Mariano Azuela: Los de abajo (The Underdogs)
Azuela’s novel is the first great novel of the Mexican Revolution and still remains one of the finest. The reasons are clear. Azuela does not concern himself too much with the politics (though they are not ignored) nor huge sweeping battles but, rather, focuses on a small group of men fighting for the revolution. We get to know them well through the course of the novel and we see that they are by no means all saints. The story is based on his own experience as a doctor with a group of revolutionaries, led by Colonel Manuel Caloca. Caloca is the model for Azuela’s hero, Demetrio Macías.
The story starts in a small pueblo, where Demetrio Macías and a few of his men are staying. They are part of the revolutionaries though, as we soon learn, they are not quite clear who the bad guys are and, indeed, who the good guys are. All that they know is that they are against the old ways, typified by Porfirio Diaz and for the common man, for whom the revolution was fought. In particular, they are against the federales, the government troops. They come into conflict with them early on and, as in the US Civil War, the rebels are better sharp-shooters than the federales. Before they have to flee, they are joined by another key player, Luis Cervantes, modeled on Francisco Delgado, who was the secretary of Julián Medina, Caloca’s commanding general. Cervantes, who is educated, comes in for some aggravation from Macías’ men – some of them want to shoot him as a spy – but Macías accepts him and he becomes the voice of reason.
After their clash with the federales, Macías’ men move away from the area and we follow them in their journey. Much of the story is the personal relations between the men (and few women), which change regularly. However, we do see some action, in particular their clever capture of a town held by superior numbers, with the federales being so assured of victory that the commander has even written the letter to his superiors about how he defeated a huge band of rebels. We also see the cruelty of Macías and his men, at times tempered by Cervantes. After a long journey and much fighting, they finally find their way to Macías’ home town, only to be surrounded by a far superior force of federales, with machine guns. Azuela keeps us interested by his skilled portrayal of the different characters, their relationship to one another and – a key in any Mexican novel – the geography of their surroundings.
First published by Imprenta de “El Paso del Norte”, El Paso in 1915 in Spanish
First published in English in 1929 by Brentano’s
Translated by E Munguia