For my last entry in this month’s guest blog I’d like to briefly introduce a couple of Mexican narratives that present Pre-Hispanic figures as dangerous monsters, and which can be interestingly analysed as containing some suggestive gothic elements.
I’ll start, once again, with Carlos Fuentes and his 1954 short story “Chac Mool”. The tale is collected in the volume Los días enmascarados, and can be found in English translation online. The narration tells of Filiberto, a young man who collects indigenous figurines of idols and deities. One day he buys a statuette of Chac Mool, a Pre-Hispanic representation associated with the Mayan god of rain, from a little shop in La Lagunilla, Mexico. From the moment Filiberto takes the idol to his big, rambling, lugubrious old house, whose description necessarily evokes the traditional gothic haunted mansion, strange events start happening. The first trace of the supernatural makes its appearance when the pipes in the house break and seem to be impossible to fix, constantly flooding the basement, where Chac Mool dwells. As Filiberto’s house gets more humid, Chac Mool seems to come to life. As the statuette awakens, it slowly takes over the protagonist’s life, making Filiberto a prisoner in his own house.
Apart from the obvious relationship between the creature and water in the story, Chac Mool is surrounded by elements referring to blood and death, as a reminder of Pre-Hispanic rites of sacrifice to the gods. These elements of Mexico’s past add up to the decadence of the scenery, Filiperto’s old mansion, to form a dangerous and ghostly order that haunts, and destroys, the character’s present.
The story of Filiberto and Chac Mool is presented as a diary that a friend of the protagonist finds which, combined with the puzzling ending of the tale, emphasize the uncertainty of the events. Even though the supernatural explanation for the strange episodes seems to be the most appealing, during most of the narration there’s always some room for doubt concerning Filiberto’s sanity.
Homero Aridjis also uses Pre-Hispanic creatures to create a sinister atmosphere for his novel La leyenda de los soles (“The Legend of the Suns, 1993). Myth mingles with fantasy and eco apocalyptic science fiction, fantastic structures, and gothic atmospheres in this narrative, which is set in a decadent México City in 2027. The human beings living in the metropolis are struggling to survive in a dying world of pollution, epidemics and corruption, surrounded by death and putrefaction. The political sphere of this future world is formed by thieves, sex-offenders and murderers who have allowed the destruction of Nature in favour of their own particular interests. The result is a dying world with no forests, no wild animals and no water, constantly shaken by continuous earthquakes, where the individual lives terrified and terrorized by those in power. The inhabitants of Mexico City are often described as ghosts, their bodies as cages, while the subway is a rolling coffin and the dead trees are sinister skeletons (“una muchedumbre de fantasmas”, p.94; “La jaula que forman las paredes es una exteriorización de nuestra cárcel interior”, p.74; “El ataúd rodante bufó”, p. 32; “Los esqueletos de los árboles muertos”, p. 132). However, this nightmarish world is not presented as a fantasy but as a future reality, and this is where the gothicism of the scenery lays. The narrative reveals a fear of an ecological disaster which can be easily recognised as part of our own future. The terror that the novel inspires doesn’t reside in the imaginary world of the characters, but instead haunts the contemporary reader by presenting this horrific reality as a future possibility. It turns the traditional gothic fear of the past into fear of the future.
Nevertheless, the past also has an important presence in the narrative. Thus, the end of a world ravaged by humans coincides with the eve of the New World, the death of the Fifth Sun, as established by the Aztec mythology. According to Aztec beliefs, four suns, or ages, existed before ours, each of them ending with a natural disaster. Aridjis introduces this mythological plot into the logic of the narrative, which also contains numerous references to many Pre-Hispanic deities. Right as the moral and ecological apocalypse is taking place in Mexico City, with the government shooting at the crowds gathered as a pacific protest, the air so full of contamination that it becomes unbreathable and so hot that it becomes unbearable, the metropolis is taken over by sinister creatures of Mexico’s past. Thus, while the violent ghosts of Spanish conquistadores take to the streets followed by the cihuateteo (sinister spirits of the mothers who died when giving birth), the tzitzimime (dreadful demons of darkness) start attacking the population. These monsters have grotesque features like powerful claws, hairy faces and legs, unnaturally big phallic extremities rolled around their waists and other bizarre animal-like characteristics, and can invoke malformed creatures while drinking blood and raping men and women. The beauty queens of gothic monsters, so to speak.
The Aztecs used to fear the materialization of these demons at the eve of calendar rounds and other threatening times associated with change. In Aridjis’ narrative they represent the powerful forces of a past still present in Mexico’s future.
Other representatives of the forces of Evil in the novel are the President of the Republic, José Huitzilipochtli and the Police Chief Carlos Tezcatlipoca the two deities in the Aztec tradition customarily opposed to Quetzalcóatl, god of peace and the arts. The god Tezcatlipoca is associated with the Kingdom of Death, darkness and temptation, and his personification in Aridjis narrative is a corrupt, bloodthirsty chief of police who enjoys himself killing all sorts of people, as well as kidnapping, raping and assassinating female teenagers. He incarnates the forces of Evil, the terror of gloom, immorality, and the fearful past that returns to haunt the ghostly inhabitants of a decadent Mexico City.
In Aridjis’ narrative, the Pre-Hispanic creatures become gothic monsters which evoke a fear of the past and of change, the polluted and moribund scenery manifest an anxiety towards the future and the evilness of the political spheres reproduce a subversive social critique which reflect contemporary social concerns. The author has managed to gothicize the Pre-Hispanic world to create an apocalyptic novel that warns us about the future horrors of our present behaviour.
As we have seen, there are many gothic elements hidden in various examples of Mexican fiction. Whether they follow the canon, mingle with comedy or suggest an ominous look on Pre-Hispanic elements, these features represent a part of the country’s contemporary literature. The territory of Mexican Gothic is vast and practically unexplored, but also diverse, cross-cultural, parodic and, from my point of view, truly fascinating.
I would like to thank Glennis and Dale for inviting me to be this month’s guest-blogger, it has been a great pleasure to collaborate with this excellent webpage.
And last, but not least… Happy New Year Everyone!
Aridjis, Homero. La leyenda de los soles. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1993.
Fuentes, Carlos. “Chac Mool”, Los días enmascarados. México: Era, 1954.
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