Analysis of Martín Luis Guzmán’s The Eagle and the Serpent

Martín Luis Guzmán’s (1887– 1977) best-known novel owes much to the genre of historical fiction, but it is often described as a seminal novel of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. The Eagle and the Serpent, first published in Spain in 1928 as El águila y la serpiente, depicts the revolution and its political aftermath in the next decade from the point of view of a journalist, a character-narrator who is never named but participates in the events and relates them from an autobiographical point of view. The book follows the wanderings and adventures of this journalist, a fellow traveler of the revolution.

The Eagle is bookended neatly by two flights from Mexico to the United States: The first has the main character, presumably Guzmán, fleeing from the forces of Victoriano Huerta (1854–1916), whose opportunistic reign was opposed by Guzmán and other advocates of the populist movement; the end chapter has the narrator fleeing to the United States again, having survived the fallout caused by the violent splitting of revolutionary factions led by Venustiano Carranza (1859–1920), Eulalio Gutiérrez (1881–1939), and Pancho Villa (1877–1923). Between these two flights, the narrator— a civilian journalist, propagandist, and fringe player who serves the revolution and its leaders in minor and major capacities—chronicles the historic and often extraordinary events that occur throughout Mexico during its major revolution of the 20th century. These events disappoint Guzmán because the idealism symbolized by the eagle at the beginning of the revolution gives way, toward its end, to a venality symbolized by the serpent.

The autobiographical narrative, a novel of more than 300 pages, dramatizes acts of sensational violence and recounts anecdotes of political intrigue. The narrator travels through Mexico, enduring arduous journeys and increasingly perilous hostilities, and out of his experiences he creates the novel, a hybrid between fiction and fact. Indeed, Guzmán’s journalistic background is refl ected in the fact that this novel was serialized in newspapers before its 1928 publication in book form. But The Eagle cannot be easily dismissed as a simple, prorevolutionary product of autobiographical journalism. To his journalistic perspective Guzmán adds historical distance and literary devices. Literary tropes and figures, such as varieties of humor, depictions of extreme violence, personification, and intertextuality serve to illuminate the major theme of the novel, the disillusionment and loss of faith in oncecherished ideals.

The Eagle contains many passages that sparkle with humor. One instance of comic farce comes during the screening of a vainglorious film about the revolution’s triumphs. Guzmán and some cohorts watch from behind the screen, facing the audience. As the film is projected, the audience boos and hisses when unpopular generals are extravagantly lauded by the moving images. As the image of the general Venustiano Carranza, the most unpopular of all, enters Mexico City on horseback, two soldiers in the audience shoot at his screen image. The narrator and his companions behind the screen are lucky to escape the bullets meant for Carranza’s cinematic projection. The narrator notes that if Carranza “had entered Mexico City on foot instead of on horseback, the bullets would have found their mark in us.” Although self-effacing and goodhumored, Guzmán underlines the fractiousness and easy violence of the revolutionary parties at that time.

A similar sort of humor is present as Guzmán writes about the meeting of revolutionaries at the Convention of Aguascalientes (1914), at which Carranza was replaced by Eulalio Gutiérrez as president of Mexico. One loquacious rebel, Antonio Díaz Soto, is—like many other participants—described with particular disdain. Guzmán notes ruefully that the long-winded Díaz Soto realized one day “that there was such a thing as socialism . . . [and] ruses devised by the classes in power to weld more tightly the chains of the proletariat.” On one level, Guzmán here satirizes the inconsistent, improvised thinking of a minor revolutionary, but, more significant, he underlines the ideological vacuum in the Mexican revolutionary movement. The rebels have had no particular ideological drive, other than that of achieving some sort of self-determination for the Mexican people after years of autocracy by Porfirio Díaz (absolute ruler of Mexico for 35 years, served as president from 1876 to 1880 and from 1884 to 1911) and then Victoriano Huerta. The shallow Marxism of Díaz Soto merely draws attention to the revolutionaries’ general lack of philosophical direction. On another occasion, Guzmán notes a rare sign of contentment on the face of perhaps the most fearsome revolutionary guerrilla, Pancho Villa. Villa’s “expression was almost human,” writes Guzmán. This impressionistic and highly subjective aside draws attention to the subjective, highly opinionated nature of Guzmán’s narrative, but it also underlines the brutality of the revolutionaries: If Villa seems human at this point, he has appeared subhuman elsewhere.

