The revolution that time forgot

Villa and Zapata - Mexico City
September 15, 2000

The Mexican revolution, 1910-20, was the first great revolution of the 20th century. But whereas the Russian revolution and the Chinese revolution threw up personalities, events and issues that most THES readers will be broadly familiar with, the Mexican revolution is probably a mental blank. Apart from Emiliano Zapata and perhaps Pancho Villa, no other leader is well known; no great events, such as the storming of the Winter Palace or the Long March, are famous; and the ideology is so unclear that the revolution seems to belong as much to the right as to the left.

Frank McLynn, a historian who has written extensively both on the Jacobites and on Napoleon, sets out to rescue the Mexican revolution from obscurity. He compares it to a "ten-year Iliad " in which Villa and Zapata and the two military leaders who became presidents of Mexico, Alvaro Obregón and Venustiano Carranza - all four of whom died by assassination - played the roles of Agamemnon, Achilles, Hector and Aeneas.

"The loss of life was frightful as the ever-widening spirals of bloodshed sucked in more and more people." (Estimates vary from 350,000 to 1,000,000, excluding the victims of the 1918 flu epidemic.) "Civilisation's thin veneer was never thinner than in the Mexican revolution, and the moral is surely that even in advanced societies we skate all the time on the thinnest of ice. A seemingly trivial political crisis can open up the ravening maw of an underworld of chaos." To take but one example, during La Decena Trágica (Ten Days that Shamed the Nation) in 1913, the moderate president Francisco Madero was arrested and brutally murdered in Mexico City by a death squad sent by the head of the federal army, the pathologically duplicitous Victoriano Huerta, who then made himself president. A soldier pierced Madero's one good eye with a sword, and when the blinded president "reeled around, groping, staggering, clutching his socket and pouring blood, the 'chorus' of barbaric soldiers taunted him". Then a seedy businessman with rabidly right-wing connections pumped the stricken man full of lead.

McLynn recounts dozens of such atrocities and hundreds of grisly skirmishes and battles between the rival rebel armies, involving a huge cast of characters (a dramatis personae with dates would have helped the reader). The quality of his research is obvious, as is his grasp of military tactics, and there can be no doubt that his book is a thorough and reliable synthesis for the non-specialist of the extensive scholarly works mentioned in the bibliography, notably those by Alan Knight, Friedrich Katz and John Womack - these three written in English rather than Spanish: a significant comment on the failure of Mexican historians to come to terms with their recent past.

But the book is less successful at bringing alive the principal leaders of the revolution. McLynn admits that Villa and Zapata are "psychologically opaque" and blames a lack of "cogent evidence, even of the indirect kind". One sympathises, and is only too conscious of the gulf separating most readers from the lives of men like Villa and Zapata, compulsive womanisers in a macho society who began as bandits. Yet it is such insights that would have explained why the Mexican revolution matters to the world, besides leavening the depressing and relentless catalogue of mayhem and perfidy. McLynn has used the evidence of the archives most effectively, but there is a missing dimension to the book that only a writer steeped in Mexican life could have brought to the story. The revolution may have included the elements found in Homer's epic, but McLynn is unable to bring more than the occasional flash of tragic grandeur to them.

It is curious, for instance, that he hardly considers the centuries preceding 1821, when Mexico shook off the Spanish yoke: the 300 years of Spanish rule beginning with Cortes, and before that the Aztecs, Maya and other indigenous peoples. Here, surely, lie the roots of all the contradictions and agonies of 19th and 20th-century Mexico. As the archaeologist and historian of Mexico Michael Coe has written of the Maya:

"The highest goal of these lineage-proud dynasts was to capture the ruler of a rival city-state in battle, to torture and humiliate him (sometimes for years), and then subject him to decapitation following a ball game that the prisoner was always destined to lose." When Cortés was shown the Great Temple of the Aztecs in Tenochtitlán, after his seizure of Moctezuma but before he became master of the city, he found the temple awash with sacrificial blood. He demanded that the place be cleaned and images of Christ and the Virgin Mary be set up. When the priests protested, Cortés took a bar and started smashing the Aztec idols, saying, according to the Spanish sources: "Something must be done for the Lord." Today, most Mexicans are Catholics and there is a great cult of the Virgin Mary - but there is not a single street named after Cortés or statue of him in Mexico City, which he founded on the ruins of Tenochtitl n.

This fact, along with many other complexities of Mexican life, is noted by Nick Caistor in his small book on Mexico City, one of three books inaugurating an original new series, Cities of the Imagination. His book is a blend of history, literature, popular culture, sociology and guidebook divided into five parts/themes, in which selected places and aspects of the city are discussed that illuminate the five themes. Thus, the exciting discovery of the Templo Mayor (the ruins of the Aztec Great Temple) in 1978 by workmen repairing cables at the back of the Spanish-built cathedral - reminiscent of Fellini's film Roma - leads to a fine description of both the Templo Mayor and the cathedral. And the idealistic murals painted by Diego Rivera in the Ministry of Education in the 1920s brings in the fraught life of Rivera and the turbulent, still-brutal politics of the decade after the revolution. On the whole, the mix is a good one, more lively than McLynn's approach, though in places the length of the quotations (for example from Octavio Paz) makes the book feel more like an anthology than the work of one writer.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES .

Villa and Zapata: A Biography of the Mexican Revolution

Author - Frank McLynn
ISBN - 0 224 05051 6
Publisher - Cape
Price - £20.00
Pages - 459

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