Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Tomochic" by Heriberto Frias

If "The Battle of Tomochic: Memoirs of a Second Lieutenant" (Library of Latin America)were released as a new novel today, we'd be calling its author, Heriberto Frias, the "next Cormac McCarthy."

We could say the Mexican Frias, in his conjuring of a terrible military campaign against rebellious Catholic mystics in 19th-century Chihuahua, is "reminiscent" of McCarthy.

But Frias was not conjuring anything. He was an actual soldier-participant in the mission, which led to the slaughter of some 150 crazies with guns and the Virgin Mary for muse in the mountain hamlet of Tomochic.

By way of background, Frias first published chapters of his account in a short-lived newspaper called El Democrata in 1892, and was promptly tried for certain crimes against the regime of dictator Porfirio Diaz.

The editor of the newspaper stood for him, claiming he wrote the installments, not Frias, and everybody walked.

"Tomochic" is written in Spanish although a an English translation by Barbara Jamison is available. If you read Spanish, and if you've read McCarthy's "Blood Meridian," strong parallels may become apparent.

Like McCarthy (or vice versa), Frias renders a stark mountain desert landscape in gorgeous pastoral terms that contrast beautifully with the crude reality of his battle portrayals.

"Tomochic" follows an unfolding tragedy through the eyes of a misbegotten lieutenant who falls in love with a maiden on the enemy side.

It's a loose narrative with just enough development to keep the story from slipping into a straight, if poetically tinted, account of a military campaign. The narrative does not have a classic structure to the extent it is journalistic and life often follows less convenient rhythms than storytelling begs of us.

There is an opening battle in which the lieutenant's company, and comrades from other outfits, are largely routed by the defenders of Tomochic and the mayhem described is enough to send any draft-aged American sprinting for the Canadian border.

It is worth pointing out here that the people of Tomochic are not indigenous victims of criollo (white-European) expansion, but folks of good Iberian stock who take up their cudgels against what, ensuing events will confirm, is a brutal national government.

The rebels' ferocious initial stand aside, the Army gets enough booze and food into its boys to proceed in crushing the remaining band - women and children included - with a machine-like mindlessness.

That's not a spoiler. "Tomochic" is sold and packaged as the story of brutal repression in the Mexican hinterlands.

Frias doesn't go into a ton of editorializing. He takes no sides, sees heroism in the army youths sent to do a pointless job, sees nobility in the steadfast guerillas, paints the ironies of a Mexico where Pima Indians help federales put down a revolt of Catholic devout.

The author's loyal and detailed accounting of the military's actions are condemnation enough.

At a certain point, there are too few surviving Tomochitecos to harm anyone. But the army stays on partying, killing slowly, burning villagers alive in their homes and church, piling battlefield cadavers into bonfires that are then fed upon by swine roaming the impromptu death camp.

There is little in the mop-up job to recommend the dictatorship, the Mexican Army, or any other modern killing machine for that matter.

There is only a foreboding sense that humanity hasn't advanced one wit since Frias' picturesque cavalry road into the valley of Tomochic, blind, dusty, and blood-lusty.

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