Mexico’s Marxist Prophet


Arts & Culture

José Revueltas, posing in a cell at Lecumberri Prison.

The Hole begins with the description of what an eye sees through a confined space: the small hatch of a punishment cell that opens onto the corridors of Lecumberri Prison in Mexico City. The Hole is at once a piece of fiction and a deposition: José Revueltas wrote it between February and March of 1969, while in jail for participating in the 1968 student movement.

Revueltas was not a student in the late sixties. He was then fifty-four years old and, in fact, had never attended university: in 1932, when he was seventeen and should have been thinking about college, he was already serving his second term in prison, as a result of his militancy in the then illegal Communist Party of Mexico.

By the late sixties Revueltas was a well-known leftist writer and activist with views that suited the student movement’s demands for a less vertical government, having maintained his vocal socialist advocacy and strong links to the trade-union movement, while at the same time vigorously denouncing both the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s government (which had ruled the country with absolute authority for more than forty years) and the Mexican totalitarian Stalinist organizations that opposed it. The students considered him a natural ally: the weight of his reputation offered credible ideological shelter for a movement demanding respect for civil liberties and fresh attention to the perennial problem of inequality in Mexico.

The place of The Hole’s creation is important. Lecumberri Prison, where the manuscript is dated, is an outsize symbol in the Mexican imagination. It was inaugurated in 1900 as a triumphant demonstration of the “progressive” rationalist ideology that dominated the government’s discourse at the turn of the twentieth century. Porfirio Díaz, the liberal dictator who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1884 to 1911, built the prison to keep all opposition to his regime locked up and under close scrutiny in more or less humanitarian conditions; designed by the architect Miguel Macedo, it adopted Jeremy Bentham’s model of the panopticon—as set out in his letters from Russia in 1797.

According to Bentham—whose works Revueltas, well versed in political philosophy, had no doubt read—the panopticon is simultaneously a jail and a theater. The greater the visibility of its inmates, the greater the benefit a society obtains from their punishment, which keeps the prisoners out of circulation while transforming them into an example and a spectacle. At the center of Lecumberri Prison was a watchtower from which seven wings radiated outward, every one constantly visible from its hub. 

When the long and bloody Revolution against Porfirio Díaz’s regime finally succeeded in installing a stable government (if in the form of a party dictatorship), the prison continued fulfilling its primary purpose as a space of atonement for political opponents—now of the nationalist revolutionary government. By 1929, Lecumberri’s architect, Miguel Macedo, was occupying a cell in his own building, having been deemed a collaborator of the previous, ousted regime: getting locked up in Lecumberri implied being a victim of a political purge, but also, above all, playing a leading role in the spectacle of public punishment.

As the twentieth century advanced, the prison became more crowded—and over-crowded—with petty criminals, even though it also continued to host the opponents of every successive political régime until it was finally closed in 1976. Its looming shadow over Mexico is such that even today people still refer to the building as “the Black Palace”—as if the mere mention of its real name might bring misfortune—despite the fact that it’s not black at all and, since 1980, has been the seat of the National Archives.

Such is the general context of The Hole as it opens with an eye peering at a piece of this panopticon. The author’s intentions are clear right from the start: Revueltas’s fable is a meditation on the way contemporary societies make a performance out of punishment. He portrays prison life as an avant-garde production, where Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty and Jean Genet’s Theater of Hatred intersect.

What the prisoner’s eye sees in the first pages of The Hole is a glimpse of two floors of cells in the jail’s wing hosting common criminals. The eye belongs to Polonio, the tale’s main character, who is busily calculating how long it takes the guards to make their rounds through the corridors as he waits for a package of drugs to be delivered from the outside.

Revueltas, it should be said, was a special case: he was never in the hole, and unlike many of those detained after the 1968 student uprising, he was never disappeared or tortured, presumably because he was an intellectual celebrity. On top of that, “Revueltas” was a name with public resonance, well known to artistic circles in Mexico and around the world. José’s older brother, Silvestre, an important composer during the first half of the twentieth century, had a close, collaborative friendship with Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein; Fermín, the second brother, a prominent muralist, had his work displayed in many government buildings. Rosaura Revueltas, José’s sister, had her Hollywood career as an actress cut short in 1954 when her name appeared on Senator McCarthy’s blacklist during the filming of The Salt of the Earth. Despite the relatively good treatment the novelist received in Lecumberri, he’d been placed in the common criminals wing at the start of his sentence, maybe because the prison governor regarded him as an ideologue and preferred to keep him separate from the rest of the political prisoners, mainly the students who revered him.

There’s a photograph of Revueltas, a half smile on his face, right next to a punishment cell, which offers useful information about the story’s setting. A Lecumberri “hole” was a long and narrow passageway, with cement floors and walls, blocked at one end by a metal door with a hatch in its middle, more or less chest-high. The holes looked like containers to transport cattle. A barred window, far up in one wall, was the only source of light. The hatch, just large enough for a soup plate and a cup to be passed through, had a little door that opened outward and could be propped halfway up to serve as a tray for handing in the prisoners’ dishes. Anyone inside the hole wanting to look out needed to stick whatever would fit of his head through the open hatch: this is Polonio’s position when the story begins, and what he is seeing are the monos.

