Novels that show the sordid side of war are not scarce. Classics abound, but they do not glut; each book is as distinct as its war. Mariano Azuela's "The Underdogs" (Penguin Classics, 148 pages, $8) realizes a war that we often forget, though it is relatively near at hand in time and space. Azuela (1873-1952) participated in the Mexican Revolution (1911-17), serving as a doctor in the army of Pancho Villa, before the fortunes of war sent him packing across the border to El Paso, Texas. Beginning in 1915, he serialized his novel in one of El Paso's Spanish-language newspapers, El Paso del Norte.Read More
"The Underdogs" was not published in Mexico until 1920, and it did not receive much attention until about 1925. But it now stands for the Mexican Revolution as "The Red Badge of Courage" stands for the American Civil War, and it represents a turning point in Latin-American literature itself. Because the revolution brought a host of regional armies together against a central government, Azuela's novel necessarily undertook the portrayal of regional Mexican culture as meaningful territory, overturning decades of Eurocentric prejudice in intellectual Mexico.
Sergio Waisman's new translation of "The Underdogs" therefore faces its biggest challenge in its treatment of Mexican dialects. Demetrio Macias, a local hero in the Sierras who becomes a general in Pancho Villa's army, terrorizing the villages and cities of the plains, sometimes sounds like an American lug: "God willin', ... tomorrow, or perhaps even tonight, we will get another close-up of the Federales. What do you say, muchachos? Ready to show 'em 'round these paths and trails?"
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