Mariano Azuela was born in Jalisco, Mexico in 1873. He spent time in the army of Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution (1810-20) serving as a Doctor. Azuela wrote ‘The Underdogs’ (or ‘Los de Abajo’) in 1915, a long time before the Revolution reached its messy conclusion.
The book is a short one, the style (in translation) very direct. It reminds me a lot of ‘Homage to Catalonia’ by George Orwell. The protagonists of the book, and the Revolution, are poor, illiterate peasants – the forgotten people of the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship that preceeded the Revolution, and sparked it off. These people threw themselves into the struggle with only a dim perception of the objectives involved:
‘Villa? Obregon? Carranza? What do I care?…I love the Revolution like I love the volcano that’s erupting! The volcano because it’s a volcano; the Revolution because it’s the Revolution!’
The Revolution unleashed waves of violence that had little to do with the objectives of the so-called leaders. Instead under the guise of ideals that meant little or nothing to those that fought, old scores were settled for past wrongs that had nothing to do with the Revolution. The raping and pillaging that went on is described in deplorable detail. Many people were swept up in it:
‘You may ask me why I stay with the Revolution. Well, the Revolution is like the hurricane, and the man who joins it isn’t a man anymore…he’s a miserable dead leaf caught up in the windstorm.’
The result: one in eight Mexicans died without even knowing what they were fighting for. And, after ten years of bloodshed the political party that came out on top remained in power for the rest of the 20th Century. Hardly progressive.
The main character, Demetrio sums up the mood of the book on his return home to his wife and child, only to prepare to leave again almost immediately. He is going back to war:
‘Why do you keep fighting, Demetrio?’
Demetrio, frowning deeply, absentmindedly picks up a small stone and throws it to the bottom of the canyon. He stares pensively over the precipice and says:
‘Look at that stone, how it keeps on going…’
He doesn’t seem know what else to do.
But Azuela’s novel resonates further than the Mexican Revolution. It is a critique of war and it’s consequences for humankind that is easily transferable. The tragic results for the common man when society breaks down and violence becomes the only accepted norm are surely global. Ideologies and power struggles remain opaque to many of those who are fighting and dying in their name. A melancholy book, but I would say a good one for anyone interested in Mexican history.