The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Deborah Cohn

In 1996, five Mexican authors issued what they called the manifiesto crack (“crack manifesto”). Ricardo Chávez Castañeda, Ignacio Padilla, Pedro Ángel Palou, Eloy Urroz, and Jorge Volpi were all born in the 1960s and had come of age in the shadow of writers such as Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa, who rose to prominence throughout the West in the 1960s as part of the movement known as the “Boom” in the Spanish American novel. The choice of “crack” for the more recent movement deliberately echoed the use of the term “Boom” to designate the tremendous success of García Márquez and his contemporaries. But the label also implied a rupture, namely the authors' rejection of magical realism, a mode initially associated with García Márquez that had, by the 1990s, become both popular and commercially successful, and that readers and publishers alike had come to expect of Latin American writers. Instead, the writers advocated a return to more demanding novels, looking to their Mexican forebears, Spanish American models, and to European classics. At the same time, they asserted their right to not write about Mexico or Latin America, often setting their work in Europe and drawing heavily for their subject matter on European intellectualism.

By rejecting both magical realism and the assumption that novels by Mexican authors must also be about Mexico, the “crack” writers were, in effect, redefining expectations of the Mexican novel. But if the move away from Mexico as a subject suggested a break from tradition, it was, in fact, part of the longstanding pendular movement in Mexican literature between two conflicting tendencies: nationalism, where writers were expected to take the nation's social and political situation as their subject; and cosmopolitanism, which sought to open Mexican culture up to foreign influences in an effort to bring the nation into sync with the Western world (see NATIONAL).

The Nineteenth-Century Novel

The tensions between Mexico's autochthonous and European heritage are evident in José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi's El periquillo sarniento (The Itching Parrot), Mexico's—and Spanish America's—first novel. Published in installments in 1816, while Mexico was still struggling to achieve independence, it describes life in late eighteenth-century colonial Mexico, focusing on the shifting social landscape, including the rise of capitalism and the concomitant emergence of the bourgeoisie. The novel draws on the picaresque for its structure and themes, narrating, in episodic form, the apprenticeships and (mis)education—as well as the ultimate repentance—of Pedro Sarniento (see BILDUNGSROMAN). The novel also conveys Fernández de Lizardi's support for Mexican independence in its critique of the Spanish colonial administration, as well as its satire of the corrupt and incompetent professionals whom Sarniento meets.

After achieving independence in 1821, Mexican politics entered a turbulent period of revolving-door presidencies and civil wars. From the 1860s on, Ignacio Altamirano, a writer and politician of indigenous descent, used his work to help model a path for building the nation. El zarco, episodios de la vida mexicana en 1861—1863 (1901, El Zarco, The Blue-Eyed Bandit), is what Doris Sommer has labeled a “foundational fiction”: the story of a romance between characters representing conflicting races, classes, and/or interests in the new republic that must be brought together in “marriages that provide a figure for apparently nonviolent consolidation” and thereby serve as models for hegemonic projects of national consolidation (6). Set during the early years of the presidency of Benito Juárez (1806—72), an Indian who set in motion a number of liberal reforms, El Zarco tells the story of Nicolás, an indigenous blacksmith in love with a white woman of a higher class, who eventually marries Pilar, a mestiza woman of humble origins. Nicolás's qualities as a model citizen and his relationship with Pilar offer a contrast to and way out of the contemporary social and political upheaval.

The Novel of the Mexican Revolution and its Successors

The presidency of Porfirio Díaz (1877—80, 1884—1911) emphasized modernization and development, but extended the material benefits of progress to very few. Francisco Madero (1873—1913) wrested power from Díaz in a struggle that set off the Mexican Revolution, which lasted until 1920, devastating the nation's infrastructure and land, and claiming thousands of lives. In 1915, while the fighting still raged, Mariano Azuela, a doctor who had fought alongside Pancho Villa (1878—1923), published Los de abajo (The Underdogs) in serial form (see SERIALIZATION). (The work was republished as a novel in 1925.) The novel follows the rise of Demetrio Macías, who becomes a war hero even though he does not understand what he is fighting for, and his subsequent fall as he and his men become mirror images of the corrupt and violent government troops whom they had once fought. Los de abajo offers a biting critique of the corruption, disorganization, and lack of ideals behind the Revolution and the increasing violence and opportunism that characterized it.

