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The Nation
Tuesday, June 16th, 2009
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News from the Empire

by Fernando Del Paso

Toad Skin?

A review by Lorna Scott Fox

In the central states of Mexico, you see many brown campesino faces lit by green or hazel eyes. Locals say this is the only legacy of the French Intervention of 1862-67, when an army with its fair share of rapists and torturers tried to take over the country for its own good in the name of civilization, modernity and empire. On that occasion, "empire" was the official description. Mexican conservatives, horrified by the election in 1858 of a progressive Zapotec Indian, Benito Juarez, to the presidency, sent a delegation to Europe to ask the Austrian archduke Maximilian, brother of Habsburg emperor Franz Joseph, whether he'd like to come over and be emperor of Mexico. Maximilian demurred at first, preferring to go to Brazil for a spot of entomology. But under pressure and with financial sponsorship from yet another emperor, Napoleon III (who had already sent in the troops, ostensibly to force Juarez to resume debt payments, in reality to get his hands on the silver mines in the north while the United States was distracted by civil war), this classic frustrated younger son agreed to emigrate to the New World, relinquishing all rights to the Austrian succession.

Maximilian and his wife, Princess Charlotte of Belgium, were enthroned in 1864. The French, bolstered by Austrian and Belgian battalions, were on a roll: they had captured the capital the year before, and went on to take other cities. Juarez's government had retreated to Chihuahua. Only a year later, however, Republican forces began to push back. The new geopolitical situation was in their favor. Maximilian was isolated, having proved too liberal for his original backers in Mexico and too imperial to win over the progressives. Juarez was being armed by the United States, which as a salvo to France's flagrant challenge of the Monroe Doctrine, refused to recognize the puppet monarchy and sent 50,000 troops to the border in 1865. Napoleon III, bankrupted by the imperial couple's fancy tastes as well as the costs of the war, and facing a new Prussian and Russian threat to the east, lost interest in Maximilian -- especially after the Empress "Carlota," as she now wished to be known, turned up in Europe to beg for funds and seemed, embarrassingly, to have gone mad. The French pulled out. Maximilian dithered. After fleeing the capital he was captured, possibly betrayed by an insider, in the town of Queretaro and executed, along with two of his Mexican generals, in June 1867.

Such are the bare bones of the story. But they are so deeply buried in the rich and bulging flesh of News From the Empire that I had to resort to Wikipedia to locate them with any certainty. Published in 1987, Fernando del Paso's third novel is a specimen of the Latin American new historical novel, whose greatest exponent is no doubt the Cuban Alejo Carpentier, and the best known, the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa. During the second half of the twentieth century, the perennial fascination with identity and the tangle of European, indigenous and African roots that feeds Latin American culture was intensified by the approach of the quincentenary of the "Discovery" in 1492. The many fictionalized reworkings of historical episodes tended to be anything but positivist investigations, however. A quantum spirit prevailed, dubbed "Borgesian" in homage to the Argentine master. Its tenets included the unascertainable, relative nature of reality; the efficacy of distortion and exaggeration; the simultaneity of time; the infinite mirrorings of intertextuality and the dialectic between linear experience and a cyclical spiral of repetitions. That's why one often has to go elsewhere for some idea of what is broadly agreed to have happened; and you'd certainly do better to know the story before tackling this particular book.

News From the Empire contains twenty-three chapters. The first and last, plus the odd-numbered ones in between, are voiced by Carlota addressing the dead Max from Bouchout Castle, where she was kept until her death in 1927, and dated that year -- allowing her to mix memories and fantasies with evocations of the dizzyingly different world of the early twentieth century. The even-numbered chapters are subdivided into three parts of various formats: dialogue, testimony, oral reminiscence, third-person narrative, stream of consciousness, letters and such. These scenes, while roughly chronological, break up the story into glimpses and sideshows, discourses and mannerisms, like a veritable inventory of baroque literary tricks. Given the prismatic elusiveness of the parts, it's hard to develop an overview along the way, and we must wait till the end for del Paso to tell us -- apparently in his own voice -- what he thinks about it all.

