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David Toscana: El ejército iluminado (The Enlightened Army)

Ignacio Matus (but always known simply as Matus in this book) has two bugbears, though they have a common link, namely his hatred of the United States. The first concerns the 1924 Olympics in Paris and, specifically, the marathon at that Olympics. Matus competed in the marathon in that Olympics, with one slight variation. While the rest of the runners were in Paris, he was in Monterrey, Mexico.

Long-distance running was very much not a thing in Mexico at that time and, as a result, the Mexican Olympic Committee did not send any long-distance runners to Paris. Matus planned to go at his own expense but could not afford even the basic steerage fare on his teacher’s salary. But what he could and did do was run the marathon distance, at the same time as the runners in Paris, over a course in Monterrey and that is just what he did. This was just the second Olympics (1908 was the first) where the marathon length was 26 miles, 385 yards which has since been the standard.

Matus, of course, sees his great rival as the US runner Clarence DeMar. He accuses DeMar of being a millionaire (he was not). The 1908 marathon had been won by the US runner Johnny Hayes, though Dorando Pietri was the first to cross the line but was disqualified as he had had help to cross the line. In Matus’ view, Hayes clearly bribed the judges. There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever for this.

Matus runs the race in Monterrey at what he thinks is the same time as the race was held in Paris, though the Paris race was delayed so, in fact, he had completed the race before the Paris race started. Nevertheless and most importantly, he beats De Mar’s time. He writes to De Mar demanding that DeMar sends him the bronze medal, which is rightfully his. Not surprisingly, DeMar does not reply, at least not immediately.

Forty-four years later, the Olympics are held in Mexico. Somewhat older by now, Matus still decides to run the race, in Monterrey, which he does. Naturally, his time is not as good but, unlike the favourite and several others, he does, more or less, complete the course. In this Olympics, a Mexican runner does, just, beat all the US runners.

However, this book is more about the the Iluminados, translated here as The Enlightened Army. Matus’ other major bugbear is that the US illegally has a large amount of Mexican territory as a result of the annexation of Texas in 1845 and the subsequent Mexican–American War, which led to further annexation, including modern-day California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah.

In his history class at school, he regularly teaches this and points out to his pupils that all this territory should be Mexican, the proof being that the names are still in Spanish. He has a large map on the wall showing Mexico and the United States as they should be (in his eyes). He also has a pupil, Arechavaleta, who is highly critical of his view and feels that the US and Mexico should be friends and that Mexico should accept the Rio Grande as the boundary between the two countries. Arechavaleta will go on to be a successful businessman. However, in the short term, Arechavaleta complains to his mother, who complains to the headmaster, who fires Matus.

Matus has been talking about creating an army and taking back the lost territories and now seems the right time to do it. He assembles a motley crew of a few pupils and a few friends (including one woman) and manages to get hold of a few antiquated rifles. Much of the book is taken up with their campaign. Inevitably, there are adventures en route. General Matus, as he wishes to be called, has a plan. They will cross the Rio Grande, capture the Alamo and, as General Sant’Anna did, kill all the occupants. They find the Rio Grande and cross it with a certain amount of difficulty. They find the Alamo. It seems to be unoccupied, so they occupy it. However, they see two men approaching and fire at them, apparently hitting one. They now take positions in the fort, awaiting the inevitable attack from the US military, confident they can hold them off. Indeed, as far as Matus is concerned, now they have retaken the Alamo, they can formally re-annex Texas.

Toscana mixes up the different stories, jumping backwards and forwards and even occasionally, blending them. He also has another interesting technique. A character imagines that something might happen and then we get a graphic description of the event as though it has happened. For example, a character sees an old lady getting into a bus with her heavy shopping bags. He imagines the bus catching fire in an accident and the lady struggling to get out with her bags and burning to death. We see this technique on several occasions.

Toscana certainly mocks Matus and his companions but, at the same time, he clearly has an admiration for his pig-headedness and stubborn determination as to the rightness of his views on both the Olympics and the Mexican territories annexed by the US. Matus is no fool, merely somewhat obsessive. It naturally does not end well but Matus clearly is one of those stubborn fools we find in literature, whom we cannot help but admire and there is no doubt that this novel confirms Toscana as one of the leading Mexican novelists.

Publishing history

First published by Tusquets in 2006
First English translation by University of Texas Press in 2018
Translated by David William Foster