Book Report

The Underdogs, by Mariano Azuela. Translated by E. Munguia. Jr. A Signet Classic.

The Underdogs, by Mariano Azuela. Translated by E. Munguia. Jr. A Signet Classic. 1963. First published in El Paso, 1915. 161 pp. used, 40 pesos.

“These are bad times and you’ve got to take advantage of every thin’. If there are some days when a duck can swim, there’s others when he can’t take a drink.” Quail

The Underdogs is a quick read, graphic and violent, written in 1915 (the midst of the Revolution),and is said to be the first book written about the Mexican Revolution. The story of Demetrio Macias is not a happy one. It does not contain the ‘magical realism’ and familial survival accounts of the Mexican Revolution, (i.e. Hummingbird’s Daughter, and Rain of Gold), but it is poetic in description, realistic, and the characters are vignettes of people you might imagine or even know; colorful, full of rebellion, hope, ambition, confusion, disappointment, and deep sorrows. From the excited Demetrio, patriot, to the disillusioned and war-weary rebel he becomes, it soon is apparent to the reader that the author sees no real glory or heroes on either side of this war. Random burnings, total destruction of property, looting, and finally, killing just because they can do so, creates a tragedy too big for description, and has left long lasting scars on the countryside and the Mexican people.

Of course, I immediately Googled the author after reading his book, and discovered that many of his own life experiences have influenced Azuela’s writings. His life story is as fascinating as the variety of characters peopling his novels.

Mariano Azuela, was born in Jalisco, studied medicine in Guadalajara, and practiced medicine while also publishing and writing a newspaper serial in a weekly paper. One of his first novels, Andres Perez Maderista, was published in 1911. Azuela had five daughters and five sons, but I could nothing about his wife, maybe because she spent her entire life in the bedroom or the kitchen. His pen name was Belent.

An underlying theme of fate, can be found in most of his novels. His last book was titled Lust, (La Maldecion), and it was published after he died.

Azuela was a liberal, and at first fully supported Madero’s uprising against the atrocities of Diaz. Being patriotic, he joined Pancho Villa’s army as a doctor. His war experiences gave him first-hand material for future writings. He wrote from the perspective of the untrained and naive rebel soldiers. As the Revolution’s violence increased, he emigrated to El Paso, Texas, and wrote this book: Los de Abajo, (the Underdogs).  He won many awards for this book.He never tells us if the characters and happenings in the Underdogs, are taken from some of his own war experiences, but certainly those experiences must have influenced him greatly.

The chief character in The Underdogs, is Demetrio, “....a full blooded Aztec”. Azuela’s descriptions of this ordinary man on the beginning pages, peace loving, a rebel, and an officer, serves to also connect the main character Demetrio to his ancestors, and to the land. As the war continues, he begins to contrast the reality of war to the Revolution, and describes his idealistic view of Poncho Villa (“....Villa, the magic word...the unconquerable, who even at a distance, exerts the fascination ....of a boa constrictor.” Demetrio’s drinking buddies also described Villa in glowing terms.“Our Mexican Napolean!” “Yes, the Aztec Eagle!”

Killing and looting soon became so accepted and so easy to these rebels, it dominates the middle of the book. “...I killed an old lady who refused to sell me some enchiladas.....I got no enchiladas, but I felt satisfied anyhow!” “ ...I killed a man because I saw him...whenever I went in to eat...I hated the looks of him, so I just killed him. What the hell could I do?” The theme of killing and destruction, and disillusion continues as fighting escalates.

Far from his home and family, Demetrio finds solace in the women accompanying the soldiers, War Paint is the name of one, and Camilla another.

Part Three of the novel begins with a quote, “Villa? Obregon? Carransa? What’s the difference? I love the revolution like a volcano in eruption; I love the volcano because it’s a volcano, the revolution because it’s a revolution.”

The ending, as Demetrio heads home, is poignant, and Azuela’s word pictures throughout this book force his readers to also participate in this war.

Azuela was the first Mexican to write realistically about the Revolution. He fought, thinking and hoping always, for a fairer, and better Mexico for all people, but he soon realized that corruption reigned on both sides. Azuela felt bitter about the corruption and foiled ideas. He wrote that the Revolution changed little in Mexico, that in a few ways things were better, but that too much was unchanged. A few injustices were corrected but countless others cropped up, and his later books and papers are tinged with sarcasm and his disappointment. To me, he seems to have been an idealist who loved his country, and wept for it through his words. He died in 1952.

The Underdogs, by Mariano Azuela can be found (used), at El Caballo Blanco, and new or used, at Amazon. It is a good read! Books like this one help to make the history of Mexico real to those of us who live here today. Stop by my bookstore in downtown Loreto and say hi.