The Colonizers and Colonized of Zitilchén: Lara Zavala´s Short Story Sequence (english version)
When Hernán Lara Zavala published his first collection of short stories, De Zitilchén (1981), he joined a long and rich but somewhat overlooked tradition within the development of the short story of the Americas, the ¿short story sequence.¿ And while the tradition is most commonly associated with the extraordinary success of Sherwood Anderson¿s Winesburg, Ohio of 1919, a rather recent study of this literary hybrid by Robert Luscher (¿The Short Story Sequence: An Open Book¿) points to at least two other collections of the late nineteenth century that display all or most of the characteristics of this phenomenon. Following in the steps of the long-established ¿sonnet sequence,¿ this adaptation is also based on a selection of autonomous entities that gain in significance when read as a whole¿as a series of related stories. In regard to the Mexican narrative tradition, Luis Leal speaks of La sombra del Techincuagüe by Ramón Rubín as an early example of this type of book. In more recent times, Lara Zavala¿s efforts are joined by at least the following authors and works: Héctor Manjarrez (Acto propiciatorio, 1970); María Luisa Puga (Las posibilidades del odio, 1978); Elena Garro (Andamos huyendo Lola, 1980); Carlos Fuentes (Agua quemada, 1981); and, Guillermo Samperio (Gente de la ciudad, 1986). However, while all of these works display characteristics of the short story sequence to greater and lesser degrees, De Zitilchén is the most spectacular example of the short story sequence in recent Mexican letters¿complete with a simple map, a la Anderson, on the front cover of the first edition. Recently, the third series of ¿Letras Mexicanas¿ has issued an expanded version of this book as its number 91; unfortunately, this visual feature is not replicated here. In this collection we clearly see the overlap between autonomous stories that, when considered as a whole, comprise the complex and marvelous world of a small town surrounded by the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula. The narrator of the story ¿Carta al autor¿ (of the second edition only) states that Zitilchén is situated at what he calls el punto Zuc, that precise spot on the map where the states of Campeche, Yucatan, and Quintana Roo all converge (107). This is, of course, in the heart of the Mayan world, and all peoples of this microcosm (pre-Columbian, colonial and modern) are generously represented. In fact, many levels of human life (different ages, professions, social classes) are explored; the depths of diverse sentiments, fears, appetites, sins, and hypocrisies are plumbed. And narrative strategies run the gamut between traditional realism and the cinematographic, to include the fashionable element of self-referentiality.
Following a brief delineation of the basic parameters of the short story sequence and how it applies to Lara Zavala¿s book, I will explore the issue of the superimposition of the diverse peoples of this singular jungle enclave while emphasizing the resulting consequences of such clashes. The analytical portion of my study will focus on five of the stories, each of which elucidates an important aspect of the fictional world being created within and among the stories of this short story sequence. I will first treat ¿El beso¿ since it is the tale that best portrays the physical layout of the town and depicts the greatest number of characters (many of whom are destined to reappear in other works). It also provides vital information about the socio-political power structure of Zitilchén. ¿Morris¿ is the story that most vividly dramatizes the disparity between the two most distant poles (outsider versus insider) within the world of Zitilchén. ¿El padre Chel¿, as does the preceding story, revolves around the inside-outside phenomenon having to do with the parvenu (or advenedizo), but examines the all-important realm of religion. ¿La seducción¿ has the singular mission of taking us back to the time of the colony when the overlapping of peoples and races was in a more dynamic, vertiginous state, thus underlining the conflict between colonizers and colonized. It also raises the proposition to another plane: colonization within the colony, a type of conquest more akin to the idea of seduction¿as suggested by the title¿in which it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between the seducer and the seduced. Finally, via the story ¿Carta al autor,¿ I will conclude with an examination of the aforementioned self-conscious or metafictional element that helps give the book one of its most attractive features, the insistence on active reader participation.
