Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Los de Abajo (The Underdogs) by Mariano Azuela

Deserves a better translation
Los de Abajo is generally considered to be the greatest novel of the Mexican Revolution. Written by Mariano Azuela, who served as a doctor in Pancho Villa’s army, it was first published in 1915. It relates the adventures of a group of rebels under the leadership of Demetrio Macías, a peasant farmer who unintentionally becomes a revolutionary after drawing the ire of the local police chief. His motley band of peasant fighters is joined by Luis Cervantes, an educated young man of the city who becomes Demetrio’s trusted advisor. Cervantes enters the war as an idealist, but soon becomes a shrewd opportunist, scheming to advance Demetrio’s military career while seeking out lucrative opportunities for looting. The troop drifts around the countryside, serving various commanders, with little concern for whom they’re fighting as long as they keep on fighting. Violence is not reserved for battle but dealt indiscriminately to soldier and civilian alike. Every character in the book acts in his own self interest. Revolutionary ideals are only invoked for the purposes of sarcasm or self-aggrandizement. One can sense that Azuela actually believes in these ideals, but saw little actualization of them during his service in the war. His disillusionment is palpable throughout the novel. On the other hand, he does glorify the revolutionaries for their recklessness and roguishness, much in the way that antiheroes are glorified in American westerns like The Wild Bunch. The plot of Los de Abajo is just as wayward as the wandering soldiers it follows. The book is more a collection of loosely connected scenes than a linear narrative, but they are incredibly vivid scenes that encapsulate the atmosphere of the revolution with stark and visceral immediacy. Los de Abajo is not a typical war novel, just as the Mexican Revolution was not a typical war. The beauty of this novel is that while it captures the uniqueness of this particular conflict, it also stands as a universal testament to the pointlessness of war, regardless of time or place.

Though the work may be of estimable quality, the translation by E. Munguia Jr. negatively effected my appreciation of it. A while back I tried reading Los de Abajo in Spanish, but the 100-year old vocabulary made it slow going for someone of my mediocre skills in that language, so I decided to read this English translation instead. Despite the fact that English is my first language, in several instances I had to refer back to the Spanish edition just to figure out what the English version was trying to say. For example, in one passage about a soldier’s bandaged leg, the word “ligatures” (ligaduras) is translated as “ligaments” (ligamentos), which doesn’t make any sense at all. Also, I don’t know if it’s the fault of Azuela or Munguia, but there are an awful lot of pronouns in this book just begging for an antecedent. I felt like I was constantly reading backwards two or three paragraphs to figure out which “he” was being referred to. Los de Abajo may very well deserve the accolades it receives in its home country, but I can’t say for sure after reading the free Kindle edition from Amazon. I feel like in order to really read this novel I now have to go out and find another edition entirely.

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