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Yucatan: “Peninsula, Peninsula”

Editor’s Note: We are hoping that this is a first of a series of reviews of books about the Yucatan… and not just any books, but books written in Spanish. Many of us don’t have the knowledge, facility or patience to read a book written in Spanish. But we have the interest… and many of the books written in Spanish have a lot to teach us. For instance, one of the main historical characters in this novel is Manuel Barbachano, whose descendants own both Hacienda Chichen next to Chichen Itza and the Casa del Balam in Merida. Interesting, yes? We are grateful to our new contributor, James Gunn, for sharing this review. And we hope there will be more!

Península, Península

by Hernán Lara Zavala (Alfaguara, México, D.F., 2008)

This excellent work of historical fiction, winner of the Real Academia Española prize, is a “must read” for anyone who lives in (or is interested in) the Yucatan Peninsula. Written in clear, precise Spanish, it is accessible to readers with at least a high intermediate ability in the Spanish language. In fact, the clarity of the language is one of the qualities of this work that I particularly enjoyed. As anyone who writes seriously knows, the sort of precision and clarity that gives the impression of simplicity is not at all easy to achieve. Words, like jewels, need to be cut ‘just so’ and highly polished in order to be brilliant. Hernán Lara Zavala’s language is just that: brilliant and well chosen.

The scene is set in 1847, an important year in the history of Mexico. Two events happen almost simultaneously: the invasion of the Mexican heartland by troops of the United States, who march inland from Veracruz and successfully occupy Mexico City, and the start of the lesser-known War of the Castes in the Yucatan Peninsula. As a result of the first event, Mexico lost the war with the United States and a large portion of its territory. As a result of the second, the Yucatecos gave up their determination to form the Republic of Yucatan and chose to join, once and for all, the United States of Mexico.

Books about YucatanIn the mid-19th century, the Yucatan Peninsula was an isolated and virtually autonomous region of the Americas, with three competing groups in the population: the Meridanos, the Campechanos, and the Mayas. This is a complex mix of people of different races, beliefs, national origins, and economic/social classes. This creates a problem for the writer: who is going to tell the story, and from which point of view? Lara Zavala solves this by using multiple narrators with multiple perspectives. He calls this a polyphonic style. It works.

The author says there are no villains in this story, except for the gobernadores, the usual self-seeking, power-hungry politicians who have always been the villains throughout Mexican history.

The novel begins with a brief chapter describing an elegant ball, el Baile Verde (The Green Ball), in one of Merida’s lovely mansions. His account of this event very effectively evokes believable images of that time and introduces some interesting characters. Most of the characers are fictitious but a few are historical, such as the two most powerful political figures of that time, Santiago Mendez, leader of the liberal Campechanos, and Miguel Barbachano, leader of the conservative Meridanos. The clandestine meeting of these two men in a backroom of the mansion sets the stage for the conflicts about to emerge.

In the next chapter we have a detailed and intimate view of the life and thinking of the local Bishop, Monseñor don Celestino Onésimo Arrigunaga. He is soft, spoiled, overweight, highly self-centered, and the pampered and privileged son of a wealthy Merida family. Among other unpleasant things about this personage, we learn that at the age of 14 he impregnates (despite her resistance) an 18-year-old Mayan servant girl in his household. When the pregnancy shows and the family finds out, the girl is paid a small sum and sent packing. Despite all this, he is not all bad, and neither are the other characters in this story. And so it goes. In each chapter we experience moments of time beginning in this fateful year of 1847, sometimes thanks to an omniscient narrator who sees and knows all, and at other times through the limited perspective of one of the participants. Those participants include both the newly-arrived British governess, la señorita Bell, and the alcoholic Irish doctor, Fitzpatrick. These narrators reappear in later chapters, sometimes as personages in the narration of additional characters. One of those is a novelist, José Turrisa, who chronicles the events of The Caste War as they happen, but then loses his manuscript in a fire.

Among the things I learned from reading ‘Península, Península’ is how unexpected and terribly destructive the very violent Caste War was, and the reasons it occurred. The author claims that half the population of the Yucatan Peninsula was wiped out. The Maya rebels, with their inferior weapons, took the worst end of that destruction, but also came very close to eliminating from the entire territory all Europeans and ladinos (the mestizos who spoke Spanish and had generally adopted Hispanic culture). We still have here in the Yucatan two very different worlds, rubbing side-by-side but remaining quite separate. And now more than ever, I wonder about the Mayas, who in the Yucatan are everywhere. They are the exclusive or near-exclusive residents of most of the small towns and villages, they are ubiquitous in the streets of the cities, and they are working daily in our homes and gardens. With us they speak Spanish, but with each other they speak the Maya language. I wonder now what they are saying. I wonder what they think, both of us and of this strange world we are making in their ancestral land. They seem passive, submissive and even friendly. But are they dissimulating? Among themselves, is there something–a knowledge, an understanding–that we have no clue about? Are they living in our world (I don’t think so) or are they, for the moment, merely suffering us to live on the periphery of theirs? ‘Península, Península’ did not give me the answers to these questions, but it did make me want to know more.