In sixties Mexican prison slang, a guard was a mono—a word that, depending on the context, might mean an ape, a nobody, or a character in a comic strip. Polonio sees the monos (“the apes” in Amanda Hopkinson and Sophie Hughes’s brave and polished English translation) making their rounds and Revueltas fully employs the term’s multiple associations to shift the story’s initial image to the world’s origins, in both the scientific and sacred senses. The guards might be apes trapped “on the zoological scale,” but are also the founding couple of a subverted Eden of nobodies: “he-apes and she-apes in Paradise.” As they move, framed by the box of the hatch, they appear to the reader as Expressionist comic illustrations—like Adam and Eve, but primitive and cartoonish.

This opening sequence reveals the author’s approach to the art of telling: a concept is distilled from a scene and then sublimated to produce a literary judgment on the limited condition of the characters: in the beginning there was abjection and the Word was full of scorn. A meditation on the despair of the human condition can be extracted from this scenario. And it is reiterated throughout the whole first half of the story in which nothing occurs beyond awaiting delivery of a package of drugs.

Polonio is not alone in the hole: Albino and The Prick are there, and also, like him, come from the most wretched depths of Mexican society. All three are awaiting the arrival of visitors: The Prick’s mother, and the girlfriends of Polonio and Albino—the barely adolescent Meche and la Chata. The three women have to get from the prison entrance to the hole, and, once there, the girls will create a commotion to distract the guards, allowing the old woman to hand over the heroin.

The novel’s plot—unfolding in real time, exactly as long as it takes to read—opens at the precise moment the female visitors enter the prison complex. They have to cross several barriers, submit to extensive searches by the female guards, and then wait with the rest of the visitors to enter the common prisoners wing. The final holding area is a quad, barred on all sides, which will play a vital role in the resolution of the novel. For the three prisoners in the hole—all of them going through withdrawal—the women appear to be moving along their route at the speed of tectonic plates.

José Revueltas’s gaze functioned like a CT scan—what everyone usually sees is here only outlined: what his writing shows is everything beating within the organism itself. Maybe all literary writing operates the same way—I recount A in order to say B—but Revueltas habitually inverted the realist equation popularized in the novels of the nineteenth century, primarily the French and Russian ones, or those drawn from the Mexican Revolution, which had formed his horizon as a reader. He wrote of what he saw, devoting attention to verisimilitude, but what he cared about was not the perceptible, but what lies behind that. He used conventional narrative strategies, but also a voice that is constantly thinking about what’s being told.

In addition, as a keen and confirmed Marxist—despite his reservations regarding the way that the Communist parties of his time applied the notion of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat—he perceived economic and political forces driving history where the rest of us see individuals in action. For this reason, his writing has an illuminated quality, a biblical flavor, in spite of the fact that he was a raging atheist. His style was always drawn toward the future, toward what would happen once history itself was ending. Revueltas acted and wrote like a prophet—but a prophet from a political science department, sporting a beard like Trotsky’s.


Image courtesy of Djarter.


At the very middle of the novel, the three female characters finally enter Polonio’s field of vision, shifting the narrative from the hole and the characters’ interior lives to the chaotic world of the prison. Time, moving with grinding slowness up to this point, turns back on itself, transforming into a whirlwind.

In a letter to Arthur Miller dated January 11, 1970, Revueltas, a fellow senior member of PEN International, described a terrifying assault in Lecumberri: on New Year’s Eve 1969, the common prisoners broke the police cordon and attacked the wing of activists and students. The assault, so savage and unexpected, was perceived by the political prisoners as a moment of concentrated reality: “Things,” he wrote to Miller, “occurred with precipitate, fantastical, and dreamlike speed.” I cannot find a more concise way to describe the tumult provoked by the women once they reach the hole, things precipitating with brutal speed. What had always been the same is broken and, after that rupture, reality itself undergoes a process of intensification, dropping the astonished characters into a nightmare.

As I write this, I experience a pang of envy when I consider that the English reader is about to encounter, for the first time, the final twenty pages of The Hole, one of the greatest pieces of twentieth-century writing composed in Spanish. The symbolic content that Revueltas poured into the first part erupts on all sides. Everything is atrociously real, saturated with meaning, even as the spiraling vortex of images exposes the blinding banality of violence when it becomes an end in itself. The novel does not invite empathy any more than it allows for pity or even solidarity, since by distancing itself morally from the characters, Revueltas’s criticism turns in on itself: it’s true that both the guards and the prisoners “in the hole” are “homicidal to the roots of their hair,” but it’s the class that owns the means of production—to which the author who is giving testimony belongs—that has alienated them to the point of becoming beasts.

