The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
As in all picaresque literature, the reader has uneasy moments of wondering whether it is the hero or the author who is deficient in moral sensibility; or whether the proposed satire has not staggered and collapsed under its weight of moral connotation. When Januario is about to become a common thief, there is a long and solemn dialogue between him and Periquillo, Januario holding out firmly against Periquillo’s rather cut-and-dried exhorations to honesty, or at any rate, as a last resort, plain prudence. Januario there repeats word for word the whole Catechism. Having done this, he goes out on his first escapade, and is half successful—that is he escapes from the police, but leaves his swag. On this occasion, Lizardi, by the demands of the plot, is hard beset to have Periquillo present, a witness, yet innocent. The best he can manage is to have him act as lookout, by distracting the watchman’s attention and engaging him in conversation. Periquillo then believes that this act does not involve him in the least, and is most virtuously outraged when he is arrested and accused as confederate.
Again, Periquillo, in prison, and watching for a chance to cheat at cards, reflects at length and piously on the illicit, crafty methods of the trusty for turning a dishonest penny by cheating the prisoners. Thinking these thoughts, Periquillo refrains from cheating only because he realizes that he is in very fast company and will undoubtedly be caught at it. Don Antonio, a jail mate, formerly a dealer in contraband, in telling his story of how he lost his ill-gained fortune, innocently assumes and receives the complete sympathy of his hearers, not all of them mere thugs either. This Don Antonio, by the way, who is meant to shine as an example of all that is honorable, upright and unfortunate in human nature, is certainly one of the most abject and nitwitted characters in all fiction. He is smug, pious, dishonest, he feels dreadfully sorry for himself, and his ineptitude and bad management of his affairs cause much suffering to innocent persons. In fact, Lizardi was singularly uninspired in his attempts to portray virtue in action. In his hands it becomes a horrid device of boredom, a pall falls over his mind, he retreats to the dryest kind of moral saws and proverbs. He seemed to realize this, seemed to know that this kind of goodness, the only kind he dared recommend or advertise, was deadly dull. He tried to make it interesting but could not, and turned again with relief to his tough thieves and merry catchalls and horners and unrepentant bandits. Their talk is loose and lively, their behavior natural; he cheers up at once and so does his reader.
A contemporary critic complained that the book was “an uneven and extravagant work in very bad taste. . . written in an ugly style, with a badly invented plot. . . made worse by the author’s treatment.” He then confessed that what really annoyed him was the author’s choice of characters, who were all from the lowest walks of life. They talked and behaved exactly like the vulgar people one saw in the streets, and their language was the sort heard in taverns. This left-handed praise must have pleased Lizardi, who had aimed at precisely this effect. The critic went on to say that the vices of polite society were perhaps no less shocking, but they seemed less gross because it was possible to gloss them over, decorate them, polish them up a bit, and make them less ridiculous. “When a rich man and a poor man drink together,” answered Lizardi, in a little jingle, “the poor man gets drunk, but the rich man only gets merry.”
Lizardi’s infrequent flights into a more rarefied social atmosphere are malicious, comic, and a conventional caricature, designed to confirm in his lower-class readers all their worst suspicions regarding the rich and titled. Now and again he drags in by the ears a set speech on the obligations of nobility to be truly noble and of the poor to be truly virtuous, in the most Lizardian sense of those words, but he makes it clear that he has no real hopes that this will come to pass.
For him, the very rich and the very poor are the delinquent classes, to use a current sociological phrase. He called aloud for the pure mediocrity of morals and manners, the exact center of the road in all things. The middling well off, he insisted, were always good, because they practiced moderation, they were without exorbitant desires, ambitions, or vices. (That this was what made them middling was what Lizardi could never see, and that only those born to the middling temperament, rather than middling fortune, could practice the tepid virtues.) Every time El Periquillo falls into poverty, he falls also into the vices of the poor. When by his standards he is rich, he practices at once the classical vices of the rich. His feelings, thoughts, and conduct contract and expand automatically to the measure of his finances. He was always astounded to meet with morality in the poor, though he did meet it now and then, but never once did he find any good among the rich. His favorite virtue was generosity, and particularly that generosity practiced toward himself, though he almost never practiced it toward others. Even during a period of relative respectability, financially speaking, when El Periquillo is planning to marry, he discusses with Roque, one of his fly-by-night friends, the possibility of Periquillo’s Uncle Maceta standing as security for the bridegroom’s finery at the tailor’s and the silversmith’s, along with a plot to rid himself of his mistress, a girl whom he had seduced from a former employer. All goes smoothly for a time: the Uncle is complacent, the mistress is thrown out of the house in good time, the marriage takes place, with bad faith on both sides, El Periquillo’s transitory small fortune is thrown away on fast living, and the Uncle is rooked out of his money. El Periquillo comments that it served him right for being such a stingy, unnatural relative.
So much for the Parrot as the faulty medium of Lizardi’s social and moral ideas: some of his other characters were hardly less successful in this role. . . for example, his army officer, a colonel, in Manila.