The gleeful account by a patriotic camp follower of the battle of Camaron, where an outnumbered Foreign Legion detachment was massacred at leisure; the florid lament of a cuckolded palace gardener; and the randy ramblings of a Basque priest, which indirectly describe local collaboration with the invaders, are among the more "popular" voices (aspects of which present, as always, insoluble challenges to the translator: "Yessir, in this here city there's a lot of racket"). These varied immersions into the experience of richly imagined anonymous figures, never in any sense naturalistic, epitomize del Paso's Brechtian insistence on literary artifice. Among the crowns and titles, Napoleon III's suave discussion of realpolitik with Count Metternich at a masked ball contrasts with the naïvete, in another scene, of Maximilian's obsession with court ceremonial (he was, after all, creating a world from scratch): "'Oh, I forgot to mention, take note, bitte, the length of the division generals' swords will be eight hundred and thirty-five centimeters and their hilts made of wood,' as they sailed between Corsica and Sardinia, 'wood bound with toad skin.' 'Toad skin?' asked Carlota with a grimace of revulsion." He spends the whole voyage to Veracruz and much of his short reign obsessively specifying the minutiae of costume, ritual and etiquette, and at the end, awaiting execution, he is mainly concerned with the parting of his famous beard.

We hear nothing from top Republicans other than Juarez, who emerges as prim, tetchy, amazingly knowledgeable about the finer points of European dynastics, and disapproving of court ceremonial as the support of illegitimate power, religious or political; he also has an understandable chip about race. When we get to the deathbed scene in 1872, the style selects High Tragedy as Juarez hallucinates the corpse of the man he had no choice but to execute, fearing he faces the "judgment of Cain" and remembering the words of Voltaire: "'History is a joke,' the Frenchman said, 'that we the living play on the dead.'"

The novel flirts with this Cain-and-Abel conceit only to dismiss it, driving home the irony of political ideals superficially shared by two such different men -- one born an archduke, the other an indigenous shepherd. The emperor is blinded by infantile aristocratic entitlement, whereas the president is grimly lucid. It makes no difference if the former upholds many of the latter's reforms, or wears a red Republican tie with his charro costume, or is a decent fellow with strict moral precepts. "Don Benito looked at the secretary over his glasses and said: 'And among these precepts, does the Archduke include respect for other people's rights, and the right of other nations to decide on their own form of government?'"

This is the crux of the matter, and it throws up striking parallels with events later than del Paso's book (in which US imperialism is, of course, a constant implicit target). Arrogant, warmongering France, self-appointed "guardian of freedom" and "police of the world," invades an internally conflicted country, persuaded by wily exiles that its soldiers will be welcomed with a "shower of roses" and assuming that the resources that are the real reason for the war (silver, in this case) will enable it to pay for itself. Wrong on all counts. Scattered through the book is also an eloquent deconstruction of the instrumental logic of racism and cultural condescension, set against such civilized practices as slavery, the Inquisition and the horrors of the Belgian Congo. This logic turns even magnanimity into proof of backwardness: "in his memoirs, Prince Salm-Salm is surprised that [Republican general] Escobedo didn't carry out his 'sinister promises' against him, Felix, after he had participated in a second attempt to allow Maximilian to escape, and adds that this -- not fulfilling the threat of a particular punishment -- would not have happened in a more civilized country." Nevertheless, the cosmopolitan del Paso, who spent twenty years in London and Paris as a broadcaster and cultural attache, doesn't coddle the other side. Various voices address the Mexicans' own brand of violence and racism and their ambiguous allegiances, noting for instance the dilemma of educated liberals "invaded by the troops of a nation whose culture and ideals they consider their own."

Memoirs, histories, documents, previous fictions, sources of all kinds are pillars of the "historiographical" novel. This translates into explorations of uncertainty or contradiction, for where Count Corti says this, Montgomery Hyde asserts the other, while Emile Ollivier for his part demurs, and what of...? Yet only minor points are sabotaged in this way. Indeed, the relativity of historical truth is an intellectual truism, not especially subversive even in 1987. Paradoxically, despite the polyphony of viewpoints and ideologies, we are not really left to draw our own conclusions, as the premise would suggest. Napoleon, his wife and acolytes are scoundrels from every angle, Max is a silly but noble fool, and the whole affair presents a case study of the futile interventions of hubris and greed in the fate of nations. Napoleon could never have halted "what he called the 'sinister Anglo-Saxon and Protestant influence in Latin America.'" US hegemony was always inevitable, in this view.

