A Novel of Mexico City
By Ignacio Solares
Translated by Timothy G. Compton
Introduction by Carlos Fuentes
Imagine yourself a resident of Baghdad in March 2003. It is the eve of the United States invasion. You know your own military’s weakness is the perfect foil for the invader’s fabled power. Some of your men in uniform will fight fiercely, but they will surely die. You know your nation’s political leadership engenders little loyalty from a restive citizenry, so you hold no hope for massive resistance when the invaders raise their flag from the conquered rooftops. A feeling of dread begins to seep into your every waking thought. The first bombs drop, the first tanks turn the corner, and everything you feared turns out as you foresaw, only it’s worse because all these fears are real, and they’re happening to you.
Now put yourself into the same frame of mind, except the year is 1847 and you are living in Mexico City. The Yankees have already stolen Texas, the evil clown Santa Anna having held a state funeral for his dead leg, now has gone into hiding to avoid battle. Only poorly armed rasquachi soldiers stand in the way of General Scott’s invading giants. The Yankees have bombarded Veracruz. The Yankees have overwhelmed Puebla. The Yankees are in the Zócalo about to raise the stars and stripes above the Palacio Nacional.
Such parallels are inescapably part of the ambiente of Ignacio Solares’ Yankee Invasion, a Novel of Mexico City. Such is the bad P.R. the United States has earned from its many years of military adventures in foreign lands that the novel doesn’t need to make the parallels explicitly. Solares feeds the flames an anti-Yankeeism in this historical novel, so it is not a novel for “my country right or wrong my country” tipos. Solares doesn’t waste a lot of tears for Mexicanos, either. One of the key side characters, Father Jarauta, stands for fighting against the Yankees and the Mexicans who support them. Moreover, the story comes to us ten years after the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo has ceded half of Mexico into US control, and 1848 was a long time ago.
Solares uses the invasion as backdrop for the story of a courageous surgeon, a troubled writer, and an indictment of an inept government, then as now. We hear about war but see precious little. Much of the battle action takes place in hearsay narrative, in rumor, in newspaper reportage. And this is a good thing because readers who are Veterans of the U.S. military do not want to read about Mexicans—or anyone—killing GIs or Marines, whether from the halls of Montezuma or the banks of the Euphrates.
The medico is Dr. Urruchúa. He’s troubled that his patients die with regularity after childbirth and other procedures. He’s frustrated that a few tragos of rum are all he can offer a patient about to feel the doctor’s saw cut into an amputation. Urruchúa suspects that washing hands and instruments might alleviate virulent infection, and ruminates that hypnotism could be useful in surgery. The doctor is a genuine hero. During the battle for Mexico City, the doctor goes from hospital to hospital without food or rest tending to wounded. A grievously wounded Yankee gets as good as the doctor can give—just as Yankee medicos tend to wounded Mexicans.
Among the doctor’s closest friends is Abelardo, the frustrated writer. Dr. Urruchúa theorizes Mesmer’s treatments could reduce Abelardo’s chronic depression, not just an amputee’s. But the best the doctor can offer his friend is some pills and a sympathetic ear.
Abelardo experiences hallucinations borne of his depression. He sees colors and auras, contemplates suicide as his one sure cure, and perhaps the best way to escape the consequences of the Yankee invasion. But unlikeable Abelardo is a man of inaction, preferring to discuss politics with his other rich friends than take up arms in defense of la patria.
Abelardo’s story is at once comic and frustrating. Comedy grows from his relationship with Magdalena, his wife, and two women whom Abelardo refers to as the true loves of his life. Magdalena hectors the frustrated writer to stitch together the drawersful of newspaper clippings and scribblings, along with Dr. Urruchúa’s notes, Abelardo has collected over the years. She’s heard bits and snippets of the history throughout their married life and Magdalena’s fed up with the story’s sketchiness. She, too, wants details on the two women, daughter and mother.
This novel, in fact, is the result of Magdalena’s goading urgency. But, in the end, Magdalena refuses to accept Abelardo’s version of events. To the reader’s frustration, Abelardo acknowledges that Magdalena is probably correct, telling her that many details are pure fiction or wishful thinking. In Abelardo’s untrustworthy mind, there’s no difference. Still, history has a concrete referent for much that transpires. The U.S. did invade. Chapultepec was taken. Mexico City was occupied. The trains ran on time, as it were, from United States administrative reforms. And maybe--given its dismal leadership and powerless easily riled plebe--Mexico got what it deserved, the invasion and loss of half its former territory.
Readers will find Yankee Invasion, A Novel of Mexico City, a worthwhile endeavor because the twisted story of the two women is deliciously salacious without being dirty, because the patriotism of the troubled primera clase Abelardo is sincere and genuine, because the underlying satire of Solares’ costumbrismo takes big bites out of Mexican pride, because the narrative is fun as it swings like Abelardo’s moods between straightforward historical account to confessional first person elements when Abelardo steps out of the narrative to address his readers directly, because of its imaginative structure.
Imagine yourself in the assembled masses. The occupying authority summoned attendance to hear the victory proclamation. U.S. cavalry and infantry clean up their appearance as well as possible, a few hours removed from the bloody battle to occupy el Castillo de Chapultepc and fight their way to the seat of government. An officer reads an English language proclamation—pendejo, the people think, screw you and whatever you’re saying in your foreign language. One GI is honored to haul the U.S. flag up the pole. A shot sounds from a nearby rooftop. The sniper’s aim drops the Yankee in his tracks. The crowd explodes in frenzy, pulling invaders to the ground, beating them with brooms and hammers and stones, tearing their dirty uniforms from bleeding corpses. You’re running for your life away from the carnage when a dying Yankee grabs your ankles. In desperation you pull a knife and thrust it into the Yankee’s body again and again until you smell his last breath. It is your own personal moment of triumph. If it happened. Ni modo, there’s a novel in it.
That's the first Tuesday of August. August, my birthday month, my anniversary month! But it's a Tuesday like any other Tuesday, except You Are Here. Thank you for visiting La Bloga.
La Bloga welcomes your comments on this and every column. Click the comments counter below to share a word or more. If you have extended remarks, a review of your own--a novel, a poet, a cultural or arts event--click here to tell las blogueras los blogueros your idea.