This man is a brilliant example of what a military man is not, never was, could not in the nature of things be, yet Lizardi introduces him quite naturally as if he believed him to be entirely probable. The Colonel is full of the most broadly socialistic ideas, democratic manners, with agrarian notions on nationalism. He believes that rich deposits of gold and silver are a curse to a country instead of the blessings they are supposed to be, and that the lucky country was one which must depend upon its fruits, wool, meats, grain, in plenty but not enough to tempt invaders. He notes that Mexico and the Americas in general are deplorable examples of that false wealth which caused them to neglect agriculture and industry and fall prey to rapacious foreigners. . . . The Colonel, in his fantasy, is no more strange than the entire Manila episode. El Periquillo is deported there as a convict. It is hardly probable that Lizardi ever saw Manila, though there was a legend that he had visited there during the vague “lost years.” It is more probable that while he lived in Acapulco he listened to stories of storm and shipwreck and life in strange ports. That he loved the sea is quite plain, with a real love, not romantic or sentimental; he expresses in simple phrases a profound feeling for the deep waters and the sweet majesty of ships. But otherwise, the Manila episode has the vague and far-fetched air of secondhand reporting.
It is not his moral disquisitions, then, nor his portrayal of character, nor his manner of telling his story, that keeps El Periquillo alive after more than a hundred years: it is simply and broadly the good show he managed to get up out of the sights and sounds and smells of his native town. His wakes, funerals, weddings, roaring drunken parties, beggars in their flophouses, the village inns where families rumbled up in coaches, bringing servants, beds, food, exactly as they did in medieval Europe: they all exist with extraordinary vividness, and yet there is very little actual description. There are dozens of scenes which stick in the memory: Luisa standing in the door, greeting with cool scorn her former lover; the wake with the watchers playing cards through the night, and as their own candles give out, borrowing one by one the blessed candles from the dead; the robbing of the corpse, with its exaggerated piling of horror upon horror; the hospital scenes, the life in prisons; all this is eyewitness, first-hand narrative, and a worm’s-eye view beside. It is a true picture of the sprawling, teeming, swarming people of Mexico, ragged, eternall
Lizardi was once insulted by a picayune critic, who wrote that his work was worthless and he himself a worthless character who wrote only in order to eat. This was not altogether true, for if it had been, Lizardi might easily have been much better fed than he was: but he did, having written, do what he could to sell his work to gain his bread, and though he did not choose the easy way, still he was bitterly stung by this taunt, poor man, and to save his pride, mentioned that at least he had lived by what he made, and not squandered his wife’s dowry.
The Thinker’s style has been admired as a model of clarity in Mexican literature by some of his later friends, but I think that must be the bias of loyalty. By the loosest standard, that style was almost intolerably wordy, cloudy, vague, the sentences of an intricate slovenliness, the paragraphs of inordinate length; indeed it was no style at all, but merely the visible shape of his harassed mind which came of his harassed life. He nearly always began his pamphlets, as he began his novel, with great dignity, deliberation and clearness, with a consciously affected pedantry, with echoes of the grand manner, a pastiche of Cervantes or Góngora, but he knew it could not last; he knew also his readers’ tastes; he could do no more than promise a patchwork, and patchwork it was. There are times too when it is apparent he wrote at top speed in order to get the number finished and handed to the printer, needing desperately the few pesos the sale would bring him, padding and repeating, partly because his mind was too tired to remember what he had written, and partly because he must give his readers good weight for the money, or they would not buy.
The censors complained constantly of his obscenity and use of double meanings, and indeed he was a master in this mode. All of his writings I have seen are full of sly hints and some not so sly, curious associations of ideas one would need to be very innocent indeed to miss. The Mexicans love them with a special affection, the language is a honeycomb of them, no doubt Lizardi enjoyed writing them, and it was a certain device for catching his readers’ undivided attention. He did not need to invent anything, he had only to listen to the popular talk, which was and is ripe and odorous. Some of it is very comic and witty, some of it simply nasty, humorless, and out of place in a translation where the meaning could be conveyed only by substituting a similar phrase in English, since they are often untranslatable in the technical sense. And was he—to imitate one of his own rhetorical questions—so simple as to believe that his readers would take the trouble to wade through his moral dissertations if he did not spice them with the little obscenities they loved? He was not, and he did his best by them in the matter of seasoning. At least a hundred million readers have found his novel savory, and perhaps a few of them repaid his hopes by absorbing here and there in it a little taste of manners and morals, with some liberal political theory besides. Certainly the causes for which he fought have been never altogether defeated, but they have won no victory, either: a lukewarm, halfway sort of process, the kind of thing that exasperated him most, that might well end by disheartening the best and bravest of men. Lizardi was not the best of men, nor the bravest, he was only a very good man and a very faithful one. If he did not have perfect courage or judgment, let him who has require these things of him.