Luscher gives the following as a working definition of this complex literary phenomenon:
Within a sequence, the individual stories do not lose their distinctiveness but rather expand and elaborate the contexts, characters, symbols, or themes developed by the others. These works should be viewed, not as failed novels, but as unique hybrids that combine two distinct reading pleasures: the patterned closure of individual stories and the discovery of larger unifying strategies that transcend the apparent gaps between stories. Constructed without the novel¿s more rigid narrative skeleton, the short story sequence relies on a variety of textual strategies to provide unity and coherence. Simple technical devices such as title, a preface, an epigraph, or framing stories may be used; in addition, more organic unities such as common narrators, characters, images, locale, and themes may be present. Finally, structural patterns involving counterpoint, juxtaposition, or a loose temporal sequence can bring the stories together. (149-150)
Another requisite factor, according to Luscher, is that the book¿in order to constitute a true short story sequence¿must have been compiled by the author and not some other person who, obviously, would not have the slightest possibility of deciphering the intentions of the former. As an example, he alludes to the difference between two books by Hemingway: The Nick Adams Stories and the second edition of In Our Time(the title of the first edition of 1924 used only lower case letters: in our time). The first is an anthology compiled by Philip Young for which he chose only those stories that directly employ Nick Adams as their protagonist. The second book was put together by Hemingway himself and includes certain stories that do not designate Nick as the main character. In this edition the author also interspersed short, framing vignettes among the stories in order to provide greater cohesiveness to the whole (Luscher 160-161).
Given the high degree of inter-relatedness of his stories, Lara Zavala uses no framing devices. And as in known, real-life macrocosms in Latin American, this symbolic world is built upon the foundation of a given number of families. In Zitilchén, the four main families are the Carpizus, the Negróns, the Amaros and the Baqueiros. Among all of them, they appear in eight of the fourteen stories. As depicted on the cover of the first edition of the book, all but one of these families, the Carpizus, have a home facing onto the town¿s central square. Hilario Carpizu, however, plays on center stage since he holds the position of presidente municipal(over the municipio, roughly equivalent to a U.S. county); thus, we also see him mainly in the Palacio Municipal that does face the plaza. The presidente is featured in four of the stories, and only the medical doctor, Indalecio Baqueiro, appears more often¿in six stories. Beyond these human actants who interconnect the different texts, the inanimate or geographical actants also recur throughout the book, giving the reader a sense of experiencing not just fragments of a literary world, but one that progressively comes together as a complete community where all the different citizens and classes of people interact and compete for preeminence or for sheer survival. And what keeps this book from becoming just one more novel is the element Luscher referred to as ¿closure.¿ Each of these stories can stand on its own; external proof of this is the fact that the author has both published several of them in journals and has allowed others to be included in anthologies. An additional factor is that the stories do not appear in chronological order; this is just one more way in which the reader is required to participate actively. Deciphering the historical time frame of each entity is his or her responsibility, although the implied author has been generous with his temporal markers.
Lara Zavala waited almost ten years after the appearance of the first edition of De Zitilchén to publish some of the earliest stories¿in terms of their temporal settings. Even with the publication of the expanded second edition, ¿El beso,¿ one of the earliest pieces, still remains the most ¿central¿ story of all. When we arrive at this the fourth story of the collection, it appears that spatially the implied author has worked us from the periphery (young boys hunting iguanas in the bush) to the epicenter of his imaginary world, the town itself. The first two stories occur in the countryside and tell us much about the economy that drives Zitilchén and its environs: many different types of farming, the most quaint being that of beekeeping. The third story of the book, ¿Morris,¿ takes place both in the town and in the surrounding Yucatan jungle, demonstrating early both the interaction and interdependence between countryside and town.
As mentioned earlier, when we arrive at Zitilchén via ¿El beso,¿ we are introduced to the presidente municipaland watch him as he reigns supreme over his municipio, answering only to the governor of the state of Campeche. We become acquainted with several of the ¿little people¿ who, with trepidation, come to seek favors before this seemingly heartless sovereign (perhaps the most pathetic of whom is the woman who tries in vain to borrow the sewing machine he has recently taken as payment for an unpaid debt). First of all, however, we are introduced to the man¿s wife, Sofía, and are treated to a touching scene where she agrees to sing the Ave María for the wedding of Elsi Rabelo, a young woman of an entirely different social class. The first indication of this difference is that Sofía speaks to Elsi in the familiar form of address (tú), while the latter insistently uses formal modes of address (usted). In a later section of the tale, however, the statuses become perfectly clear when the presidente angrily refers to Elsi as an ¿india maya¿ (46). In the exchange between the two women, the reader gets a glimpse not only of the disparities between the groups within the microcosm but also may gain a glimmer of hope that race relations, at least among certain citizens, can portray not only tolerance but also warmth. The fly in the ointment, however, is the presidente who can never afford to show a single chink in his armor of power and control.
