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Hernán Lara Zavala: Península, Península [Peninsula, Peninsula]

The eponymous peninsula is the Yucatán Peninsula, where this book is set. Indeed, it opens in Mérida in 1847. However, this is not going to be your conventional historical novel. Firstly, there is a seemingly conventional narrator, telling the story in the third person. However, he keeps intruding, telling us how and why he is writing what he is writing. Secondly, there is another novelist. He is one of the characters – José Turrisa, pseudonym of the historical Justo Sierra O’Reilly (José Turrisa is an anagram of Justo Sierra), though in this book Lara Zavala has them as two different people.. At the start of the book, he has already written two novels and, we are told, he is going to write a third, which will explain the events we are following. Indeed, at times, it is not clear who is writing – the author or Turrisa, though all is explained right at the end of the book.

This novel also differs from what we might assume to be the conventional historical novel approach. It starts as though it is going to be a conventional historical novel, with a party held by the high society of Mérida but, gradually, we realise that, on the whole, it is going to take not the side of the well-off white society of Yucatán but of the oppressed native population. The novel is also set against the background of the issue of Yucatán independence.

The initial part of the novel concerns the dispute involving Miguel Barbachano, a younger man, who had been governor but is not currently. Indeed, he is about to leave for Havana. His opponent is Santiago Méndez, father-in-law of José Turrisa and a man, who though he had a centrist outlook, twice favoured independence because of his opposition to the President of Mexico, Santa Anna (known in the US for taking the Alamo).

We follow the stories of several individuals who are involved in the events that follow. These include the Bishop don Celestino Onésimo Arrigunaga, about whose sex life we learn more than about his spiritual life, Miss Bell, a British governess who has come to educate the children of a rich man, don Quintín Silvestre, Dr. Patrick O Fitzpatrick, an Irishman who has been travelling the world to find a place where he can be solitary and where there is no political upheaval, and who is happy with having a parrot and a dog as his only companions, Judge Antonio Rajón, a married man who has a young Mayan mistress, and Genaro Montore, a travelling salesman.

The natives are not happy. They helped the whites fight for inexpedience and promises were made which were never kept. They are badly paid, exploited, denied land rights and subject to brutal justice. One Mexican even feels he has the right to exercise the droit de seigneur on the local young women. We gradually follow the uprising, with various events. Miss Bell reads about the history of the Maya and how they were exploited by the Spanish. She will eventually see the natives rise up. Dr. Fitzgerald give medical help to them and learns about their mistreatment. Genaro Montore arrives in the town of Valladolid just as the whites are about to execute a well-respected native who, apparently, has been set up over a land deal by Judge Rajón. Montore sees that the natives are not happy and, indeed, they do revolt. At the same time as the native revolt, there is also a revolt against Governor Méndez.

The second part of the book tells the story of the Indian uprising and we follow it, both from the perspective(s) of the novelist(s) as well as from the various characters mentioned above, all who become involved one way or the other. The uprising gradually takes form, as the Indians attack and seize the Yucatán villages one by one. Indeed, by the end, they have seized the entire peninsula, except for Mérida, heavily defended, and Campeche, with strong walls on one side and the sea on the other. The first major attack was by the whites and when they attack an Indian settlement, they have no qualms about brutally killing all the inhabitants, men, women and children. As a result, the Indians adopt the same tactics, killing all the inhabitants. The only ones that seem to be spared are the priests (José Turriso’s brother) and the doctors (Dr. Fitzgerald) and those that have been sympathetic towards the Indians (Genaro Montore).

The book is not just about the Indians gradually taking over the peninsula, though that is a big part of it. We also see the infighting on both sides. On the Indian side, there is a difference of opinion between those that want to make a deal with the whites and those that do not. On the Mexican side, there are differences between the supporters of Méndez and the supporters of Barbachano, even when Méndez resigns as governor and hands the post back to Barbachano. Love also appears but, in these difficult times, its path is not always smooth. Though the war was essentially over by 1855, it dragged on till 1900, with pockets still holding out. One of the main reasons for the defeat of the Indians was that, when planting time arrived, the Indians all abandoned their posts and went back to their fields. The Chiapas conflict of the 1990s shows that that the issues are still there.

Lara Zavala tells an excellent story, particularly with his multiple points of view. He and Turriso have no doubt that the whites treatment of the Indians was the root cause of the war and he is very sympathetic to their cause.

Publishing history

First published by Alfaguara in 2008
No English translation