Azuela's novel initiated the literary tradition known as the novela de la Revolución (novel of the Revolution), a largely realist genre (see REALISM) that dominated Mexican narrative through the 1940s. Authors such as Martín Luis Guzmán (1928, El águila y la serpiente, The Eagle and the Serpent; 1929, La sombra del caudillo, The Shadow of the Caudillo); Nellie Campobello (1931, Cartucho Cartucho); Gregorio López y Fuentes (1931, Campamento, The Encampment), and others used the genre, in conjunction with large measures of history, biography, and autobiography, to scrutinize the players and power dynamics that had wrought so much violence, as well as the troubles of the post-revolutionary order (see LIFE WRITING). The 1947 publication of Agustín Yáñez's Al filo del agua (The Edge of the Storm) was a turning point in the nation's narrative, for it fused the novel of the Revolution, which was nationalist in content and realist in style, with the stylistics and thematics of Euro-American modernism, which was making inroads into Spanish American fiction at the time. Set in a small town on the eve of the civil war, Al filo del agua uses poetic techniques and interior monologues to convey the repression and stagnation of life in the town, both of which are shattered by the outbreak of the Revolution. As the war takes place offstage, with only its effects narrated, the novel represents a fundamental shift away from the genre, in which the Revolution was traditionally a protagonist.

In 1955, Juan Rulfo published Pedro Páramo, in which voices from the grave narrate fragments of the rise of the eponymous cacique or local boss, whose violence and abuse paralyzes the town of Comala. Páramo's rise to power dates to the years of Díaz's regime and his downfall takes place in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, but is not a product of its reforms. His trajectory thus allegorizes the failure of the Revolution to bring about change. The novel draws deeply on Octavio Paz's exploration of Mexican character in his seminal essay, El laberinto de la soledad (1950/1959, The Labyrinth of Solitude). At the same time, the polyphonic structure and themes (e.g., patriarchy, failed paternity, revolution, and the rise of a new social order) are often compared to the work of William Faulkner, in particular, to Absalom, Absalom! (1936).

In 1958, Carlos Fuentes took the Mexican literary scene by storm with La región más transparente (Where the Air is Clear), which drew on John Dos Passos's cinematographic technique and collective protagonist, and which was as much about post-Revolutionary Mexico City as it was about its myriad characters. Over the next few years, Fuentes's fame grew both in Mexico and internationally, and he was instrumental in promoting the Boom in Europe and the U.S. La muerte de Artemio Cruz (1962, The Death of Artemio Cruz) condenses the first 150 years of Mexican independence into the history of Artemio Cruz and his family. The novel is narrated in first-, second-, and third-person voices from the deathbed of the patriarch and newspaperman, whose life is emblematic of the post-revolutionary order. It is an inversion of the traditional “life of” story that also pays homage to Orson Welles's movie Citizen Kane (1941). The novel also engages with Paz's ideas about Mexican history and his vision of lo mexicano (Mexicanness). Like Rulfo's Pedro Páramo, Artemio Cruz proffers a biting critique of the failure of the post-revolutionary period to bring about change in Mexico. The later novel offers its only hope in the death of Cruz, which coincides with the Cuban Revolution and the hope for political autonomy that it inspired throughout Spanish America. Over the years, Fuentes has maintained a high profile with novels such as Terra Nostra (1975, Terra Nostra), Cristóbal Nonato (1987, Christopher Unborn), and La frontera de cristal (1995, The Crystal Frontier). He has continued to address Mexico's efforts to incorporate its pre-Columbian heritage and to find a place for itself on the world stage. And he has drawn heavily on New-World chroniclers such as Bernal Díaz del Castillo (ca. 1495—1584), using the epic mode of their work to undergird his own, and seeking in parallel fashion to describe the New World and put it into global circulation.

