From the Kingdom of the Unprovable BY BARBARA BELEJACK MEXICAN BOLERO By Angeles Mastretta New York: Viking 1989, 268 pages, $19.95 AN EASY THING By Paco Ignacio Taibo II New York: Viking 1990, 230 pages, $16.95 AS THE MEXICAN WRITER Angeles Mastretta once said, “Mexico is the kingdom of the unprovable.” That fact of life makes for some disappointing journalism, but as Mastretta, 41, and other journalist/ writers of her generation are proving, there are no limits to the literature to be mined from the news deemed not fit to print. One of the best examples is Mastretta’s Mexican Bolero, wrapped in the good old-fashioned “chisme” rumor, gossip, innuendo the author heard while growing up in Puebla. Set in the two decades following the Revolution, Mexico Bolero is the coming-of-age novel of a provincial girl who marries a general more than twice her age. It is also a chronicle of the deception and corruption that became an intrinsic part of the oneparty Mexican state. Mastretta’s narrator, Chatelaine Gunman, is the flip side of Carlos Fuentes’ Artemio Cruz, the idealistic young soldier whose descent into opportunism in The Death of Artemio Cruz, mirrors the fate of the Revolution. Chatelaine is not yet 15 and “dying for something to happen” when she meets Gen. Andres Ascencio in the portales, the arcades of Puebla’s main square, where everything from engagements to murders take place. Ascencio charms her impoverished family with his name-dropping of revolutionary figures and whisks Chatelaine off to the Gulf Coast for a glimpse of the sea and a less-than-thrilling, rather Neanderthal sexual initiation. “My parents received me back without question or comment,” Chatelaine recalls. “Their future wasn’t too certain and they had six children, so they were just pleased the sea was so beautiful and the general had been kind enough to take me to see it.” Without question or comment, Chatelaine marries Ascencio, learns to love him and cook Barbara Belejack is the Observer’s Mexico City correspondent. for him, bears him two children and opens her home to a succession of children from other women. As the Ascencio’s political star rises, Chatelaine becomes the perfect governor’s wife, adapting to the barnstorming campaign style perfected by real-life politicos in the ’30s and ’40s: “We carted everyone children, nannies, cooks from town to town, listening to peasants demanding land, claiming justice, begging for miracles. They wanted all manner of things, from sewing machines, tiles for their roofs, donkeys, loans, seeds, schools to a cure for a There are no limits to the lit erature to be mined from the news deemed not fit to print. child with poliomyelitis.” Armed with a pettycash account and a series of do-good projects a la Eva Peron, Chatelaine becomes “the official accomplice.” In time she discovers a mistress and illegitimate children are not the only things her husband has hidden from her. “Who would believe,” asks Chatelaine, “that I only heard rumors, that for years I never knew if they were true or just fantasy? I couldn’t believe that Andres had his enemies killed and dumped them in that mixture of pitch and gravel they used to asphalt the roads. But the saying went that the streets of Puebla were designed by the angels and paved with the minced bodies of the governor’s enemies.” Increasingly weary of playing the devoted spouse, Chatelaine finds comfort and challenge in a handsome, young conductor, who has recently returned to Mexico after conquering the concert halls of Europe. Their relationship is doomed; Chatelaine’s gifted musician has political instincts and provokes the ire of the power brokers including Ascencio with his forays into independent unionism. As Chatelaine transfers her allegiance from her father to her husband to her lover, she can be maddening. Within the limitations of her era she is remarkable. Unlike the general who “told so may lies that once at a meeting in the bullring people got justifiably angry and set fire to it,” Chatelaine ‘s voice always rings true. She makes no apologies. It is as if Mastretta had unlocked the secrets behind the pasted-on smiles in official portraits and written books of testimony for the women whose voices are so rarely heard in Latin American fiction the wives and lovers of the caciques, generals, presidents and patriarches; all those who keep up appearances and pretend to live conventional lives. Ascencio is almost a clich of the old-style Mexican politician, who modern practicioners with their graduate degrees from American universities denounce as “dinosaurs.” Determined to never again be poor, Ascencio hitches himself to whatever political current or candidate he thinks will bring him to the top. He spouts the rhetoric of revolution and solidarity while living more practical life screw the next guy before he screws you. Andres Ascencio may be pure fiction, but heavy-handed politicos are not yet an endangered species. Ascencio’s words of compassion and condolence after every political killing and disappearance “I have asked the public prosecutor to investigate the matter thoroughly and I can assure you justice will be done” have an eerie, contemporary echo. If nothing else, they explain the cynicism with which so many promises that “no crime shall go unpunished,” “let the chips fall where they may,” are received. Whether it was the relationship of the young woman and the cacique politician or the familiar story of the revolutionary dream turned into clandestine prisons, political killings, unsavory land deals and the squelching of independent unions, Mexican Bolero hit a nerve when it was first published in Mexico in 1985. Over 100,000 copies in more than 15 editions of Arrancame la vida \(“Take this life from me,” the title of an Normally the beleaguered publishing industry in Mexico turns out 2,000 or 3,000 copies of new fiction. Mastretta remains a curious phenomenon in Mexican literary circles. As a university student she aced her way to a journalism degree by inventing her copy. When other students would come back with stories of two-car collisions based on local police reports, Mastretta would produce fiery 4 a.m. multi-car crashes with lots of death and destruction. When her colleagues would return with interviews of friends and family, Mastretta would return with an exclusive interview with the governor all of it pure fiction. After 10 years of conventional journal 18 SEPTEMBER 6, 1991
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