In the central states of Mexico, you see many brown campesino faces lit by green or hazel eyes. Locals say this is the only legacy of the French Intervention of 1862-67, when an army with its fair share of rapists and torturers tried to take over the country for its own good in the name of civilization, modernity and empire. On that occasion, “empire” was the official description. Mexican conservatives, horrified by the election in 1858 of a progressive Zapotec Indian, Benito Juárez, to the presidency, sent a delegation to Europe to ask the Austrian archduke Maximilian, brother of Habsburg emperor Franz Joseph, whether he’d like to come over and be emperor of Mexico. Maximilian demurred at first, preferring to go to Brazil for a spot of entomology. But under pressure and with financial sponsorship from yet another emperor, Napoleon III (who had already sent in the troops, ostensibly to force Juárez to resume debt payments, in reality to get his hands on the silver mines in the north while the United States was distracted by civil war), this classic frustrated younger son agreed to emigrate to the New World, relinquishing all rights to the Austrian succession.
Maximilian and his wife, Princess Charlotte of Belgium, were enthroned in 1864. The French, bolstered by Austrian and Belgian battalions, were on a roll: they had captured the capital the year before, and went on to take other cities. Juárez’s government had retreated to Chihuahua. Only a year later, however, Republican forces began to push back. The new geopolitical situation was in their favor. Maximilian was isolated, having proved too liberal for his original backers in Mexico and too imperial to win over the progressives. Juárez was being armed by the United States, which as a salvo to France’s flagrant challenge of the Monroe Doctrine, refused to recognize the puppet monarchy and sent 50,000 troops to the border in 1865. Napoleon III, bankrupted by the imperial couple’s fancy tastes as well as the costs of the war, and facing a new Prussian and Russian threat to the east, lost interest in Maximilian–especially after the Empress “Carlota,” as she now wished to be known, turned up in Europe to beg for funds and seemed, embarrassingly, to have gone mad. The French pulled out. Maximilian dithered. After fleeing the capital he was captured, possibly betrayed by an insider, in the town of Querétaro and executed, along with two of his Mexican generals, in June 1867.
Such are the bare bones of the story. But they are so deeply buried in the rich and bulging flesh of News From the Empire that I had to resort to Wikipedia to locate them with any certainty. Published in 1987, Fernando del Paso’s third novel is a specimen of the Latin American new historical novel, whose greatest exponent is no doubt the Cuban Alejo Carpentier, and the best known, the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa. During the second half of the twentieth century, the perennial fascination with identity and the tangle of European, indigenous and African roots that feeds Latin American culture was intensified by the approach of the quincentenary of the “Discovery” in 1492. The many fictionalized reworkings of historical episodes tended to be anything but positivist investigations, however. A quantum spirit prevailed, dubbed “Borgesian” in homage to the Argentine master. Its tenets included the unascertainable, relative nature of reality; the efficacy of distortion and exaggeration; the simultaneity of time; the infinite mirrorings of intertextuality and the dialectic between linear experience and a cyclical spiral of repetitions. That’s why one often has to go elsewhere for some idea of what is broadly agreed to have happened; and you’d certainly do better to know the story before tackling this particular book.
News From the Empire contains twenty-three chapters. The first and last, plus the odd-numbered ones in between, are voiced by Carlota addressing the dead Max from Bouchout Castle, where she was kept until her death in 1927, and dated that year–allowing her to mix memories and fantasies with evocations of the dizzyingly different world of the early twentieth century. The even-numbered chapters are subdivided into three parts of various formats: dialogue, testimony, oral reminiscence, third-person narrative, stream of consciousness, letters and such. These scenes, while roughly chronological, break up the story into glimpses and sideshows, discourses and mannerisms, like a veritable inventory of baroque literary tricks. Given the prismatic elusiveness of the parts, it’s hard to develop an overview along the way, and we must wait till the end for del Paso to tell us–apparently in his own voice–what he thinks about it all.