December 10, 1941
A Mexican Chronicle, 1920–1943
BLASCO IBANEZ ON “MEXICO IN REVOLUTION”
Mexico in Revolution, by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez,
translated from the Spanish by Arthur Livingston and José Padin.
New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1920.
NEWSPAPER notes gathered into a book make patchwork reading. Even Lafcadio Hearn’s republished “Fantasies” could not survive the test. Six months after they are written, Blasco Ibanez’ hurried observations on Mexico in Revolution are staler than even half year old news has any right to be. Tacit forgiveness is extended to daily potboilers in the swift forgetfulness accorded them. When the reporter seeks to revive and perpetuate his mistakes as literature, or even as propaganda, he invites the irritation of the reader.
Ordinarily, one does not review newspaper notes, even though the writer of them is “the most magnificent reporter in the world” as some sly critic dubbed the prolific Spaniard, who has discovered there is money in writing if you write fast enough and badly enough. Yet for one blazing moment when he was younger, he was an artist. He wrote “The Cabin.” He was a revolutionary in those days, too, and spent eighteen months in prison for the sake of his political faith.
No doubt as one grows older things are different. Even a fellow countryman of Don Quixote tilts with no windmills at sixty or thereabout. It is better to stand solidly with editors and publishers who buy much and pay well. It is better to write racy, clever stuff: to tell quarter-truths amusingly and convincingly, than to content one’s self with the obscure honor of having created “The Cabin.”
I read portions of Ibanez’ notes on Mexico when they were appearing serially in a New York newspaper. I read them again this week in a book decorated on both sides of the slip cover with an inconsiderately homely photograph of the late Carranza posing with Ibanez. They are evidently conversing on a subject painful to them both. Cordial intent is not visibly established. Ibanez is blinking in that strong light he claims Carranza always forced the visitor to face during interviews. Carranza’s manner is nicely divided between boredom and suspicion.
The boredom was his personal affair, but he did well to be suspicious. It would have been better for many other Mexicans if they had been a little less frank in their welcome of the visiting third cousin who embraced them in order to feel of their pistol belts: who led them on to talk about themselves with humorous carelessness in order that he, the visiting third cousin, should be enabled to prove afterward in print what a very clever, knowing sort of chap he was. “See how I understand these people,” you may imagine Ibanez saying. “Note the ease with which I tripped them up, and obtained their simple secrets. Really, dear friends, I was as amusing as a weasel in a Rat hole!”
I marvel again at his inverted Latin wit, his gift for stripping the personal dignity from a fellow creature, with deliberate intent so to strip him before as wide a public as he can muster. I resent his not dealing clean wounds that bleed freely. I protest against his sadistic pastime of removing an inch of skin at a time with a razor edge.
He attacks all of us insidiously at points where we are without protection. Who believes in militarism? Who does not feel for the sufferings of the poor peon? His indignation against the one, his proper sympathy for the other are sentiments beyond reproach. Who can help smiling over his sardonic account of the Mexican “soldierette,” or laughing outright over the infernally amusing story of Don Jesús Carranza and the Red Cow in Hell?
That is the trouble with this affair. His malice touches the kindred spark of malice in all of us. Blasco Ibanez brought with him to Mexico—Blasco Ibanez. He carried about with him his taste for scandal—his will to believe evil of all he saw. He talked with everybody who had a shady story to tell. Over cafe tables and on street corners he gathered together the most trivial and scandalous untruths ever put between book covers as a serious account of a nation, carefully mixed with an occasional grain of fact when its exclusion would have been too
He brought with him intellectual snobbishness—witness the “Belasco” story—and racial hatred he owns to in words between words. For six whole weeks he sat at cafe tables or stood on street corners discovering the truth about Mexico in Revolution. Then he went away and wrote a delightful, an informing, a profoundly truthful mental autobiography of Blasco Ibanez!
If the reader knew nothing of Mexico except the political propaganda published for years in American journals, it might be very easy to believe nearly all of this book.
It races along so fluently, never at a loss for a word, with a keen and poisonous little anecdote capping each incident sharply. He speaks fairly well of the dead—of Díaz, of Carranza, of Zapata; indiscriminately he scatters a few kindly, condescending words upon these harmless graves. But it is nearly always in order to point more precisely the villainy of some one now in power. Living men at work he hates, it seems.
For young de la Huerta he has a sentence of praise to stress his contention that there are no other idealists in all the government of Mexico. Reading his book, one remembers acquaintance with enough flaming and disinterested revolutionary idealists to employ the fingers of two hands in naming them, and is willing on the strength of that knowledge to admit the existence of numberless others one has never met, and will never hear of. But one feels that somewhere along the road, late or early, Ibanez has laid down his burden of faith in his kind, and groaningly cannot make shift to take it up again. He has taken masters, and serves them excellently well.
He writes always with a weather eye on these masters. Now and again he tucks in sweet pilules of flattery for the delectation of the great northern public for whom he wrote. Deftly he tickles the ear of the white man who indirectly made it worth his while to write this book.