Happy Birthday, Federico Gamboa!

Today we write to say, “Happy 146th, Federico Gamboa!” To celebrate, I’d like to teach you a little about the man and his work.

If you’re like me, you don’t know too much about him.

Here’s a quick education: Gamboa (1864-1939) was one of the most important Mexican novelists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Influenced by the French naturalist writers–he was personally acquainted with Emile Zola and Edmond de Goncourt–Gamboa is sometimes called the Zola of Mexico. A writer of fiction, nonfiction, drama, and critical essays, as well as a lawyer, politician, diplomat, and professor, Gamboa gave a great deal of thought and attention in his writing to the social conditions of pre-revolutionary Mexico.

His novel, Santa: A Novel of Mexico City, which we recently published in English, translated by John Charles Chasteen, was first published in 1903 and is still a classic of Mexican literature. It chronicles the humiliation, rise, and final ruination of Santa, a jilted country girl turned Mexico City prostitute. For, though she becomes the most sought-after, high-class courtesan in the city and is given opportunities to leave her profession, Santa’s personal demons propel her toward her ultimate downfall and untimely death.

This book is also notable because it was the inspiration for a silent film, Mexico’s first “talkie” in 1932, several other film adaptations, a radio series, a television remake in the seventies, and a pornographic comic book. In many ways, Santa was also the blueprint for the modern day telenovelas.

There are many reasons to read and study Santa, including an eye to the political, his use for naturalist prose, to better understand the details of the city and countryside of Mexico at the turn of the last century, or to suss out the grand metaphor of Santa’s life and downfall as it applies to Mexican history.

I prefer to look at the spot-on, crazy-sentimental descriptions of place, and of the people and animals moving in their places.

Here are two of my favorite scenes. Pay attention to all the frenetic life, motion, color, sounds, and smells happening in these scenes, in the background of the action. Both places are every bit as alive as the people who move through them.

The first is from Santa’s memory of her home in the countryside.

There it is . . . the little white house, hidden away on one of the narrow, unpaved lanes of her village. . . . On one side of the smoky kitchen, with its wide-mouthed little chimney, is the bee hive, and on the other, the dovecote. . . . In back, a fat pig lies wallowing lazily in the mud, tethered by a leg; hens and their chicks scratch the dirt, looking up at the sky with a single eye, from time to time, by tilting their heads almost horizontally to the ground; and a large yellow and black dog, Coyote by name, dozes tranquilly in the thick shade of the orange trees. . . . Tied to the posts that support each extreme of the covered walkway are two fighting cocks, one of them jet black and the other sporting yellow feathers on its wings and around its neck, both crowing and flapping their challenges to each other when not sharpening their beaks on the ground always wet, sooner or later, with drinking water from the rusty sardine can placed beside each bird, the can overturned in the course of some abortive practice attack.

And the second takes place in Mexico City, in the Plaza de Armas on September 15th, awaiting the Cry of Dolores:

And everywhere around the Plaza de Armas, where temporary stalls have been erected to sell food and wine, is the sound of frying and the smell of many fruits and the mass of bodies. One hears fragments of conversation, guitar arpeggios, babies crying, free-floating laughter, occasionally, a sinister outbreak of oaths and threats, finally, fights and reconciliations. There are no holes in this wall of sound, only the human herd, packed together, stamping its feet, explosively eager for the moment when it will shout its tribute to national independence.

Suddenly, a vibration runs through the restless multitude, agitating it even more. Then, a silence, frightening and exciting because it is so universal, the sort of silence that precedes something extraordinary. Inanimate objects seem to withdraw into themselves at this moment. One would say that the hundred thousand souls that fill the Plaza de Armas have fused into a single soul. Everyone, everything, is hushed—the musicians, the privileged guests in the balconies, the herd that floods the palace, façade, eyes glued to the moving gears, hearts beating impatiently . . .

So, again, happy birthday, Federico Gamboa—may your words be read for many years to come.