Beyond his microscopic historiography, del Paso's erudition -- typical of that period in Latin American letters, exploiting the analogy between book and universe first mooted by Borges and Marquez -- is vast and not lightly worn. The merciless drip of largely superfluous data combines with the avoidance of plot and action to turn the reading of this work into a physical rather than imaginative experience: that of laboring through language. All the authorial masks, whatever their other traits, display the same tendency to sacrifice narrative to texture and dilute meaning by saturation. It is especially remarkable in the Carlota sections, structured as a floating counterpoint to the story. Deranged and mythomanic as she is, she controls an infinite supply of facts. Here (a selection almost at random) she recalls the Empress Eugenie, whose scheming got her and darling Max into this mess:

I don't want to picture her swathed in a cloud of verbena perfume, shopping in the Lumiere Salon of the House of Worth, crowned with the wreath of violets that Louis Napoleon gave her in Compiegne. I want her forever in Zululand, destroyed by the memory of the imperial prince who, at three, in a grenadier's hat and coat (but also in a white skirt, because they still dressed him like a girl) reviewed the French troops victorious in Magenta and Solferino; I want to see her furious because that stupid Victoria denied her the pleasure of touching, eating, and kissing the dirt where her Woolwich cadet, who never became Napoleon IV, finally succumbed.

She carries on for dozens of pages in this incantatory, fuming, precise yet aimless vein, mostly harangues of love and hate addressed to Maximilian, repeated rehearsals of the lies and betrayals they suffered, catalogs of the poisons she suspected everywhere ("but I am not speaking of the arsenic used to poison Pope Alexander Borgia, nor of the poisons with which Madame de Montespan, paramour of Louis XIV, wanted to kill her rivals. No, I am not speaking of cyanide, nor of belladonna, nor of the curare used by Brazilian Indians to kill Portuguese slave traders, nor of aconite, with which the Ghurkas poisoned the wells in Nepal..."), plus some fine, if rather too many, contributions to the literature of masturbation. "I walk nude in a room full of blind butterflies that caress my belly, my thighs, my buttocks, and the rims of my eyelids with their wing tips. You know something? I was always forbidden to slide down banisters. I was told that it was dangerous, that I could fall and be paralyzed. I liked to do it just to feel the hard wood between my legs."

While in the "narrative" sections she is shown as spoiled but practical, with a better head for government than her husband, the place Carlota is made to occupy in these monologues reiterates fusty sexist cliches: she is the madwoman in the attic, the site of the repressed, the irrational, the mythic, the oracular, the erotic. She perceives from her visionary perch the simultaneity of past and future -- "the day you die, all of your days become one. And then it turns out that you, that all of us, have always been dead" -- and is gradually revealed as embodying the spirit of Time and History. For she outlived her world, as del Paso reminds us in his final, magisterial summing-up: she outlived "not only Maximilian, Juarez, Napoleon, Eugenie and all the rest, but also a whole era, a whole concept of the history and destiny of mankind and of the idea that man had of himself and the universe." He doesn't hate her, despite delegating so many voices to gloat at her misfortunes. Of this pathetic couple, the playthings of their class and time as well as of Napoleon, he concludes:

If nothing else, of all the major players, they deserve to be considered the ones who had the most extenuating circumstances to explain their crimes, to make them sympathetic to us, to their chroniclers, in the private judgment that each author is forced to make about the characters in his tragedy.

What's more, despite the absurdities of Max's infatuation with his new country (he should just start calling himself Meximilian, sniffs one character), he earned the right to shout "Viva Mexico" as he fell, for he transformed his death "by force of will into a noble and meaningful death, into a courageous death. In a word, into a very Mexican death."

Hacking out a sinuous, branching path that connects fantasy with fact and allegory with analysis, seeking to reclaim "objective" history for a multitude of subjectivities (including the author's own), News From the Empire is a formidably ambitious and original experiment with the possibilities of a writing between genres. Yet when compared with the current fave-rave Latin American novelist, the late Roberto Bolano -- who can be similarly long-winded and disjointed, politically serious beneath the teasing manipulation of fiction and reality, yet who exudes a very different quality that could be called romantic austerity -- del Paso's overblown didacticism, ironic archness and rhetorical conceits come together in a package that feels dated. This is a book that deservedly made waves when it came out, but outside academe, today, it may well remain more admired than loved.

Lorna Scott Fox is a journalist and translator based in London.


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