Elena Garro: Los recuerdos del porvenir (Recollections of Things to Come)
Surprisingly enough, this novel has been translated into English and is in print in both Spanish and English. Despite that it is little known outside Mexico, which is very sad as it really is a first-class novel, using touches of magic realism four years before Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years Of Solitude) was published and showing that women, particularly Mexican women, were just as capable as men in that area. The book was actually written in 1950, while Garro was convalescing from a long illness in Switzerland, but it was not published till 1963. It tells the story of a small town in the South of Mexico called Ixtepec during the Cristero War, a counter-revolution against the Mexican government, led, as the name implies, by Catholics who felt persecuted by the anticlericalist Mexican government.
Ixtepec, presumably based on Iguala, where Garro lived, has been occupied by the army, under General Francisco Rosas. The rule of Rosas and his men is despotic. The inhabitants often go out in the morning and find men hanging from the trees, the excuse being that they were rebels or rustlers but all too often they are poor Indians who resisted the theft of their land. Garro was very much opposed to the exploitation of the native population and the theft of their land and her concern for them can be seen by the brutally racist treatment they receive in this book. Many of the characters, and not just the army, consider them less than human and feel they are inherently dishonest and shiftless and that harsh treatment is what they deserve. But it is not only the Indians who are victims. One young woman is abducted purely for the pleasure of one of Rosas’ officers. There is a brothel in town, whose main if not only customers are the soldiers.
The unusual nature of the novel can be seen from the very beginning. There is an I-narrator but we soon learn that it is not a person but the town itself. It talks about a stone which, we will learn, was Isabel Moncada. The stone becomes a symbol not only for Isabel but also for the town itself, trapped by the military, almost completely cut off from the rest of the world. Isabel’s brothers get out but only to go and work in a mine and they regularly return. When a stranger, Felipe Hurtado, comes to town, from Mexico City, it is treated with considerable surprise by almost the entire populace. Garro skilfully portrays this isolation throughout the novel. We meet many of the people of the town but the two main ones are the Moncada family and Juan Cariño. The Moncada family consist of Martín, his wife, Ana, their two sons and Isabel. Martín is a weak man and unable to stand up to Rosas and his men but represents middle class decency, a decency which, as we shall see, proves wanting. Juan Cariño had been president of the local council and, indeed, still considers himself as such but he is mocked by the military. He now lives in the brothel and sees his job as picking up the bad words dropped by others, a surrealistic or magic realist touch. However, the key figure in the town may well be Julia Andrade, General Rosas’ mistress. She is an outsider, a mysterious woman who has little contact with anyone and who makes life difficult for General Rosas. He is madly infatuated with her and also madly jealous. When he sees her talking to Felipe Hurtado, he beats Hurtado up. When one of his officers apparently insults her, the officer’s body is found in the street by the Moncadas. We can see that Julia and Hurtado are planning to escape and we (and the town’s inhabitants) fear that Rosas will stop them but, in another occurrence of magic realism, el tiempo se detuvo en seco [time stopped dead] and the couple escape, never to be heard of again.
The second part of the book shows Rosas’ revenge on the town as even more people are killed. This time it is Isabel to come forward. The ultimate decent woman becomes Rosas’ mistress, even though Rosas’ victims include her own family. There is only one way out for Isabel and, indeed, one way out for Rosas, but Garro’s skill is to not make this way out the obvious, realist way. It really is a superb book, which deserves to be better known, both in Latin America but also in the world at large and, as it is in print in English and Spanish (and, indeed, in French and Italian and readily available, though out of print, in German), I cannot recommend it too highly.
First published by Joaquín Mortiz in 1963
First English translation by University of Texas Press in 1969