Eventually we get to know more about this man¿s wife and how she is quite fed up with the political shenanigans into which her husband drags her, such as the requisite banquets provided for the governor and his wife any time they decide to drop in. It¿s simply understood by all that Sofía will entertain them in all senses of the word, not only as hostess but also with her lovely voice. She also provides the story¿s dramatic element by nearly giving in romantically (the beso of the title) to an unnamed engineer who is in the area to direct the construction of a new highway.
The fragmented nature of ¿El beso,¿ with its short-takes and panning techniques, reminds one of a movie, perhaps as a reflection of the greater structure of the book. This is most evident while the presidente moves around the plaza making arrangements for one of those odious visits by the greater ruler. First he sees to it that the face of things is politically acceptable by removing certain prisoners to the countryside. Next, we watch him move from place to place, interacting with the citizens he meets. He has lunch in one of the two cafes of the town while brooding over his wife¿s refusal to break her promise to sing for the Indian girl¿s wedding in order to be free to entertain the governor, his wife, and entourage. Meanwhile, he is subjected to the irritating presence and open scorn of certain young people¿members of two competing aristocratic families, the Amaros and Negróns. From here he goes to the barbershop where he both taps into the currents of gossip while exposing himself to mildly sarcastic jibes on the part of the indolent souls who frequent this universal institution.
On this same day there is at least one other important introduction (along with a reappearance of the protagonist of ¿Morris¿), a certain jovenzuelo who will eventually become known as the narrator of these stories. This young man comes to visit only in the summertime and is the grandson of one of the town patriarchs. Also, without having been named, he has already served as the protagonist of the first story of the book, ¿A la caza de iguanas¿. Herewith a hint of the light metaficcionality within the fabric of the work that in time will become explicit.
Against the backdrop of this story¿given the strategy of intratextuality ¿previous stories increasingly accrue more significance in terms of how they fit into the environment of their neighbors. At the same time, ¿El beso¿ prepares the way for stories yet to come. Moreover, what is very clear after reading this story is that this is a world of the conquerors and the conquered, the colonizers and the colonized. Each character, though not always reconciled to the fact, understands his or her place in this microcosm of multiple contrasts.
The story ¿Morris¿ appears in the collection just prior to ¿El beso¿ and is now invested with a light hitherto denied the reader. While this story appears to have achieved total closure, the careful reader will probably do a double take, since this person who has just been killed makes a brief appearance at the Palacio Municipalin the story that follows. When all is sorted out, however, we must conclude that there is no fantasy or magical realism involved. The character has not come back to life; the implied author simply never has intended to place these stories in any clear chronological order, thus eliciting more participation from the reader. In fact, the second edition of De Zitilchén, now containing five additional stories, retains the same sequence for the original stories, while paying no attention to the order in which all stories take place in historical time. And beyond these structural considerations, ¿Morris¿ is one of the most poignant stories for delineating the primacy of the issue of colonizers versus colonized.
The protagonist is known as Morris despite the fact that he is ¿prieto y chaparrito¿ un indio maya¿ (33). This is not his name (his true name is never revealed), but rather a nickname that has been forced upon him by others and which will prove to have tragic consequences. The citizens of Zitilchén seem to delight in linking this quiet, hard working beekeeper and hunter with his total opposite: a British engineer, named Morris, who has come to the area to lend technical assistance to the locals as they drill their much-needed wells. The face-off between one who is so obviously autochthonous with one who comes from a nation and race so notoriously imperialistic presents an irony that is lost on no one, despite the cruelty and insensitivity it implies. The disparity is made explicit in the following:
Morris, el inglés, era alto, grueso y rubicundo; sólo comía carnes frías y odiaba el calor. Por ello, Zitilchén, donde todo se come fresco y muy condimentado, donde el calor es agobiante, le parecía un pedacito del infierno.
Morris, en cambio, era bajo de estatura, flaco, enjuto y moreno. Comía lo que fuera: pavo de monte, iguana, uech o quitán. Amaba el sol y el campo. Para Morris, Zitilchén, su pueblo, era casi un paraíso. (Ibid.)
