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Gustavo Sainz: La princesa del Palacio de Hierro (The Princess of the Iron Palace)

Gustavo Sainz was part of the Onda movement, a movement of Mexican writers that sought to break with the older generation and its more traditional forms. They used a much more modern language, with slang appearing frequently and dealt with themes that their predecessors had not dealt with, namely the subjects of what would be called the counter-culture, such as sex, drugs, rock music and current politics, both as regards their opposition to the Mexican government as well as politics elsewhere particularly the Vietnam War. This is Sainz’s second novel and he had followed the Onda approach in his first book, Gazapo (Gazapo), and continues it here.

The novel tells the story of an unnamed young Mexican woman. She comes from a well-to-do, conservative family. Children, girls in particular, were meant to behave, go to church and, if they had a boyfriend/girlfriend, there was to be no physical contact between the two and the person would be vetted and monitored by the parents. Our heroine, the eponymous Princess, very much does not follow this dictum. Indeed, she is lively, outspoken, colourful and disobedient. She takes drugs, has sex with older men, drinks a lot and behaves very wildly. Yet she is very likeable, despite her built-in contradictions, irresponsibility and thoroughly unruly behaviour.

Her style – it is a first-person narrative – is chaotic, rambling, even nonsensical and contradictory at times. She jumps backwards and forwards in time. Above all, she tells stories, stories of her boyfriends, her girlfriends, her parents and other she meets. Though only fifteen at the start of the novel, she is employed, working at the Palacio de Hierro (Iron Palace), a Mexico City department store, where she may well be the worst employee they have ever had. By her own admittance, she got the job because of influence, though what this influence is we are not told. She continually breaks things. As she is a committed shoppers, she is always recommending items to clients, not sold by her employer but by other shops. She also seems to disappear at times, on personal business.

She has a very active love life. Some of the characters are given nicknames such as Handsome to the Maximum, whose real name seems to be Loco Valdiosera. She is immediately smitten by his good looks and charm but what exactly he does is not clear. He may be a pimp (she denies it), a drug dealer or even a fish dealer. He seems to do various things. He is certainly colourful. He certainly spends some time in prison. There is Mauricio, who is very violent and a karate champion, who is not adverse to using his skills. There is Gabriel who, even by her standards, is over the top, completely wild, a serious drug user, foul-mouthed and seriously unbalanced. He threatens suicide more than once. There is the Monk whom she does not really like, initially, but then goes out with him, as well. The one she seems to be most taken with is Alexis Stamatis, twelve years her senior and married. Her uncle, whom she describes as a loveable, genial man, is planning on having Alexis killed, though it is not clear why. This same genial uncle rapes one of her friends in front of her and is eventually machine-gunned down, again it is not clear why. She cheats on all of them and they cheat on her. No-one seems to care.

Her relationships remain complicated. For example, she makes arrangements to meet one boyfriend at one door and another one at the other door of the Iron Palace. She will go out with the one who happens to be at the door she uses. On one occasion, she says that she was still going out with Alexis, about to marry Gabriel and Mauricio, she had fallen in love with the Monk and was seeing Giovanni, an Italian man she had met on one of her many trips to Europe. Somehow, there seemed to be relatively little conflict between the respective boyfriends/fiancés.

Violence is ubiquitous in this novel. Her uncle is machine-gunnned and her adored father murdered over a bet. She is assaulted on many occasions, as are others. Most of her boyfriends seem to be involved in violent activities. There are several violent altercations with the police. There are several serious car crashes. In one, for example, she and some friends are driving to a new club, which is having an opening party. As they are late, they are driving at 90 mph. A young man who has had too much to drink wanders into the road. They hit him and he dies soon after. The car, of course, crashes, and his friends attack them. She manages to escape by hijacking a car driven by some other young people, despite the fact that she scarcely knows how to drive.

She moves in high society, meeting a government minister (who, of course, tries to rape her) and she is able to use his private plane for shopping trips to Miami. She even meets the President and First Lady. Her ambition is to be a model and eventually she does become one.

Sainz is clearly trying to move on from the conventional and, at times, staid Mexican novels of the past and he certainly does that. There is no respite as our heroine is always up to something or something is happening to her. Her parents, who take the view that girls/women are either good girls or whores, seem to be remarkably ignorant of what is going on in the life of their daughter (and her brother). On one occasion, for example, she takes too many sleeping pills. Her friends break into her room with a doctor and help her out, while her parents are in the next room watching TV blissfully unaware of what is happening to their daughter. In short, this is one of the liveliest, fastest-moving novels you are likely to read, full of slang, vulgarities, a non-stop stream of colourful events, and, above all, a young woman who is larger than life and who never seems to stop having things happen to her.

Publishing history

First published by J. Mortiz in 1974
First English translation by Grove Press in 1987
Translated by Andrew Hurley