage of political instability in Mexico to expand French influence into the Americas. Del Paso draws a complicated picture of two naïve people placed in a situation they could not manage and a country they did not understand. This innocence is especially inexplicable in the case of Maximilian, who, as brother of Austria’s Emperor Franz Josef, should have known something about ruling but is completely unable to govern. He’d rather spend time in Cuernavaca collecting specimens or planning the protocol for a state visit. He means well but he just doesn’t know how to be an effective ruler.
This is largely due to his incredible ignorance of the country he was to govern. Del Paso gives the impression that Maximilian thought Mexico was European in the sense that he would preside over a well-established state apparatus: all he would have to do is show up and take over. This is obviously delusional, yet as Del Paso sympathetically points out “the divine right to govern nations, inculcated indelibly in the minds of many of these European princes, and then the political necessities imposed by the matrimonial alliances . . . cause many of those princes to grow up with the conviction that they had the capacity to govern and duty to love any foreign people they happened to be placed over.”
Nonetheless, when the end comes Maximilian is able to fulfill his role as Emperor. He writes to Benito Juárez, who deposes him to become the president of Mexico:
“If this sacrifice of mine can contribute to the peace and prosperity of my new homeland, I gladly face the loss of my life,” and he asked clemency for Miramón, for Mejía, and for all the rest: “I entreat you most solemnly, and with the sincerity appropriate to the moment in which I find myself, that my blood be the last to be spilled.”
Thus, the tragic fool becomes the tragic hero and the contradictions create a sympathetic, if misguided character.
As a historical personage, Carlota is even more naïve than her husband, expecting royal society to behave as it does in Europe. She wants the dinnerware to be just right, and the rich women to jump at the chance to be ladies in waiting. When many decline she is shocked, completely unable to understand how anyone could refuse the honor. At the same time, she is completely oblivious of the geopolitical games in Europe. She expects Louis Napoleon to save Maximilian when it becomes clear that the expedition is unsustainable. For both Carlota and Maximilian there is a tragic sense of entitlement, one that does not allow them to escape the futility of their experience.
Yet though Maximilian and Carlota may be political naïfs, their relationship is rich with complexity. News from the Empire is not just a political novel, and Del Paso expands his story into the realms of humanism and tragedy by detailing the lovers’ complicated relationship. The sympathetic yet unrestrained treatment that Del Paso gives is evident when Carlota narrates in lunatic ravings; her thoughts move between love, longing, hate, and obsessed sexuality. The following is a representative sample: it is filled with references to people and places that relate to the story, such as Las Campanas Hill where Maximilian was executed, but these often appear asynchronously in relation to the main narrative.
Oh, Maximilian, what I would have given to be in Querétaro, beside you, at Las Campanas Hill, and to cleanse your wounds with my tongue, with my saliva, to wash your body and your bowels. I would have rinsed your intestines in orange water. Now I’ll macerate your body in wine, I’ll bathe your eyes in collyrium; I’ll order Baron Lago and Princess Salm-Salm to give me your arms so that I can wave them in the wind. I’ll tell our friend López to give me your hands so that I can put them on my breasts. I’ll ask Benito Juárez to give me your skin so I can live inside it, to put your eyelids on me so that I can dip into your dreams. Oh, Maximilian, how I would have loved you!
Carlota is an exasperating narrator at times because she continually shifts her thoughts, often contradicting herself. At times, too, the expression of her mercurial madness, which returns every fifty pages or so, can become a little incessant and occasionally leaves one wanting the next chapter to start. In the end it is impossible to know whether Carlota, who married Maximilian at sixteen, loved him; likewise, it is difficult to say with certainty if her sterility was the consequence of a sexually transmitted disease he gave her, and whether Maximilian’s death drove her to insanity. The picture that does emerge, though, is of human disappointment at two lives that didn’t go well.
Maximilian and Carlota are great leads, but in the end what is most distinctive about News from the Empire is its narrative structure. Instead of creating a few threads that are woven together in a few central characters, Del Paso breaks the book up into short chapters, some histories, some dialogues, some ballads from the streets, and some even the dark book-within-a-book Protocol for the Execution of an Emperor. While not a revolutionary approach (Dos Pasos is clearly one forebear), Del Paso’s method is apt in that it lets him tell a broad story with grace. There are several anonymous narrators, and what matters isn’t so much who they are as what they have lived. This helps ground the reader in the events and time of the era: the scene can have its own life without cluttering the narrative with historical details that seem out of place.
The risk of this approach, one that News sometimes falls prey to, is that the story of Maximilian and Carlota can disappear into tangents that either don’t serve an immediate purpose or seem a little slow. An illustration of the latter point is a dialogue between Louis Napoleon and Prince Richard Metternich. While the chapter helps explain why Napoleon wanted to put Maximilian and Carlota on the throne, the pacing and almost didactic nature of it drags.
History as one of the larger preoccupations of the book leads to a secondary question: What it is to be a Mexican? And how does one put Mexico in a wider historical frame? For Del Paso, Mexico is a country made up of many little pieces that history has forgotten, but Maximilian and Carlota, too, are Mexican because they gave up so much and, therefore, became Mexican and part of Mexico’s history. Even though they were forced upon the country, Del Paso argues that it wasn’t so much the fact of their imposition that defined Maximilian and Carlota’s role but their horrible timing. He quotes Octavio Paz: “[to] set up a barrier to the expansion of the Yankee republic wasn’t really such a bad idea in 1820, but it was anachronistic by 1860.” Anachronistic, perhaps, but paradoxically it was this intermingling of Maximilian and Carlota with Mexico that put the country into a wider global frame, releasing this era of Mexican history from a parochial interpretation that kept Mexico as a side show to Europe.
Ultimately, the fragmentary chapters lead away from a universal history, making News from the Empire a work that is both particular and personal. Nothing in the book is complete; there is always a gap in the story, whether it be the story of Maximilian’s death or Carlota’s madness. Del Paso’s goal is not to present the verdict of history, “because the insanity of History didn’t end with Carlota’s, but also because rather than a true, impossible, and . . . undesirable ‘Universal History,’ we only have many little histories, personal and under constant revision, according to the perspectives of the times and places in which they are ‘written’.” News from the Empire succeeds in this sense.
Yet if News is at times a very fragmented work, at other times Carlota’s narration brings unity. With her encyclopedic knowledge and constant references to events after Maximilian’s fall, such as World War I and her death in 1927, she provides a kind of historical conscience to the novel. She is a link between the rulers from the age of Empire to their fall in World War I, and her presence gives the impression of something universal in Del Paso’s story. It is a sense that can lead one to understand the whole story and yet feel there are many missing elements.
Complicated, fascinating, and sometimes exasperating, News from the Empire is not just a book for a Mexico specialist. Someone who does not know Mexican or European history of the time should not be daunted by breadth of Del Paso’s historical reading. Instead, one should let the details of the book, whether historical or strictly imaginative, create a picture that is at once conclusive and inconclusive, a picture that is as complicated as this period of Mexico’s history was.
Paul Doyle is a writer, teacher, and web developer based in Seattle. He writes about literature and film, especially Spanish and Arabic language literature, at By the Firelight. He was recently published in the literary journal Under Hwy 99.
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