Had the two adversaries been left alone by third-party elements, these two may never have taken much notice of one another. But besides the malicious citizens who had nothing constructive to do, there was one other mediator that made the situation untenable: alcohol. While out in the wilds where he cared for the apiaries of the presidente and listened intently to all the sounds of nature, Morris the Mayan was whole and content. But he also looked forward to the times when he could come into town, be with his family briefly, and then spend a ¿quiet¿ night at the bar: ¿Permanecía ahí durante largas horas, sin meterse con nadie, gastando copa a copa aquellos cincuenta pesos que le habían adelantado en la oficina del patrón¿ (35-36).
Eventually Morris, the Englishman, and his own indulgence with the sterner liquids, feels it necessary to confront this impertinent native who has ¿stolen¿ his name. This is a situation with which he is well acquainted:
Morris era un hombre iracundo, acostumbrado a que le temieran por su estatura, por la coloración que adquiría su rostro cuando se enojaba, por su costumbre de subir la voz a la menor contrariedad y por sus ojos azules, saltones, llenos de lágrimas, que parecían fulminar a quien se dirigían. Acostumbrado a tratar con los peones dóciles de Asia y África y dada su poca facilidad para el español era muy afecto a darle bofetadas a sus trabajadores gritando:
¿You bastard! ¡A trabajar! (36)
This particular Morris, however, is not African and has no intention of leaving the bar, since he still has a few coins left. Neither is he accustomed to mixing it up with ¿patrones,¿ and does everything possible to avoid a fight. Between the furious Englishman and the malicious citizens of Zitilchén, the battle is unavoidable. Right up to the moment when the two men¿having finally left the bar¿enter a vacant lot, Morris the Mayan is still dodging the other¿s blows. When one does reach him, sending him to the ground, he feels a rock in his hand and the inevitable happens: ¿Se levantó, la piedra cogida, y tiró un certero golpe a manera de campanazo viendo una inmensa flor de sangre y luego un borbollón; la gente se juntó en torno a Morris mientras Morris, aprovechando la confusión, logró escabullirse¿ (37).
The colonized is finally liberated from one of his colonizers, only to reap banishment from his little paradise of Zitilchén. The Mayan spends the remainder of his life in the bush with his dog and his shotgun, until three ¿blancos,¿ ostensibly on a hunting trip, come from Zitilchén to bring an end to his ¿exile.¿ Despite the darker ¿Morris¿s¿ greater knowledge of the outdoors (as mentioned earlier), it does seem that he meets his death, as suggested by the final sentence of the story: ¿El sonido vindicador de uno, dos, tres balazos sonó en la amplia bóveda de la tarde¿ (40). There are three shots, not the possible two from a shotgun, and the adjectivevindicador seems definitive. Alas, is there no other way for a ¿colony¿ tale to end? Is not the first one there usually the first to be dispossessed and, ultimately, the first to be disposed of, in the event of a confrontation?
¿El padre Chel¿ is a very awkward if not ingenuous apology by the new but recently defrocked priest of Zitilchén. The story, however, serves the purposes of giving us a glimpse of things ¿spiritual¿ in general in the town as well as an overview of the morals of the female citizens¿if, in fact, we have a reliable narrator. Over the modern period of the book, three different spiritual leaders of Zitilchén are mentioned. The narrator, Father ¿Chel,¿ is one of these, and he makes reference to his predecessor, Father Emilio García. One of the last stories (¿La pelea¿) mentions only in passing one Father Schingler, who must be the narrator¿s replacement. As suggested earlier, the folks of Zitilchén have a natural aversion to advenedizos, and the physical appearance and overall demeanor of this particular priest might have begun ringing suspicious bells upon his arrival. He claims that the women find him attractive and describes himself as blond and blue-eyed, thus the nickname ¿Chel,¿ which is the Mayan word for ¿blue.¿ Also, as opposed to his predecessor, García, this priest admits that he never did much for the men of the community for the simple reason that they seldom darkened the doorway of the church. On the other hand, he claims to have had pure charity toward the faithful women belonging to his flock. He claims that in the beginning the men ¿festejaron mi carácter¿ which he describes when he says, ¿Toco la guitarra, fumo, me gusta bailar y, por qué no decirlo, bebo, aunque nunca con la audacia ni en la cantidad con que beben los hombres de este pueblo que, dicho sea de paso, tienen espléndidas gargantas¿ (70).