The 1960s: Counterculture, Women's Writing, and Other New Directions in the Mexican Novel

Over the years, other directions can be seen in the trajectory of the Mexican novel. In the 1940s, activist-intellectual José Revueltas published El luto humano (1943, Human Mourning) and Los días terrenales (1949, Earthly days), which use psychological analysis and interior monologues to explore class consciousness in the context of a labor strike and the author's tumultuous relationship with the Communist Party, respectively. The late 1950s and 1960s also bore witness to the emergence of a variety of other voices. Jorge Ibargüengoitia's Los relámpagos de agosto (1964, The Lightning of August) joined Pedro Páramo and Artemio Cruz in offering a scathing demythification of the Revolution and other national myths while adding a dimension of satire, humor, and irreverence to the treatment of the former. Ibargüengoitia, along with Salvador Elizondo, Juan García Ponce, and others, were among a group of young writers who dominated the nation's cultural media and were outspoken in their advocacy of cultural internationalism. Their work was experimental and deeply interiorized, sometimes imbued with a sense of altered mental states and often marked by strong erotic tendencies.

Several women writers, most notably Rosario Castellanos, Elena Garro, and Elena Poniatowska, also begin to make a name for themselves during this period. Each of these writers took on the Revolution and its aftermath through the lens of the experiences and social restrictions of female protagonists: Castellanos's Balún Canán (1957, The Nine Guardians) dealt with indigenous uprisings following post-revolutionary agrarian reforms in Chiapas; Garro focused on the guerra de los cristeros (Cristero war) of the late 1920s in Recuerdos del porvenir (1962, Recollections of Things to Come); and Poniatowska was one of the leaders of the new wave of testimonial writing in Spanish America with Hasta no verte, Jesús mío (1969, Here's to You, Jesusa!), which narrated the experiences of Josefina Bórquez in the Revolution and throughout subsequent decades of Mexican history.

The countercultural movement of the late 1960s is noticeable in the works of the writers known collectively as la onda, which began in the mid-1960s and included writers such as José Agustín (1964, La tumba, The Tomb) and Gustavo Sáinz (1965, Gazapo, Gazapo), most of whom were born between 1938 and 1951. Their work was profoundly marked by the social upheaval and changes of the 1960s: they rebelled against Mexican culture, looking instead toward Western ideas of modernity, U.S. rock music, and popular culture, and they became deeply involved with the U.S. anti-establishment movements. According to Rachel Adams, la onda “was a crucible where transnational popular culture met uneasily with the politics and aesthetics of Mexican nationalism...[and where] middle-class teenagers aligned themselves with an international counterculture” (59, 60). Despite a shared interest in cosmopolitan literary and cultural movements, however, la onda writers broke from older cosmopolitanists by refusing to engage with master narratives of national identity and history and by espousing popular culture's modes and models. Margo Glantz's 1971 anthology, Onda y escritura, jóvenes de 20 a 33, both theorized la onda and brought additional prominence to the writers. In addition to being an important critic of Mexican, U.S., and European literature in her own right, Glantz also went on to write an autobiographical narrative, Las genealogías (1981, The Family Tree), as well as several works of fiction (e.g., 1996, Apariciones, Appearances and 2002, El rastro, The Wake), and has received numerous literary prizes and academic fellowships.

