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Fernando del Paso: Noticias del Imperio (News from the Empire)

This book is 668 pages long in my Spanish version and it really helps to have a knowledge of nineteenth century Mexican and European history, neither of which are strong points for British and American readers, but even so this is an essential twentieth century classic. Del Paso kindly sets up the plot in an introductory paragraph. In 1861, President Benito Juárez suspended Mexico’s external debt payments. This was used as a pretext by the then French emperor, Napoleon III, to send to Mexico an army of occupation, to set up a monarchy in Mexico headed by a European Catholic prince. The Habsburg Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian was chosen and, in the middle of 1864, he arrived in Mexico, accompanied by Princess Charlotte (Carlota) of Belgium. This book is based on this historical fact and the tragic fate of the short-lived Emperor and his wife. He might have added that, as some Americans and maybe even some Brits will recognise, this was happening during the American Civil War.

The book has twenty-three chapters and twelve of them (the odd number ones) are entitled Castle of Bouchout, as the Castle of Bouchout is where Carlota lived after her husband’s execution and 1927 was the year she died, sixty years after her husband’s death, still believing that she was Empress of Mexico and that her husband was still alive. Though the book has many facets and many points of view, it is Carlota who, to a great extent, dominates the work. The book starts off with one of the Castle of Bouchout chapters and, as with the other chapters set here, is a monologue by the insane princess. She starts off by saying I am María Carlota of Belgium, Empress of Mexico and of America and goes on to outline her lineage and her relatives and the book more or less ends the same way. The rest of her monologues are a Joycean outpouring of her life, real and imagined, her life with Maximilian and various snippets of her current and past life, intended to show her not as a coloniser or, rather, the wife of a coloniser but of a somewhat insane old woman whose time has long since gone.

The remaining, even number, chapters are chronological, starting with 1861 and Juárez and ending with a final chapter, covering 1872-1927. They tell of the historical events of the period but they each do it in a different way, ranging from letters between ordinary people, imagined dialogue between key players, straightforward historical narrative, commentary by del Paso and the brilliant final section, Ceremonial for the shooting of an Emperor, in which Maximilian’s execution is described as some sort of grandiose bureaucratic procedure, including the announcement of his death. The point, of course, is that del Paso is taking a thoroughly post-modernist perspective, mixing different points of view and style and mixing fact and fiction/speculation. He does not come down fully on the side you might expect, namely that the Emperor was thoroughly wrong and Mexico totally right but uses the opportunity if not to rewrite history, at least to challenge the standard Mexican and Latin American ideas. Maximilian, for all his faults, did love his adopted country and, for del Paso, while he may not have been born Mexican, he did die Mexican and may be considered a tragic figure.

Because of del Paso’s skill, the novel works as a review of a historical period and a historical event, seen from modern eyes with a modern critical perspective. Maximilian and Carlota are neither evil colonisers nor entirely tragic victims but are caught up in something bigger than themselves and they are the ones that pay the price. Fortunately, thank to the very wonderful Dalkey Archive Press, it is now available in English.

Publishing history

First published by Editorial Diana in 1987 in Spanish
First English translation 2009 by Dalkey Archive Press