The apology tradition itself implies an intradiegetic-homodiegetic narrator: in this case, a man who is both in the story and narrates about himself in order to exculpate himself from a series of accusations. The problem with Father Chel is that he sets up each negative situation and, instead of clearing his good name, promptly falls into a trap set by his own hand. For example, while the presidente municipal gives him an early chance to enter the good graces of the men by having him bless his new car, that same day Father Chel drinks a little too much and crashes the very vehicle he has sprinkled with holy water. And while his high perceptibility as a narrator and his vested interests might readily indict him as an unreliable narrator, paradoxically he seems to be totally reliable in the sense that he is not bright enough to withhold certain incriminating facts. He always divulges so much information that he paints himself into a corner and any further explanations are then too weak to overcome a sense of culpability.
This early peccadillo is easily overlooked by the men of the community and, as men, they are even willing to accept certain sexual dalliances as normal and natural. And yet, ultimately, it is his sexual activity that drives him from the town and from his profession. At one point, he touts his pure charity toward a certain female charge whose great sexual needs he fulfills in lieu of her sick husband who is not only unable to perform such duties but is also bothered by her tossing and turning at night, which also keeps him from getting any sleep. When the woman tells the priest that she dreams about him every night, he says to his reader: ¿¿Tengo acaso que continuar? No, no lo creo. Pero puedo asegurarles que aquella noche mi feligresa durmió tranquila. Y lo que es más: su buen esposo también¿ (72). Besides feeling good for having improved the sleep of bothfeligreses, our protagonist believes he has strengthened his ¿apology¿ by posing the following rhetorical questions: ¿¿Cuál es el mayor pecado que concibe la religión cristiana? ¿No es acaso la falta de caridad?¿ (Ibid.).
Father Chel cites several other such incidents where women of different ages require his services, and blames his deslices both on the general state of lasciviousness among the female population and the insensitivity of the males. He makes his strongest self-justification in the following statement:
Con persuasión envidiable me argumentaban y me discutían hasta que yo, víctima postrera del ámbito del pueblo, sucumbí, no a la lujuria sino a mi ya conocida debilidad de ayudar a estas menesterosas de cariño, pobres almas desconsoladas sin más a quien recurrir. ¿Qué se puede hacer cuando una mujer se aferra a uno como un náufrago a una tabla de salvación? Soy ante todo un caballero y hay deberes que uno no puede rehuir. No podía dejarlas solas, no, eso sí que no. Cómo iba a hacerlo si sabía que de no ser yo quien las acogía ellas mismas buscarían a alguien más, y ese alguien carecería de mi experiencia, no les ofrecería mi comprensión, ni siquiera sabría ser discreto. No, nunca las dejé solas: mis ovejas. (74)
The narrator also turns to the infantile syllogisms of excusing his own peccadilloes by aggrandizing the veritable sins of others and undermining his own Christian beliefs by blaming the libidinous nature of the citizens on the lack of bordellos in the town. In the process, however, he does prove to be a good story-teller by saving the crowning and decisive incident for the last. While both the men and the women of Zitilchén seem to have been willing to overlook Father Chel¿s multiple failings, it is finally his genes that betray him beyond the ability of anyone to forgive. A certain young epileptic woman who, only for the sake of the story, the narrator calls Azucena, suffers a seizure one day while worshipping in the church. She is taken to the sacristy and the priest and the girl¿s mother watch over her while others try in vain to find a doctor or the druggist; at this juncture, the mother remembers that the girl¿s medicine is at home and runs off to get it. According to the priest, precisely at this moment¿and to his great relief¿Azucena regains consciousness. For the first time, Father Chel seems able to cut his story short of incriminating himself, which proves to be one more deft stroke of tale spinning. He makes no confession of any sort, and when Azucena turns up pregnant he rants and raves at the pulpit, trying to force the guilty party to step forward. Another factor that makes this story so ¿tellable¿ (i.e., interesting) is that Azucena also demonstrates her noble nature by refusing to disclose the name of the father. The narrator describes the situation thus: ¿Vinieron a darme la queja. Arengué al culpable a que confesara su pecado. Hostigué a Azucena desde el púlpito pero ella prestó oídos sordos a mis reprimendas y a las murmuraciones del pueblo con estoica y ejemplar voluntad. Nació el niño. Yo mismo lo bauticé. El chiquito fue tomando forma paulatinamente. Estaba lindo¿ (75). So far so good. However, nature¿s tendency to do things ¿paulatinamente¿ eventually proves to be Chel¿s undoing, since it finally becomes clear that the child has blue eyes and blond curly hair. The otherwise diffident citizens of Zitilchén no longer have any alibis behind which to hide. And the father once again openly admits to the nature of this text as an apology by making one last plea:
