Sunday, January 6, 2013

Battles in the Desert

Photo source
José Emilio Pacheco is a Mexican poet and author of essays, novels and short stories. In 2009 he was honored with the distinguished Cervantes award, an award that celebrates the life's work of an esteemed author in the Spanish language. But more importantly, the Band of Wild Petticoats accords Pacheco with it's highest honor, which is of course undying love.

I first encountered his writing while completing my undergraduate studies in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I read his novella Las batallas en el desierto [Battles in the Desert] (1981) and loved it. I read it again today and was struck by the complexities lying beneath the deceptively smooth surface of this story.

Source
This novella is written in first person from the perspective of an adult man recollecting a pivotal moment of his early adolescence: the first time he fell in love. He falls in love with a schoolmate's mother, Mariana, from the moment he lays eyes on her.

Immediately after admitting to himself that he was in love with Mariana, half way through the story, the reader learns the narrator's name for the first time: Carlitos. It is as though his awareness of his ability to love made him suddenly worthy of his name, of his own identity.

Later in the story, Carlitos is compelled professes his love to Mariana. She reacts with a great tenderness but makes it clear that it is an impossible love because of the difference in their ages (she claims to be "ancient" at 28--!). She promises to keep secret his declaration of love, but word eventually gets out and poor Carlitos is taken to a psychiatrist to be analyzed as a pervert, to a priest to confess, and to another school, removed from what his mother perceives to be the riffraff of "lower class" families, negatively influencing her child. (At one point, the narrator cites his mother as saying "Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres." [Tell me what company you keep and I'll tell you who you are.])

This bildungsroman is made wonderfully complex by the presence of a certain hubris in the voice of the adult-Carlitos as he looks back on his teenaged self.

Miguel Alemán - photo source
An important and recurring theme throughout the story is the political atmosphere of Mexico in the late 40s/ early 50s. Miguel Alemán was president at this time (1946-52) and while he worked to make "progress" the defining feature of his administration, deeply entrenched cronyism and corruption were ultimately the emblems of his legacy. While on the surface there was the appearance of progress, there was also a growing resentment of the government and its power structures.

Pacheco aligns the discontentedness of Mexican society, chaffing under unjust alliances of the ruling class, with the discontentedness of a teenage boy, misunderstood and corralled unnecessarily by parents, teachers, and the unending gossip of the people. At one point, he says: "Me juzgaban según leyes en las que no cabían mis actos." [They judged me according to laws that had nothing to do with my actions.] This beautiful--and yet profoundly melancholic-- convergence of the personal and the political steeps the novel in a sense of lovesickness. That adolescent love is so heavily burdened by the inadequate and intrusive laws of adult reality causes a longing to remain in Carlos' heart, even as a grown man.

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This book is awesome and it will only take you one or two hours to read. If you are looking for an English translation, you can find one here. I haven't given away any spoilers and there is much more to this story than I've led you to believe in this lil' ole blog post!

Final rando thought about Pacheco ~
This year, I've been teaching 2nd semester Spanish courses at the university. On the first day of the semester, I pass out a short and lovely poem by José Emilio Pacheco called "Mar eterno." I have students attempt to read it (I know, I'm so cruel!) and ask if they understand it. Most can pick out several words but not comprehend how they are strung together or what they may mean. Then on the last day of the semester, I pull out the poem again and have them attempt to read it once more. I can see little lightbulbs blink on and, hopefully, maybe even the seed of appreciation for this great poet take root....

"Mar eterno"

Digamos que no tiene comienzo el mar
Que comienza donde lo hallas por vez primera
Y te sale al encuentro por todas partes.

"Eternal sea"
Let us say that the sea has no beginning
That it begins where you find it for the first time
And comes out to meet you in all places.


(Please note: all translations in this post are my own.)

"Beira Mar" painting by Emiliano Lake-Herrera
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Until next time, my Band of Wild Petticoats-- keep ruffling!

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