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Agustín Yáñez: Al filo del agua (The Edge of the Storm)
Yáñez’ novel should be better-known in the English-speaking world, as it is a very good novel. Strictly, speaking it is not really a novel but, rather, a portrait of a small Mexican town around the year 1910. The book ends with 1910, which is a key year for Mexico. Firstly, it saw the appearance of Halley’s Comet, which clearly presaged the changes that were about to take place in Mexico, at least as far as this novel is concerned. Secondly, it was the hundredth anniversary of the start of the fight for Mexican independence, which the townspeople read about but they cannot participate in the celebrations taking place in Mexico City. Finally, and most importantly, it was the start of the Mexican Revolution, which the townspeople hear about from afar but which, as yet, has not affected them directly. At first glance, these points, particularly the Revolution, would seem only marginally relevant to Yáñez’ novel but it is clear that Yáñez is making it clear that the old Mexico represented by this town is about to be swept away.
The opening scene – Yáñez calls it the Preparatory Act – is superb. He gives us a wonderful poetic description of the town and it is not a scenic one. Old women, austerity, enclosing walls , everything functional rather than beautiful (with functional all too often meaning functional from the church’s point of view), the heavy hand of religion, the whispering voices – all of his descriptions shows that this place is not a place where there is much joy. From there he leads into the story of the inhabitants. The town is under the control of the church and the local oligarchs. Both groups are concerned only with their own power and needs. It is the church that comes in for most criticism. The seven day religious retreat, to which Yáñez devotes a chapter, is not a pleasant experience. The participants have to sleep on the stone floor and cannot talk during the Spartan meals. The rest of the time they have to pray, listen to sermons and think about their sins. The poorest members think about how the oligarchs have cheated them, abused them and threatened them for, of course, that is how things go. Many of the people dream about getting out. We can see this, for example, in the chapter on Marta and María, where the biblical reference is made clear (Marta and María are the Spanish for Martha and Mary). As in the Bible, Marta is the older one and they seem to have no parents. (Marta and María are orphans and were brought up by their uncle.) As in the Bible, Marta is the more homely one, while María is the dreamer. Neither has ever left the town and María dreams of travelling to other towns, including Los Angeles (where her father lived) and San Francisco (where he died) but also getting as far away as Constantinople. Her dreams are strengthened by her reading. On one occasion she manages to see the newspaper left by the priest and avidly reads it, not for the political news, but to read about the crimes, particularly, the brutal murders. But there is no way out and they can only continue their church work.
There are other similar stories. No-one seems even vaguely happy, even the priest. Of course, the story of small towns and the people trapped in them and their attempts at escape have been a staple of literature for many, many years, whether we think of great writers like Faulkner and his town of Jefferson or more recent ones like Rupert Thomson‘s Dreams of Leaving. However, Yáñez has made a first-class contribution to the genre with this work and it deserves to be better-known in the English-speaking world.
First published by Porrua in 1947
First published in English in 1963 by University of Texas Press
Translated by Ethel Brinton