Ahora pago mi condena. Desposeído de mi parroquia, de mi honor, de mis hábitos, escribo, torpe e inarticuladamente, mi defensa para reprocharme no mis culpas sino mis debilidades, no mi lubricidad sino mi caridad. Y sólo quisiera preguntarles a aquellas mis ovejas que tan abandonado me tienen: ¿qué creen que importe más para el bien de su pueblo: esos espíritus rígidos, meticulosos y respetuosos de las tradiciones como el del padre García o estos otros activos, laboriosos y generosos como el mío? (75)
Not only does this final declaration bring closure to a story that broadens the reader¿s understanding of the spirit of Zitilchén¿insofar as one can rely on Father Chel¿s disclosures¿but it also unmasks the inefficacy of the narrator¿s dialectical strategies, ending with the weakest of all, the rhetorical question. Needless to say, all questions have been fully begged¿. Additionally, one could argue that the self-conscious statement ¿escribo, torpe e inarticuladamente¿ subtly prefigures the metafictional element used in the overall structure of the book.
The historical setting of ¿La seducción¿ antedates that of the bulk of the Zitilchén stories by at least 68 years. For example, the story ¿En la oscuridad¿ dramatizes the flight of one of the students involved in the Tlatelolco demonstrations and massacre of 1968. The setting for ¿La seducción¿ is Zitilchén and the great plantations of cane and hemp in the area from just before the turn of the century. Once again, at the beginning all seems normal; that is, the Spanish-mestizo-ladino colonizers are firmly in control of the land and its original inhabitants, the well-tamed Indian laborers. But, as in the case of the story just studied, one colonization seems to invite another¿ The hacendado in question is one Facundo Sánchez who is well known as a ¿conquistador,¿ that is, of women¿one more obvious sector of the population that can be grouped with the conquered or colonized. Sánchez seems invincible and in control not only of underlings in the countryside but also of many living in town. One day, however, he meets his match: a Dane by the name of Herbert Björling, via his wife Karla.
In short, the story becomes a question of who seduces whom, who conquers or colonizes whom. And the implied author (as suggested in earlier stories) finally asserts his full self-consciousness by making it clear that enough time has gone by that all the details of the story cannot possibly still be known, but that if the reader will indulge him they might discover the inevitable together:
La historia que he de referir versa en torno a una seducción. La anécdota es sencilla y casi banal. No tengo objeción en sintetizarla: un hombre, cautivado por una extranjera, se impone seducirla. Lo consigue. Pero en el momento de consumar su amor, una vez que se hallan completamente desnudos, aparece ante ellos el marido engañado, pistola en mano. Es éste el momento de la historia sobre el que quisiera meditar. El incidente ocurrió en Zitilchén. Invito al lector a discurrir por estas líneas intentando restaurar un suceso que el tiempo ha oscurecido. (111)
As with Jorge Luis Borges, letting the cat out of the bag at the beginning of a narrative is one of those paradoxical yet illuminating effects of metafiction: Despite giving the plot in the first few lines of the story, and despite breaking the fourth wall of this ethereal theater, the reader is willing to be indulged, to suspend disbelief, so long as the story that is told is, in fact, ¿tellable¿. This technique also shifts one¿s focal point from the ¿what¿ to the ¿how.¿ Lara Zavala¿s surrogate author even goes so far as to give two possible endings, but with both coming essentially to the same conclusion: There is always one more conqueror/seducer/colonizer to subdue the one that came before. In this instance, the Björlings, under the guise of plantation managers who can increase the profitability of an already-successful operation, end up walking away with all the booty: Sánchez¿ money as well as his ¿honor¿. Additionally, at story¿s end there is a hint that one other heretofore ¿colonized¿ soul may also have been vindicated or liberated: the Mrs. Sánchez who had always gone along with her husband¿s dalliances with the expected decorum and self-denial.
