The Book of Lamentations
Translated by Esther Allen, Marsilio Publishing 1996 pages 400
Exactly twenty years ago, the world became aware of the Zapatista rebellion in the Chiapas region of Mexico. Though the immediate reason for the revolt was the NAFTA treaty that opened the floodgates for US-manufactured goods into Mexico, it was one among a series of previous revolts in the area since the 18th century. Rosario Castellano’s farewell novel before her death at the age of 49 in 1974 is based on these revolts and located in the early 20th century. The title of the novel recalls the Jewish text also called The Book of Lamentations,a collection of poetic laments about the destruction of Jerusalem.
The proclamation of land reforms by the PRI party in early 20th century forms the background to the events depicted in the novel. Spurred on by an honest and gritty land inspector, Fernando Ulloa and the millenarian prophecies of an Indian woman, Catalina Diaz Puilja, the indigenous Tzotzil-speaking Mayan people of the region rise up against the Ladinos, the landowners of Spanish descent. The end is a bloody defeat of the rebels and Fernando’s calamitous death at the hands of the Ladinos- led by Leonardo Cifuentes, the devious representative of the land-rich ranchers. These three characters form the fulcrum of the story, though there are at least a dozen important characters in the novel.
The childless Catalina childless is the wife of Winikton, a respected judge in his community.
When Marcela, an Indian girl from her community is raped by a Ladino, Catalina schemes so that the pregnant girl is married to Catalina’s retarded brother. Catalina then becomes the godmother to the son, named Domingo. Later, Catalina begins to have visions and her prophecies, her perceived closeness to the ancient gods, lead her community to consider her to be an illol, which it seems is someone with access to the gods.
Catalina, is not just an illol, but also a childless woman symbolizing the inefficacy of the rebellion to make way for a successful conclusion.
Ah, how well she knew herself, how long she had endured herself. A childless woman. The nut that does not break open to make way for the growth and fullness of the seed. The rock, ugly and immobile. The fist that imprisons the bird and strangles it death rattle.
The novel, like Mario Vargas Llosa’s “The War at the End of the World”, highlights how the mind of the subaltern works and how it internalizes the superiority of the conqueror. The image of Jesus Christ nailed to the cross and blood streaming down leads them to concoct the myth that the white man has drunk this god’s blood, and hence become invincible.
They nailed him to a cross and killed him and drank his blood. Ever since then, no one can beat them.
The Chamulas work out a counter to this powerful god in a truly Mayan way.
Catalina proclaims Domingo as the god that has come to help the Chamulas. He is then, like Christ, nailed to a cross — alive, and his blood is partaken by the Indians. This leads them to believe that they are now invincible, and begin their revolt in earnest.
While pillaging one of the village ranches, they come across a foxy rancher who proves the fallacy of their belief by challenging one of the young Indians to face the bullets from his gun. The boy fearlessly steps forward- certain in his belief that he will not die because of the blessings of the new god. But when the gun is fired, he dies, throwing the insurgents are into confusion and disarray.
Besides the three key characters, the dozen or so other characters add much to the story and help to understand not only the era, but how different people reacted to the times. Despite the formidable array of characters, there are really no heroes in the novel.
The Ladino characters are cunning and determined to hold on to their power by any means, while the Indians lack confidence; even when they revolt, they make no effort to grab power. Fernando Ulloa, the land inspector who inspires the revolt is an un- heroic tragic character who is disowned by both the groups. He is un- heroic because he betrays the Indians when he understands that he cannot influence the course of events as they race towards a predictable end.
The pessimism notwithstanding, the novel presents “a panoramic sweep of a Diego Rivera mural weaving”, as a reviewer at amazon.com puts it. This is supplemented by a superb translation by Esther Allen which makes for an easy read, as if the novel had been originally written in English. A glossary of some non- English words would have helped.
Considering that the novel is located in the same area as the Zapatista revolt, it is quite surprising its leader sub- commandante Marcos did not mention the writer or the novel in his famous interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, though he did not forget to count the right- wing Mario Vargas Llosa, “despite his ideas,” as one of the writers who influenced him and his generation. This novel certainly belongs to the other great novels of The Boom generation, for which Garcia Marquez collectively won the Nobel Prize, as Carlos Fuentes once put it.
“The Book of Lamentations” brings to mind novels like “The War at the End of the World” and, in some ways “The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta” (both by Mario Vargas Lllosa), which depict similar millenarian and radical revolts in Latin America. While many of those revolts failed, recent events in Latin America underscore that not all of them were in vain. The Bolivarian Revolution continues.
(Read this excellent review by Tom Gething, which led me to the book.)