South of the border

The author of "Latinos: A Biography of the People" picks five great works of Mexican literature.



Earl Shorris
September 29, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

Mexican literature has always been curiously strange and sometimes difficult for American readers, even though Mexico borders on the United States and tens of millions of Americans are of Mexican ancestry. It is a problem of culture. While most Mexicans speak a Latin-based language, Spanish, the literature of Mexico has its roots in the rich indigenous heritage of the country, often in myths that predated the Spanish invasion by hundreds of years. The best way to approach Mexican literature, then, is to gain some familiarity with its cultural roots.

The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz
Although Paz is probably better known as a poet, Mexico's Nobelist first made his reputation with this still-controversial essay on the Mexican character. Interestingly enough, it grew out of his experiences during a year that he spent teaching in Los Angeles. His observations of Mexican-Americans 50 years ago opened the way to considering the "masks" behind which Mexicans lived and how these masks grew out of the pre-Columbian period. Paz makes brilliant analyses of "machismo" and the enduring meaning of La Malinche, the woman who served as interpreter between Hernan Cortis and the Aztecs.

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Aztec Thought and Culture by Miguel Lesn-Portilla
Thirty-five years ago, Lesn-Portilla changed the world's understanding of the Aztec mind with this investigation into the philosophical and religious notions underlying Aztec poetry, history and myth. The book is rich with citations from the original works, all made accessible by the accompanying discussion.

Memories of Pancho Villa by Martmn Luis Guzman
Guzman claimed at the time he wrote the book to have based it on interviews with Villa, but it is best to think of the work as historical fiction. Guzman offers an exciting picture of a cowboy Villa, in which the Centaur of the North, as Villa was known in Guzman's Eurocentric circle, goes from avenger of his sister's rape to criminal, then to hero of the revolution. There have been other novels (including mine) about Villa since Guzman's work, and a big, richly researched biography by Friedrich Katz, but Guzman actually knew Villa, which gives his book the authenticity that neither the more literary work nor the biography can offer.

Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo
This classic Mexican novel is said by some to be based on Mixtec mythology, and that may be so. Rulfo was a quiet man, a civil servant who worked among Indians and wrote about them. Gabriel Garcma Marquez said that Rulfo was the inventor of magic realism, and there is surely magic in this tale of the man who comes home to the town of Comala. The history of the land, the revolution and the family unfolds in clean, beautiful prose. Rulfo wrote only this novel and a collection of stories. The stories are in need of new translations, but the novel is an unforgettable world.

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The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes
The story moves backward through time, from the deathbed of an old revolutionary to the moment when his mother "gave him to the light." In the course of the journey, the life of Artemio Cruz and his circle of comrades, enemies, lovers and victims reveals the history of modern Mexico and the terrible decline from patriotism to corruption that plagued the country. Although the life of the general is morally reprehensible, Fuentes gives him such enormous vigor and rough charm that, like all the great characters of literature, Cruz leaves an imprint on the mind of the reader.


Earl Shorris

Earl Shorris is the author of "Latinos: A Biography of the People," "In the Yucatán," a novel, and "Riches for the Poor: The Clemente Course in the Humanities,"a history of the university-level course now teaching young poor people in a dozen U.S. cities, Canada and Mexico.

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