In the new edition of De Zitilchén, the author takes the final step that removes all doubt as to the metafictional nature of his book. With ¿Carta al autor¿ he also steps beyond the realm of the implied author by having Zitilchén¿s chronicler¿an element that every self-respecting Mexican town seems to have¿address a letter directly to ¿Hernán,¿ instead of to one of ¿his various official [nameless] versions of himself¿ (Booth 71). This story goes to great lengths to draw attention to the difference between journalism and imaginative fiction, between reality and art; which, of course, is the special mission of self-conscious literature. The first thing that creates a face-off between the two different discursive approaches is an interesting time game established by the date on the letter. While the book¿s first edition appeared in September of 1981, the letter carries the date of June 28, 1982, logically allowing the chronicler a full ten months to read the book and respond to it in writing. This letter, however (which is also logical), could not form part of the book¿s ¿reality¿ until a subsequent edition. It is also interesting that, while a few of the other newer stories were published first in journals, this particular story was not available to any reader until 1994 when the updated (definitive?) version finally appeared in print. Another literary game being played here by the explicit author, although one that is somewhat more subtle, is that he is demanding that his readers accept him as the reliable narrator over the letter writer¿the only other entity connected to Zitilchén who has come forth to challenged his right to depict this microcosm. It is up to us to decide whether or not what the author says within brackets at the end of the letter is really true: ¿[Firma ininteligible pero se sabe que es la del cronista del pueblo.]¿ (p. 109).
The journalist, who could only be Ricardo Zentella (as he has been seen earlier in ¿El beso,¿ reading his columns in the barbershop), believes he sees himself in Hernán¿s stories and takes exception both to their content and to his methods as a writer. First of all, he believes his privacy has been invaded: ¿Es como saber que un extraño ha osado escribir sobre algo que te es totalmente íntimo: tu esposa, tu amante, tu hijo¿ (107). Later, he wonders why his ¿esposa o amante¿ has black eyes instead of blue and why the author characterizes her as ¿una mujer triste si está llena de vida¿ (Ibid.). Ultimately, however, what he never seems to be able to concede to the creator of De Zitilchén is the right to transform reality in order to make it a fiction. Since he is a ¿readerly¿ reader (one who demands mimetic realism) facing a ¿writerly¿ work (one that demands active participation in order to become complete), he also decries the fact that the writer has not followed the rules that govern the ¿genre¿ that he practices: the chronicle. After all, isn¿t Hernán referring to Zitilchén, the journalist¿s very own home town, an actual reality that exists precisely at ¿los 89° 30¿ de longitud y 19° 40¿ de latitud¿ (Ibid.)? Why hasn¿t this outsider taken careful notes in order not to make mistakes? He is also quite disconcerted that some names have been changed and that chronological time is not followed: ¿Acaso por inexacto te resulte más cómodo pero lo que me molesta es que los detalles de tu libro están mezclados al arbitrio, cambias unos nombres, respetas otros, saltas en el tiempo haciéndonos creer que todo ocurrió durante la misma época y haces de nosotros y de nuestro lugar un reverendo desmadre¿ (109). At one point, the letter writer seems to concede that the world of the book does have some things in common with the life of the peninsula¿as an ¿invention¿¿but then rapidly returns to his insistence upon representational reality: ¿Vaya tarea vana y pretenciosa que pareces haberte impuesto: ¡reinventar el sureste de México! ¡Qué bueno que seas tú y no yo el que se lanzó a tan ingenuo, descabellado e inalcanzable proyecto!¿ (108).
All of the chronicler¿s complaints constitute an important element found in many good metafictional novels and stories: criticism imbedded in the work of art, and not just criticism but self-criticism. Beyond these complaints, however, there is an actual case of story exegesis in regard to one of the stories we have already examined, ¿El padre Chel.¿ And besides the chronicler¿s evaluative comments about Hernán¿s story-telling, the apology of the former priest now becomes that of the townspeople: ¿Tu cuento sobre el padre Chel es cínico y no nos deja muy bien librados a los zitilchineros. Tal vez no debería contarte esto pero una vez que ese señor salió de aquí vino a sustituirlo un sacerdote norteamericano, honesto y formal, que ya ha empezado a enderezar el sentimiento religioso del pueblo y que ha resultado el polo opuesto de su triste predecesor¿ (Ibid.). Coincidentally, this apologist also makes the same mistake as Father Chel by not knowing where to cut off his confidences. Instead of merely saying that things are much better now, he goes on to divulge information that backfires both on the new priest and those same libidinous men spoken of by the now disgraced prelate:
Te confiaré ¿para darte una sopa de tu propio chocolate¿ que este nuevo sacerdote exigió una vez desde el púlpito en su medio español que aquellas mujeres que no llevaran pantaletas salieran de inmediato de la iglesia. La verdad es que al oírlo todo el mundo quedó desconcertado. Figúrate: el buen padre quiso decir pañoletas. Claro que los que como tú, que no pierden oportunidad para hacerse los graciosos a costillas de los demás, no tardaron en ponerle de su cosecha e incluso se aventuraron a dar los nombres de las mujeres que debieron salir de misa esa mañana. (108-109)
It is also interesting that the people of Zitilchén do give in to an outsider in order to put its spiritual affairs in order.
