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Jorge Ibargüengoitia: Los relámpagos de agosto (The Lightning of August)

Novels about the Mexican Revolution/Civil War are ubiquitous. Just as every Spanish novelist has to write about their Civil War, so does every Mexican novelist have to write about theirs. Most of these novels tend to be very serious. This one, however, is not. Jorge Ibargüengoitia was known as a satirist so the Mexican Revolution was an obvious target. The novel is in the form of the memoirs of General José Guadalupe Arroyo (Lupe, to his friends) who, at the time of writing, is disgraced and is writing, of course, to set the record straight and to settle a few scores with those who helped bring about his downfall. Many of the characters, events and even Mexican states are clearly fictitious but Arroyo is apparently based on Juan Gualberto Amaya (link in Spanish).

Many things go badly for Arroyo during the course of the book – none of which, of course, is his fault – but things seem to start well. He immediately tries to dispel what others have said about him (that he never went to school and that this mother was a prostitute). He is living in retirement from his post as Brigadier General of a cavalry unit, when he receives a telegram from his old friend, Marcos González, a former general and now president-elect (based on Álvaro Obregón), asking him to come to Mexico City and be his private secretary. He goes out to celebrate, a celebration which involves lots of alcohol and at least one naked woman, before setting off next day on the train. At this point, things start to go wrong. He meets an old colleague, another general, who had fled the country and has now surreptitiously returned. He tries to borrow money off Arroyo but Arroyo declines so the general steals Arroyo’s fine mother-of-pearl inlaid pistol. At this point, he hears the news vendor selling newspapers. Marcos González has died of a stroke.

He continues to Mexico City, where he attends the funeral. There he meets Marcos González’s widow, who tells them that Marcos González’s last words were that she was to give his gold watch to Arroyo. Unfortunately, she cannot do that because Pérez H (based on Emilio Portes Gil) has stolen it. Arroyo is not entirely surprised. At least four other “widows” come to the funeral, accompanied by numerous children, and they seem to help themselves to whatever they can find. He sees others stealing things. He points out that generals need some relaxation, so that it is not surprising that they have numerous mistresses and children. Despite his own devotion to his wife (mirror of Mexican woman) , it is clear that he also has mistresses and illegitimate children.

Later on, after the funeral, he gets lost outside (presumably because he is very drunk) and bumps into Pérez H. Arroyo challenges him about the watch, which he denies, so Arroyo pushes him into a muddy puddle and walks off. Next day, the widow contacts him to say that she has found the watch and Pérez H did not take it. Being a proud man and despising Pérez H, he refuses to apologise. This will cause him a lot of trouble later on.

The generals and politicians get together to decide what to do about the presidency and favour free elections, as long as their candidate wins and they get the jobs they want. There is lot of dealing but none of it is democratic and this clearly mirrors not only what happened then but what has happened since in Mexican politics, where one party ruled till well after Ibargüengoitia’s death. Indeed, Ibargüengoitia has great fun mocking the way the generals and politicians plan to remain true to the spirit of the Revolution and democratic principles, while subverting the whole process for their own ends. However, other politicians intervene in the Chamber of Deputies and, to Arroyo’s horror, Pérez H is named interim president.

However, Arroyo does get a promotion and returns home in charge of the army there. He gets involved in the Cristero War and things go terribly wrong. It is not, of course, his fault, even when his men are firing on his allies. Then it is back to Mexico City, where there are devious plans to run the country. Arroyo realises that there is some conspiracy to kill him and some of the other generals and they just manage to escape and mount a counter-offensive. Inevitably, that all goes horribly wrong as well – of course, it is not his fault – as they try to blow up a train and cannot attack a town as they might hit US positions over the border, where General Pershing is waiting for an excuse to attack.

Ibargüengoitia very cleverly writes the memoirs of this general, who is seemingly unfairly maligned, much misunderstood and a victim of misfortune and the faults of others. However, at the same time, he skilfully shows us that many of the problems that Arroyo encounters are of his own making. Nevertheless, like many of his fellow generals, Arroyo is man of his time, uneducated, full of bravado, a man much given to wine, women and song, and, frankly, not a very good general. In an afterword, Ibargüengoitia tells us that in 1938, Mexico had two hundred generals, more than forty divisional generals and just three divisions. In short, there were too many generals and most of them were neither competent nor experienced enough to do effectively what generals are meant to do. There is no question that this is a very funny book, albeit with a very serious intent and makes an excellent change from the serious Mexican Civil War novel.

Publishing history

First published by Joaquín Mortiz in 1964
First published in English in 1985 by University of Notre Dame Press
Translated by Irene del Corral