For decades, José Emilio Pacheco’s Battles in the Desert has been one of the most widely read novels in Mexico. Since its original 1980 serialization in the weekend cultural supplement Sábado and its subsequent publication, a year later, by the iconic Ediciones Era, this story of impossible love between a boy and his best friend’s mother has established itself as one of the most important novellas in Mexican literature, which boasts such gems in this genre as Carlos Fuentes’s Aura, José Revueltas’s The Hole, and Salvador Elizondo’s Elsinore: un cuaderno (Elsinore: a notebook), to name just a few.
The considerable reach of this novella is in large part thanks to its readers’ word-of-mouth recommendations over the years and the fact that, since its second edition, it became part of standard middle school and high school curricula throughout the country, especially in the capital, Mexico City, awakening among students of successive generations the kind of interest and awe that very few “required” or “compulsory” texts ever generate among adolescents. Cementing the widespread love for Battles in the Desert isn’t only its detailed portrait of bygone days, its appealing brevity and intimate, confessional tone, but also its glowing emotional credibility, so strong that many readers believe the story to be autobiographical, to the amusement and astonishment of its author.
Born in Mexico City in 1939, just a few months before the start of World War II, José Emilio Pacheco was first introduced to the magic of fiction at the age of eight, during a school trip to the theater at the Palacio de Bellas Artes to see Salvador Novo’s stage adaptation of Don Quixote. “On that now distant morning,” Pacheco would relate in his 2009 speech accepting the Cervantes Prize, the highest award in Spanish-language literature, “I discover that there is another reality called fiction. It becomes clear to me that my everyday speech, the language into which I was born and which is my only wealth, can — for those of us able to use it— resemble the music of that show, the colors of the costumes and the houses that lit up the stage.” This early calling led him to write what he called “little pirate novels” inspired by the adventure stories — by Salgari, Verne, Dumas — he began to devour around that time, and by his nineteenth birthday he had already tried his hand at every literary genre, publishing his work in newspapers and student magazines. After abandoning his law degree at the National Autonomous University of Mexico to fully devote himself to literature, he became part of the so-called Generación de Medio Siglo (Mexico’s midcentury literary generation) along with his friends Sergio Pitol and Carlos Monsiváis, as well as other writers who would rejuvenate Mexico’s national literature, such as Salvador Elizondo, Juan Vicente Melo, Juan García Ponce, and Inés Arredondo.
The Pacheco-Monsiváis-Pitol triumvirate in particular took pains to marry high and low culture in their works, catching the attention of younger readers. From his poems to his novels, his short stories to his journalism, from his translations, essays, and literary criticism to his historical works, José Emilio Pacheco took a rigorous approach to form and cultivated extreme clarity of content. For forty years, and across several publications, he published his renowned column Inventario (Inventory), combining his own special mix of forms (criticism, journalism, and the essay) and sharing with the general public his favorite book discoveries as well as his encyclopedic knowledge — all expressed in his unique conversational style, at once erudite and personal. It’s beyond question that his writing influenced his readers’ tastes and broke ground for many Mexican authors’ literary experiments.
Reading Battles in the Desert, one will note the special magic of Pacheco’s writing — that simplicity, so deceptive and so masterful. The narrative voice is a well-calibrated device gliding through the reality of things, stories, and emotions, always giving the impression that memory never betrays. “Pacheco’s craft and mastery make writing look easy,” writes Luis Jorge Boone in “José Emilio Pacheco: Un lector fuera del tiempo” (“José Emilio Pacheco: a reader outside of time”), an essay on the author’s work. “Achieving that almost magical ease took Pacheco years of rewrites, edits, cuts. The layers upon layers of work the author put into his books over the years is legendary.”
Lengthy prose poems he stripped down in their final versions to pithy lines. Translations took years of painstaking transference — his translation of Eliot’s Four Quartets into Spanish, for example, consumed more than two decades. Works of fiction went on being refined until the very last day their author was able to revise them: they were edited again and again in a firm rejection of conclusiveness. “I do not accept the idea of a definitive text,” Pacheco wrote in his notes to his complete poems, Tarde o temprano: Poemas 1958–2009 (Sooner or later: poems 1958–2009). “For as long as I am alive, I will go on editing myself.”