A final note concerning the insider versus outsider factor: The chronicler issues what may seem to be a light threat to this literary interloper, which, in the day of Salmon Rushdie, can no longer be taken, a priori, as wholly facetious. While Hernán is supposed to have demonstrated out and out disrespect for some of the more prominent citizens, at other times, while attempting to extend a sort of praise to others, he also falls short of the mark: ¿Entiendo [¿] que tus referencias a Zurrisa, Zentella y Negrón son una especie de homenaje a estos tres pintorescos personajes pero dudo que sus familias lo entiendan así. Permíteme un consejo: no regreses a Zitilchén, de otro modo no respondo por ti¿ (109). We see that the letter writer himself (Zentella) appears in this list as one of the aggrieved parties. And if we can take these two interlocutors at face value, the chronicler can be seen as just one more cautious colonizer looking over his shoulder in order to guard against the next territorial invader who just may have designs on his particular portion of this conquered world.
In conclusion, what at first glance may appear to be just one more collection of realistic, representational stories occurring in a quaint corner of the Yucatan Peninsula, upon closer examination proves to be a carefully crafted short story sequence equal in kind and in quality to those created just about anywhere in the world. Hernán Lara Zavala, however, does not stop there, but pushes beyond the mimetic mode to enter the world of metafiction where he is able to juxtapose life with art, physical reality with artistic imagination. He is also able to explore the elements of story-telling, dialectics, and diverse narrative strategies in order to expose them for what they are. A singular characteristic of the book, however, is that what is actually a ¿writerly¿ text reads, on a story-by-story basis, as one of a ¿readerly¿ nature. That is, each story is quite accessible on the linguistic level and achieves closure so as to render it totally autonomous. If readers desire to gallop along without drawing any but the most obvious interconnections between the different stories, the act of reading will still be quite satisfying. If, on the other hand, they take the time to establish as many confluences as the book affords, the reading experience will be that much richer. And beyond this, the gamesmanship of metafiction can be an added literary pleasure. Literature is, after all, an intellectual construct meant to stimulate not only the creator but also the esthete.
Returning, finally, to the thematic level, I¿m aware of coming dangerously close to emphasizing the obvious. In the ¿game¿ of world-building the microcosm inevitably reflects the macrocosm. Lara Zavala¿s title is dead on the mark by using the preposition de in its multiple senses: In this world everyone either ¿belongs to,¿ is ¿from,¿ or has some other relationship to Zitilchén¿however distant it may be. This home of superimposed races, nationalities, and classes may seem to be safely tucked away in the lush flora of the upper reaches of the Yucatan Peninsula; as in the words of the narrator of ¿Morris,¿ to some it represents a veritable paradise. But as we have seen from this sampling of stories, the town has not exactly escaped universal socio-political earth-stains nor the archetypal human tendencies to seduce, conquer, and colonize. When all is said and done, we all, to a greater or lesser degree, reside on stolen property. No one, in fine, can ever be certain of her or his position as either the colonizer or the colonized.
Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1961.
Lara Zavala, Hernán. De Zitilchén. 2nd ed. Mexico: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1994.
---. Flor de Nochebuena y otros cuentos. Cuadernos de Malinalco No. 37, Malinalco, Estado de México: El Patronato Cultural Iberoamericano, 1991.
Leal, Luis. ¿Prólogo¿ of Las cinco palabras. Ramón Rubín. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1966.
Luscher, Robert. ¿The Short Story Sequence: An Open Book.¿ Short Story Theory at a Crossroads. Eds. Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989: 148-167.