Villa seems subhuman because of his ceaseless capacity for killing. Guzmán excoriates the propensity of revolutionary activists to pillage, rape, steal, and murder. Under what Guzmán refers to sarcastically as “revolutionary justice,” many are executed for trivial crimes: Two looters are shot dead, five men are killed for counterfeiting money, a loyal revolutionary is shot for criticizing the boorish behavior of Villa followers in a restaurant, and a poor man is hanged simply to show that the rebels will kill anyone who fails to hand over exorbitant sums of money. Guzmán’s distaste for casual violence is stressed through his depiction of cruelty inflicts on animals by trigger-happy revolutionaries. Soldiers shoot from a train at “peaceful animals grazing in the fields”; Guzmán’s colleague shoots hapless rabbits for “target shooting”; and a harmless, “motionless” bird is shot by Rodolfo Fierro, a Villa lieutenant nicknamed El Carnicero (the Butcher). Fierro’s killing of the bird prefaces the most excessive act of slaughter depicted in The Eagle. Fierro kills 300 soldiers from Huerta’s defeated forces. He gives them a chance to escape, allowing them a chance to run for their freedom—but all except one are immediately cut down in the scramble. The 300 men have been held in a “barnyard.” Before they “jumped like goats,” they are rounded up “like cattle,” treated like animals, and slaughtered as if they are useless beasts. The violence of the revolution has blurred the boundary between animal and human: Violence against both animals and humans is random, vicious, and omnipresent.

The revolution’s dehumanizing of persons is contrasted with Guzmán’s occasional use of personification— inanimate, nonliving objects are given human capacities of sense and thought. A clapped-out old train seems tired—“its resignation was apparent as it made ready for the return trip”; household objects in confiscated Mexico City properties become shabby as “though convinced of the futility of serving mankind”; and bullets have a malign, willful “personality” that causes them to maim and dismember. Through this literary trope of personification, Guzmán stresses the scale of the destruction wreaked against Mexico’s infrastructure, as well as the violent capacities of its revolutionaries: Of course, bullets do not decide how they will injure their victim, the gunmen decide that. It is the human agents who willfully cause death and destruction, making objects look shabby and causing trains to become dilapidated.

Guzmán’s deliberate allusions to other literary texts also underline the novel’s major theme—that of disillusionment as sought-after change is lost to self-interested scrambling for power. A brief allusion to Shakespeare’s Macbeth—when a prison guard cannot “screw his courage”—points to what Guzmán calls the “tragedy” of the Mexican Revolution, and to a general lack of valor and integrity. The reading of Plutarch by a high-minded colleague is also intertextual, as it contrasts the nobility espoused by Roman republicans and the civilized rhetoric of Cicero with the savage ignobility of Mexico’s revolutionary leaders. Most significantly, though, Guzmán alludes to Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Guzmán remembers the naïveté of the early phases of the revolution, when all involved were “building castles in the air around the person of Venustiano Carranza.” It was thought that Carranza would bring the revolution through to a peaceful, democratic settlement. But Carranza disappoints. Like Don Quixote, Guzmán and his fellow intellectual and martial revolutionaries have been aiming too high, striving for impossible glories, for “castles in the air.”

Guzmán’s novel is steeped in Mexican culture, geography, and politics, but its theme of disillusionment and vanquished ideals has been received readily in other cultures. The novel has always been accessible to Hispanic readers, but The Eagle has been translated into Czech, Dutch, English, French, and German; the English translation by Harriet de Onís in 1930 is compelling and still available through reprints. These translations and the directness of Guzmán’s theme of disappointment and frustration in the midst of a collapsed, idealistic project ensure that The Eagle and the Serpent will remain a seminal historical, political, and revolutionary novel.

Langford, W. M. The Mexican Novel Comes of Age. South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1971.
Guzmán, Martín Luis. The Eagle and the Serpent. Translated by Harriet de Onis. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1969.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis, Spanish Literature

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