For its thirtieth anniversary edition, he went so far as to amend several sections in Battles in the Desert, including its ending, even changing the age of Mariana (a character inspired by the actress Rita Hayworth, according to Pacheco) to imply that the story was being narrated in more recent times: “I will never know if Mariana is still alive. If she is, she would be eighty years old,” declares the narrator of that anniversary edition. The first-serial Sábado version was shorter, and Pacheco said that Fernando Benítez, the editor, had to practically snatch it out of his hands to prevent him making further revisions.
That original version arrived, essentially complete, in a feverish session at his typewriter the day after the opening of an exhibition of lithographs by Vicente Rojo, where Pacheco had been interviewed about the poems he’d written to accompany Rojo’s works, channeling the horrors the artist had witnessed as a child in Barcelona during the Civil War. During that interview, and on subsequent occasions when he was asked about the origin of Battles in the Desert, Pacheco mentioned an idea that had recently affected him (and which he attributed to the writer Graham Greene): that childhood love, being hopeless, is also the saddest. The next day, from that one idea emerged the entire story of young Carlos’s woes —this was the story that Pacheco would continue to work on, revising it again and again until its 1981 publication by Era, at that time led by Neus Espresate, the legendary publisher who managed to persuade Pacheco that Battles in the Desert was a novella, and that it should be published separately and not as part of a collected stories, as Pacheco was convinced it should be.
During an interview shortly before his death in 2014, Pacheco was asked why nostalgia so imbues his stories. “We can only write about what is no more,” he replied. “Writing is an attempt to preserve something in the midst of all that disappears and is destroyed each day. But there is no nostalgia in my texts: there is memory.”
And indeed, there is no nostalgia for former times in Battles in the Desert; in its place there is testimony, recovery, and even denunciation of the historical transformations that, from the forties onward, would alter the colonial features of Mexico City and see it transformed into a megalopolis of skyscrapers and traffic that eventually engulfed the entire Anahuac valley, or Valley of Mexico, making room for the millions of migrants who would descend upon the capital looking for better living conditions: peasants displaced by the new agricultural systems, professionals fed up with the sleepy provinces, and foreigners fleeing fascism. And although leaders would continue to hail the ideals of the Mexican Revolution — land for the dispossessed, decent wages for the proletariat, and state intervention in economic affairs — a growing alliance between politicians and businessmen would usher in an era of unbalanced growth and social inequality. The consumerism of the opulent classes would exist hand in hand with the social neglect of the undermined majority, and the corruption that oils the wheels of commerce and industry would become commonplace. Though a large part of the capital’s population would preserve their traditional, provincial customs around food, family, and religion, the younger generations enthusiastically embraced the “North Americanization” made inevitable by the introduction of brands, food, technology, fashion, music genres, TV series, and movies from the U.S. This schism is precisely the “pivotal moment” that Pacheco so lucidly incarnates in his narrator’s intimate, familiar voice, telling us about the world of his childhood, the joys and sorrows of his school and family life, and that first passion, which hits him like a stab wound out of nowhere.
The story of an impossible love, the tale of desire in its purest and most defenseless form, the portrait of a city and country at the dawn of a radical transformation, the critical, unsparing evocation of a society plagued by institutional corruption (still the scourge of modern Mexico), Battles in the Desert is a reckoning with the past and an attempt to preserve what was, what is no more — that love and horror that Pacheco shows us with moving simplicity.
—Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes
Fernanda Melchor was born in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1982 and is widely recognized as one of the most exciting new voices of Mexican literature. Her novel Paradise is forthcoming from New Directions in 2022. An excerpt from her novel Hurricane Season was published in the Winter 2019 issue.
Sophie Hughes has translated numerous Spanish and Latin American authors. She is currently translating Fernanda Melchor’s novel Paradise for New Directions.
Excerpted from Fernanda Melchor’s afterword to Battles in the Desert, by José Emilio Pacheco (translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver), which will be published next week by New Directions. Courtesy of New Directions.