By the end of this fascinating novel the reader has learned a lot about the Caste War, this terrible episode in the history of Mexico. After reading this story, the reader may understand better why things and people are as they are here in the Yucatan Peninsula today, although like me, they may have even more questions. The author ends his novel with these words (my translation): “I admire the heroes of the Indian resistance and their right to decolonization and freedom, and also the Hispanic settlers who set their sights on possessing this place ‘that is like no other,’ with its inhospitable land, its fiery skies, and its mysterious countryside, where so much has happened and so many more things than humans have dared to even imagine.” I highly recommend this well-written, interesting, and very informative book.


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9 Responses to “Yucatan: “Peninsula, Peninsula””

  1. Hi,

    I am so interested in getting a copy of Mr. Gunn’s Peninsula Peninsula book. Is there and ebook yet? Is it sold in stores in the US. Thanks a lot and have a Happy New Year.

    Jean

  2. Jean, actually, the book Peninsula, Peninsula is written in Spanish by Hernan Zavala. Mr. Gunn read it in Spanish and gave us a synopsis of it in this article.

  3. As I happen to be coming to Merida in a few days for Merida Fest 2014, I am wondering if any of the bookstores in the historic center, are likely to have the book in stock. Suggestions would be most welcome.

  4. I’m glad you are interested, Jean. Unfortunately, I don’t believe the book is available in electronic format, yet. It’s possible a good bookstore in the US could order it for you. The ISBN number is 978-970-58-0257-7. It has already gone through five printings here since the first one in 2008, so it’s a popular book. I bought it at a Dante Bookstore here in Mérida at the Altabrisa Plaza for 199.90 pesos–about $15.75 USD.

  5. La novela Peninsular, Peninsular parece ser una novela de mucho interés y voy a buscarlo. Gracias!

  6. Hernán Lara Zavala is a Mexican novelist, short story writer, essayist, editor and professor, born in Mexico City in 1946 to parents originally from the Yucatan Peninsula (his mother is from the state of Yucatán and his father from adjoining Campeche state). He is an aclaimed author of several works of fiction, essays and novels. He studied first for a degree in English literature and followed this with a Masters of Arts in Spanish letters from the Faculty of Arts from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), did graduate studies at the University of East Anglia, England and took ​​a sabbatical stay at Emmanuel College in Cambridge, England. He is a full time professor in the field of English Literature of the UNAM Faculty of Arts and Literature where he teaches since 1976. He was chosen as the teachers representative of the College of Arts and Literature in the Technical Board of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters from the years of 1984 to 1986 and as representative of said teachers to the University Council from 1988 to 1989 (first as an alternate and then as the head honcho).

    He originally studied engineering at the UNAM and after exercising this career for a while, refocused to his true calling: Literature. He studied English literature and did an MA in Spanish Literature at the University of Mexico itself. He also studied the novel at the University of East Anglia in England.

    He has been Literature Director for the board of Cultural Diffusion of the UNAM from 1989 to 1997 and coordinator of the Center for Literary Studies at the Institute of Philological Research from the same institution in 1998.

    The extensive work of Hernán Lara Zavala genres include novels, short stories, chronicles, essays and children’s literature. “Peninsula, peninsula” is his most important work and has earned him much praise. Carlos Fuentes, a prominent Mexican writer, published a public appreciation to the novel of Lara Zavala, and for this chronicle he became the winner to the 2009 Ruano González Prize for journalism.

    Previous Works:
    De Zitilchén (1981)
    El mismo cielo (1987)
    Las novela en el Quijote (1989)
    Charras (1990)
    Contra el ángel (1992)
    Tuch y Odilón (1992)
    Después del amor y otros cuentos (1994)
    Equipaje de mano (1995)
    Cuentos escogidos (1997)
    Viaje al corazón de la península (1998)
    Península, península (2008)
    El guante negro y otros cuentos (2010)

  7. THANK you!!

  8. I just bought this book at the bookstore “Educal” on Calle 60 núm. 499 entre 59 y 61, Teatro Daniel Ayala Pérez Centro CP 97000, Mérida, Yucatán Tels.: (999) 930 94 85

  9. Gracias, Gerardo!

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