To the "hero" in this Mexico City-set historical novel, "to flee or not to flee" is the question.
Men of thought versus men of action, personal ambition versus the common good, outside forces exploiting national disunity—it's all the stuff of classical drama. As Ignacio Solares tells it, it's also the stuff of 19th-century Mexican history.
There's nothing subtle in the presentation of Solares' note-worthy, unsettling, newly translated book about the 1847 U.S. takeover of Mexico City. Yankee Invasion was released on Cinco de Mayo—the day that celebrates Mexico's rout of the French. The cover art depicts Uncle Sam as mounted Death, gleefully trampling a group of fleeing souls.
The novel is bookended by two maps of Mexico. In the first, from 1824, Mexico occupies its old arc up the Pacific Coast; in the second, 34 years later, Mexico is missing its top half—Alta California, Sonora and Sinaloa, Nuevo Mexico, Coahuila and Tejas have been lopped off and transformed into California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
Novelist, playwright and essayist Solares was born in Juarez—right at the lop line. In the introduction, writer Carlos Fuentes underscores Solares' perspective on U.S.-Mexican relations.
Solares presents the narrative in Yankee Invasion as the 1890s reminiscences of a melancholy, aging intellectual, Abelardo. Abelardo's wife has persuaded him to relieve his decades-long guilt about his part in the U.S. invasion of Mexico City in September 1847 by writing it down.
Abelardo opens by relating a symbolic action: A renegade Jesuit priest shoots dead a U.S. soldier who is raising the American flag over the Mexican National Palace. The flag eventually gets raised, but the action resonates. Then Abelardo himself commits an uncharacteristic, very Hamlet-like act with a dagger.
Young Abelardo of 1847 had whiled away hours discussing philosophy and politics with his friends in the Progreso Café. He had lived his 25 years through the political instability of the nascent Mexican Republic, from its independence from Spain through intermittent skirmishes with the French; now the Americans were on their doorstep.
With the invasion looming, Abelardo's parents urged him to accompany them back to Spain, but he declined. He tried to live as before. He attempted to read and write; he participated in heated discussions at the Progreso—but he accomplished nothing. He became increasingly anxious and despondent. He considered and reconsidered escape plans.
As Gen. Winfield Scott's U.S. troops marched from Veracruz to the capital, the Mexican people, apparently as incapable of action as our narrator, mounted little resistance.
There is no single villain in this Mexican republic coming-of-age story. It's not the American invasion alone, but the nature of Mexican society that contributes to Mexico's defeat: Politicians are corrupt and self-serving; the rich would sooner truck with Europeans or Americans than their poor countrymen; the establishment church serves at the bidding of shady government; the military is run by officers protecting their fiefdoms. When a few courageous officers attempt to stand up to the Americans, they are either punished or abandoned by Santa Anna.
The narrative line of Yankee Invasion—which amounts to Abelardo's wringing his hands as the U.S. juggernaut rolls toward the city—stretches thin over the history; the more Abelardo equivocates, the more he loses the reader's sympathy. However, Solares brings in a second voice, that of Abelardo's friend Dr. Urruchúa, who offers another perspective on the invasion and serves as a character foil. Dr. Urruchúa is our selfless man of action. No hand-wringer, he dives into treating the wounded (and alleviates the reader's impatience).
Solares' descriptions can be luscious, but his tone is generally disciplined. Objective-sounding, it nonetheless hints at an underlying resentment of the invaders (more than once, Abelardo refers to the horror of yankees living "on top" of him) and rueful national self-knowledge ("the lie called Mexico ... does not exist except in bombastic speeches, official seals, and land plundered from within and without alike").
It's impossible not to read contemporary implications into this text. At one point, Abelardo's wife makes a wry observation: "I'm glad you have no desire to visit the United States, because if you publish your chronicle, I'm sure they wouldn't let you in, anyway."
Well, Abelardo's in. And it's worth taking a look at Mexican-American history from el otro lado.