A Legendary Rarity—The Underdogs

“A turning point in Latin American narrative” (Cambridge Companion to the Latin American Novel)

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21. AZUELA, Mariano. Los de abajo. El Paso, 1916, novela (cuadros y escenas de la Revolucion Mexicana). El Paso: Imprenta de “El Paso del Norte,” 1916. [1-5] 6-143 [1, blank] pp. 8vo (18 x 13 cm), original grey pictorial wrappers with illustration of man in sombrero standing on high ridge holding a rifle and gazing down into the canyon at his burning home (bound into later smooth red sheep, spine with raised bands lined green and author and title stamped in blind). Wood pulp paper acidic, otherwise exceptionally fine. Exceedingly rare in first edition.

     First edition in book form of the author’s most famous novel (an English translation, The Underdogs, was published in 1929). The novel came out serially in 1915 in the Spanish language newspaper El Paso del Norte. The work is rare in both forms. Dicc. Porrúa 251 (noting that the author was the pioneer of the novel of the Mexican Revolution). González Peña, History of Mexican Literature, pp. 380-381: “Azuela is distinguished by his vigor and the acuteness of his observation, and has been one of the most widely translated of modern Mexican novelists.” Ramos 134. Not in Palau. This novel, inspired by the events of the Mexican Revolution, was based in part on the author’s own experiences while serving as physician to the revolutionary forces under Julián Medina, who followed Pancho Villa.

     Eladio Cortés (editor), Dictionary of Mexican Literature, Westport, Connecticut & London: Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 59-60:

Mariano Azuela (1873-1952), novelist, short story writer, dramatist, biographer [was] born in Lagos de Moreno. Azuela studied medicine and literature in Guadalajara. After receiving his medical degree, he returned to Lago to practice. When Madero was elected president, Azuela was named political leader of Lagos until Madero’s assassination, at which time Azuela joined the revolution, serving with Pancho Villa and General Julián Medina. When Villa was defeated, Azuela escaped to El Paso, Texas. In 1916 he returned to Mexico City and withdraw from politics. In the capital, he worked in public clinics with the poor, wrote his novels, and lectured on Mexican, French, and Spanish novelists at the Colegio Nacional.... He died of a heart attack in Mexico City.

Azuela is best known as a novelist. In his early work his style resembles that of the French Naturalists, in particular, Émile Zola. This stage covers the span from María Luis to Sin Amor. Characters are typically from the lower classes, and there is an abundance of regional color in the descriptions. Between 1911 and 1918 Azuela wrote the novels that were to secure his fame, the novels of the Revolution. In point of view, Azuela dropped omniscience for first-person narration. Also, dialogue began to predominate over description. His most famous novel, Los de abajo (The Underdogs), is from this time period..... Throughout his life, Azuela demonstrated an abiding interest in themes of the injustice of the rich and the suffering of the poor. He felt that the novel was the art form of the masses and wrote his novels in the people’s language. His prose was a distinct break from the refinement and escapism of Modernism. Typical of his style are short paragraphs, simplicity of sentence structure and vocabulary, common language in Mexican Spanish, and dialogue predominating over description. His style has been described as cinematographic. Some of his novels have been made into films.

     The Cambridge Companion to the Latin American Novel (Cambridge, 2005), pp. 50-51:

A starting point can be identified for the regional novel: the years 1914-1915, in the semi-arid landscape of west-central Mexico. Here...Azuela...embarked on a dangerous political flirtation that would sweep him out of his familiar environment and lead to deep changes in his style as a novelist.... Azuela served in the revolutionary government established for the state of Jalisco by Pancho Villa. When the Villista regime in Jalisco collapsed, Azuela followed its troops north and spent a brief period in El Paso, Texas. Desperate for cash, he pulled together a short work from his notes on recent events. The result was Los de abajo, a novel that became a turning point in Latin American narrative. For many years, Los de abajo was lost in the tumult of Mexico’s civil war, but critics rediscovered it in the mid-1920s and its rapid canonization as the central novel of the revolution marked the consolidation of a new intellectual class.

     Juan Pablo Dabove’s chapter on the present work (“Los de Abajo: The Feast, the Bandit Gang, the Bola Revolution and Its Metaphors”) in Nightmares of the Lettered City: Banditry and Literature in Latin America 1816-1929 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007), pp. 241-260:

The most important work in the genre of the novel of the Revolution, Los de abajo, is a bandit narrative. It was written without a national inspiration; its purpose was not that of a revolutionary epic, since that epic did not yet exist. It was transformed, however, into a narrative on the origins of the revolutionary state, a “national epic”.... Throughout the years Los de abajo has accumulated superlative qualifiers: “epic of Mexicanness” (Menton 1998), “masterpiece of the novel of the Mexican Revolution” (Mansour 1988), and a revolutionary novel in the novelistic genre (Paul Arranz 1999). Until the Latin American Boom, it was considered “the novel of America,” the narrative counterpart of Ariel (1900) by José Enrique Rodó. In 1905, Azuela received proof of the state’s validation par excellence: the National Prize of Literature, from the hands of President Miguel Alemán. Azuela would die two years later, which would provide an additional opportunity for his canonization. The funeral was majestic, attended by almost all secretaries of states and authorities of the PRI. Azuela’s body was buried in the Rotonda de los Hombres Ilustres, a special place in the Dolores Cemetery where the state places the most distinguished figures in its cultural history.

For a wonderful, excruciating account of the pursuit of this great rarity in book and serial form, its genesis and bibliographical features, and an amusing contention by some that Los de abajo is really a Texas work, see pp. 64, 75-101 in Stanley Linn Robe’s Azuela and the Mexican Underdogs (UCLA Latin American Studies, V. 48, 1979).


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