The debate over the relationship between literary nationalism and cosmopolitanism was forever changed with the massacre of student protestors by the police and army in Mexico City's Plaza de Tlatelolco on 2 Oct. 1968. Carlos Monsiváis, one of the nation's preeminent cultural critics, and Poniatowska used literary journalism and strategies akin to the U.S.'s “new journalism” to chronicle these events in their testimonial works, Días de guardar (1970, Days of observance) and La noche de Tlatelolco (1971, Massacre in Mexico), respectively. Mexicanidad (“what it means to be Mexican”), a master narrative of Mexican literature since the 1930s, ceased to hold center stage, and writers began to focus instead on the question of socialism, revolution, or democracy; on the role of women; and on popular culture. Women writers who came of age in the 1960s, including Carmen Boullosa, Laura Esquivel, and Ángeles Mastretta, began to publish in the 1980s, to significant popular acclaim. They, too, engaged with Mexican issues such as the Revolution (e.g., Esquivel's 1989, Como agua para chocolate, Like Water for Chocolate and Mastretta's 1986, Arráncame la vida, Mexican Bolero), the Conquest (e.g., Esquivel's 2006, Malinche, Malinche), and Mexico's colonial past (e.g., Boullosa's 1994, Duerme, Sleep), but with irreverence and humor as part of their toolkit for challenging patriarchal narratives of national history. Along with la onda, their work moves away from the master narratives of Mexican history, but also—along with contemporary “post-Boom” writers in Latin America—from the totalizing and experimental works of the Boom.

The “crack” generation of the 1990s shared the Boom's embrace of cosmopolitanism and likewise sought to take formal and aesthetic risks. Perhaps the best-known “crack” novel to date is Volpi's En busca de Klingsor (1999, In Search of Klingsor), winner of Spain's prestigious Biblioteca Breve prize. The novel is a thriller set in postwar Germany about a U.S. physicist who embarks on a military mission to find the head of Nazi atomic research; it is a meditation on the nature of science as well as a search for truth and a study “of the human tendency to construct artificial patterns of order” (Swanson, 98) that is reminiscent of the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, an important precursor of Boom writers. Like Borges, “crack” writers refused to be confined to their national tradition, claiming instead the world as their patrimony. As Volpi once stated, “We don't search for our national or Latin American identity in literature. We use literature as a base for expression” (qtd. in LaPorte). This is not to say that the nation is not a concern for “crack” writers. But whereas many Mexican writers of the 1950s and 1960s sought to demonstrate that their literature was inextricably interwoven with both the nation's autochthonous cultural traditions and Western influences, and drew on cosmopolitanism to open Mexican culture up to new influences, today's “crack” writers and their contemporaries presuppose a modern national identity and full participation in a global cultural arena. Rather than Mexican writers, then, they aspire to be known, above all, as writers.

SEE ALSO: Dictatorship Novel, Ideology, Latina/o American Novel, Regional Novel.


1. Adams, R. (2004), “ Hipsters and jipitecas,” American Literary History 16(1): 58—84.

2. Bruce-Novoa, J. (1991), “ La novela de la Revolución Mexicana,” Hispania 74(1): 36—44.

3. Brushwood, J.S. (1966), Mexico in its Novel.

4. LaPorte, N. (2003), “New Era Succeeds Years of Solitude,” New York Times, (NYT ProQuest), 4 Jan., consulted 17 Dec. 2009.

5. Pereira, A., ed. (2000), Diccionario de literatura mexicana.

6. Rutherford, J. (1996), “The Novel of the Mexican Revolution,” in Cambridge History of Latin American Literature, ed. R. González Echevarría and E. Pupo-Walker, 2 vols.

7. Sommer, D. (1991), Foundational Fictions.

8. Sommers, J. (1968), After the Storm.

9. Steele, C. (1992), Politics, Gender, and the Mexican Novel, 1968—1988.

10. Swanson, P. (2005), “The Post-Boom Novel,” in Cambridge Companion to the Latin American Novel, ed. E. Kristal.

11. Volpi, J., E. Urroz, and I. Padilla (2000), “Manifiesto Crack,” Lateral. Revista de Cultura 70,

12. Zolov, E. (1999), Refried Elvis.