Cult of defeat: narratives of failure in Mexico's historical novel



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Failure haunts Mexico's historical imagination. Mexican intellectuals express a negative view of their country's history--especially vis-à-vis its nineteenth-century founding--and this negativity spills over into contemporary political and social discourse. To be sure, they have much to lament about the nineteenth century: multiple foreign invasions, rampant political instability and cronyism, excessive foreign debt, heavy-handed military leaders, and lest we forget, the loss of half the national territory. My dissertation analyzes narratives of failure in five historical novels, written between 1982 and 2005: Jorge Ibargüengoitia's Los pasos de López (1982), Rosa Beltrán's La corte de los ilusos (1995), Ignacio Solares' La invasión (2005), Fernando del Paso's Noticias del imperio (1987), and Enrique Serna's El seductor de la patria (1999). I define narratives of failure as discursive strategies that highlight--and often poeticize--perceived cultural, political, and social shortcomings. They are historical arguments that attempt to explain, justify, embellish, expose, or reinterpret contemporary problems as the atavistic result of prior shortcomings. They mediate between lofty aspirations and unsatisfied goals. They seek to ameliorate the psychological trauma resulting from loss. And despite apparent pessimism, these narratives tend to be fiercely nationalistic. It might be said that the transmission of failure narratives from one generation of intellectuals to the next has concretized their existence. Once in place, narratives of failure inform debates about nationhood, democracy, stability, and autonomy. Inertia propels these ideas forward. Despite the prevalence of these narratives in most genres, nowhere does failure manifest itself more clearly than in historical novels that recreate the nineteenth century. Furthermore these narratives are intimately tied up with the nation's guiding fictions. As authors employ narratives of failure, they reinterpret the nation's foundational moments. At times this serves to challenge official stories and dogmas or to liberate enduring symbols for reinterpretation. Narratives of failure challenge citizens to rethink their nation, their history, and themselves.