Mexico’s New President Makes Novelists Swoon
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Latin America’s caudillos, or charismatic strongmen, have always made good muses. The agonizing final days of liberator-turned-authoritarian Simon Bolivar inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez to write “The General in His Labyrinth.” Paraguayan dictator Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia was the template for Augusto Roa Bastos’s megalomaniacal tyrant in “I, the Supreme,” while Argentina’s Juan Peron fathered a small library of fevered tales.
So how will Mexico’s incoming President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador be portrayed? Due to take office in December, the self-styled populist redeemer is still a working draft. But few leaders have begun their mandate with such a keen sense of narrative destiny as the man Mexicans known as AMLO.
Lopez Obrador, who once cast himself as a comic book avenger, draws devotees like a Pentecostal preacher, and in his victory address dramatically promised Mexicans, “I won’t let you down.” If his compatriots have yet to discover what sort of leader they elected, they’ve long imagined him. “AMLO has been in the minds of Mexicans for quite some time,” Ilan Stavans, a Mexican-American author and scholar of Latin American literature at Amherst College, told me.
As much as politics — his term as Mexico City mayor, his two prior failed runs for president — personal tragedy has shaped his life. His first wife died of lupus, and he watched his younger brother die while brandishing a pistol. “He’s a living, messianic figure, whose landslide win can be seen as a consequence of what has been happening in the country and in its literature,” said Stavans.
So perhaps it’s no wonder that Mexico’s intellectuals and especially its writers have long been fascinated by Lopez Obrador, and will have a hand in shaping if not his government then surely the way he will remembered. Legendary journalist Elena Poniatowska once declared she loved Lopez Obrador more than she did Pope John Paul; at the other extreme, historian Enrique Krauze dismissed him as a tropical Messiah. A passel of authors joined his campaign, none more enthusiastically than novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II, touted to be Lopez Obrador’s secretary of culture and arts, who threatened to expropriate companies that attempt to boycott the incoming government.
More broadly, the anguished, hopeful, corrupt and violence-torn Mexico that has fired the imagination of a new generation of writers is the same country now in thrall to the graying, larger-than-life caudillo, and already turning his campaign offices into a wishing well.
Yet Mexico’s contemporary authors also chafe at the labels once favored by the literary establishment and have little use for banners or founding myths. If Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes and other founding figures of last century’s literary boom told stories that puzzled over national character and identity, Mexico’s younger authors appear to have no boundaries or agenda.
Their rejection of the old aesthetic orthodoxy mirrors the country’s civic uprising against the political establishment. “The overbearing literary quest for identity was very much connected to how the Institutional Revolutionary Party has ruled Mexico since the early 20th century, dictatorially, a force for political status quo, that repressed democratic voices,” said Stavans. “Mexican literature has been shaking this off for a while now.”
Like its democracy, Mexican literature today is “loud, messy, courageous, and has no discernible direction,” said Stavans. Now writers help themselves to the prevailing angst and drama — drug cartels, immigrants, graft — but remain unconcerned with Mexicanness or spinning emblematic tales. Mexico may serve them as a canvas, but mostly to paint an intimate, usually stark but ultimately nonpolitical picture.
Anthropologist Alberto William Sanchez labeled them Mexico’s “post-national writers,” whose stories are driven by a kind of “dirty realism,” that are “less collective cause and more matter-of-fact.” Their stories rarely have tidy endings and many are unrelentingly dystopian.
Although Juan Manuel Servin’s 2007 post-apocalyptic novel “At the End, the Void” is apparently set in a ruined Mexico City, he never names the national capital. In Heriberto Yepez’s “A.B.U.R.T.O.”, a novelized version of the actual confessions of the assassin of a presidential candidate, the hemisphere’s biggest metropolis is described as a terminal condition: “It is not only an urban area; it is a plague.”
“I’m not your Peter. To be frank, I have trouble believing there is a reason to all that surrounds us,” protests the bespectacled wannabe writer in Ilan Stavans’s and Santiago Cohen’s “Angelitos” (Little Angels), a 2018 graphic novel about the urban shanties where a quixotic barrio priest tries to rescue street kids. “I often wake up believing the universe is an abyss ruled by a senseless, buffoonish master.”
Emiliano Monge’s 2015 “Las Tierras Arrasadas” (roughly, “Razed Lands”) is a deep dive into the unspeakable plight of immigrants, less a human rights pamphlet than a shriek against barbarity. Literature won’t change the world, Monge told an interviewer, “but it has the ability and responsibility to reveal the things in the world that may be changed.”
With his refrain of anticorruption and cant of social redemption, Lopez Obrador might seem a character from an earlier tale. His references are to Mexico’s bygone glories, and he models his plans for government on two former presidents: the mythic Lazaro Cardenas, who nationalized the oil industry, and Benito Juarez, an astute politician remembered for his fiscal sobriety and constitutional reforms.
Critics like Krauze have argued that Lopez Obrador resembles neither of his idols: He’s supposedly too much of a hothead to channel Cardenas and too much the populist to deliver Suarez’s balanced economy. But the key to Lopez Obrador’s triumph may be not so much his ability to repeat the glories of the past as to evoke their mythic power, and so restore Mexico’s bludgeoned sensibilities.
That’s a narrative Mexico’s chroniclers can appreciate. “A Greek chorus called for the transformation of a country with more than 50 million poor, 99 percent impunity for crimes and the world’s highest murder rate for journalists. Ideology mattered less than devotion,” novelist Juan Villoro wrote of the crowds who thronged Lopez Obrador’s final rally. “The 2018 Mexican elections were a story of terror with a fairytale ending.”
As in all fables, the secret of Mexico’s next government will be in the telling. Like his sketchy plans for the economy, Lopez Obrador has been coy on foreign policy — astutely so on the United States, cooling his campaign rhetoric against Donald Trump, and more worrisomely on Venezuela and Nicaragua, whose thuggish regimes he has avoided criticizing.
Mexico’s rebellious writers have done their part in shedding the past. Now it’s up to Mexico’s largest character to reimagine the rest.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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