The Hole is the collision of a thriller and a meditation on political philosophy, existing between two opposing linguistic registers—that of the prisoners and that of the narrator—which expose the ruptures in society as a whole. It reads with the high-speed intensity of a crime novel: Revueltas, though deeply ideological, understood the limits of Marxism as a creative form of expression. He had such a mocking and black sense of humor that—though it made for political difficulties (surely he set the world record for expulsions from Communist organizations)—his writing remained always free of the servility that destroyed the literary ambitions of two or three generations of radical Latin American novelists.

Maintaining his sense of humor and literary imagination even in the direst circumstances, Revueltas, while still detained in Lecumberri’s wing reserved for murderers—he was only transferred to another wing with the rest of the political prisoners a year later, following a hunger strike—sent a letter on December 7, 1968, to his protégé Martín Dozal, imprisoned with the students. It was to be read aloud to his fellow inmates, announcing that he was soon due to receive a typewriter, something that would facilitate communication with his comrades in the struggle. “From then on,” he noted, mocking the Marxist jargon of the students’ committees, “there will be a marked improvement in my calligraphical superstructure.”

This sense of humor, as corrosive as it was intolerable to the hard-line Communists of his time, brought with it an infinite number of problems—which is probably the reason why, outside Mexico, he still remains mostly unknown: he was simply too much for the loftiest figures of the international Left.

When Revueltas published his first novel, Walls of Water, Pablo Neruda denounced it for its pessimism: such existentialist themes were disrespectful of Stalinist orthodoxy. Neruda failed to understand the literary potential of young José Revueltas, who in turn held the Chilean poet—the loftiest of all lofty Communists—in such high esteem that he took Walls of Water off the market. Nevertheless, Neruda was correct in pointing out the link between Revueltas and postwar French literature. His tragic characters belong to the race of Albert Camus’s existential heroes: “indifferent to the future.”

The ending of The Hole, stripped of all theatricality despite being intensely tragic and brutally comic in its existential way, can only be fully understood by recognizing that Polonio’s “Why bother” echoes Meursault’s indifference in the face of his own death at the end of L’Étranger. Those in the hole are visionaries with both feet planted beyond the limits, creatures beside themselves, like Jean Genet’s martyrs of modernity.

The Hole might be only a well-written prison story were it not for Revueltas’s sophisticated play with the point of view of the narrator, who is never seen but judges the events which are all told in his cynical, intensely literary voice. The panopticon alienates the lower class to the extent of erasing its humanity—in this tale there’s no difference between the prisoners and their guards—but the most abject among these brutalized characters are busy testing the limits: there’s something enterprising and adventurous in their barbarism. On the other hand, the narrator—an outsider to this violence who gives the novel’s testimony thanks to the fact that his social class owns the grammar and the vocabulary, the syntax and the reference book of Western culture—has become even less human than his characters. He merely reports on the horror out of curiosity.

His account demonstrates that barbarism exists, but also explains why: the writer owns the fruits of his labor and the very act of conveying a battle of the lesser members of the society through language shows that some get the suffering while others benefit from it. Revueltas’s narrator regards the gladiators as savages who lack all moral scruples simply because he can: the master of the grammatical rules that shape society’s norms (integral to authority), he is there to narrate the theater of the panopticon as the public applauds from the outside.

A Christological reading of the novel’s expressionist ending—“lines and more lines, bars and more bars … the monstrous blueprint of this gargantuan defeat of liberty, all the fault of geometry”—is inevitable: Revueltas himself uses crucified to describe how the prisoners are ultimately subjugated. An April 5, 1969, journal entry from the author (twenty days after he finished writing the book) suggests, however, a different reading of these mysterious final pages: “An invisible web of fiction surrounds us and we struggle as prisoners inside it like those who struggle to free themselves from a spider’s web from which there is no escape.” This fiction that secures us as in a spider web is the whole political system—and its masters, us, the owners of speech, should be held responsible for the inequality it produces even when our acts are generally well intended and harmless. There is no way out, but there is a thread to follow: imagining a justice system that could do without the spectacle of punishment.

The publication of The Hole in the United States at this precise moment in time could not be more pertinent: it’s a perfect fable about our complicity—all writers and readers—in the triumph of mass incarceration as the only solution to problems that could be resolved in more rational ways.

Everybody knows that jail doesn’t help reintegrate those who have renounced the pursuit of society’s norms; it only serves as a spectacle that feeds our leisure hours with the newspaper and television—the panopticon that we contemplate as evidence of our moral superiority. In a country and an era of unparalleled imprisonment, we are all, along with the novel’s narrator, an amused audience, a bunch of cold witnesses. We are accomplices, and we are all directly compromised.

—Translated from the Spanish by Amanda Hopkinson


Álvaro Enrigue is the author of five novels and three books of short stories. His novel Sudden Death was awarded the prestigious Herralde Prize.

From Álvaro Enrigue’s introduction to The Hole, by José Revueltas. Introduction copyright © 2018 by Álvaro Enrigue. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.