‘The Enlightened Army’ by David Toscana (Review)

It’s common knowledge that a certain American president has a healthy disdain for some elements among the people south of his border, leading to a rather ambitious (and expensive) campaign promise designed to keep them out.  However, it’s also true that those on the other side of the border aren’t overly positive about their northern neighbour, either, particularly since some of that land once belonged to them.  So, what would happen if someone got it into their head to try and take that land back?  Well, you’re about to find out 😉

David Toscana’s The Enlightened Army (translated by David William Foster, review copy courtesy of the University of Texas Press) begins in 1968, with the Mexico Olympics underway in the nation’s capital.  However, in the northern city of Monterrey, it’s a different story, as two men in the street stand over the corpse of their friend.  As a last rite, they lay an object on his body, a bronze medal from the 1924 Paris Olympics, a tribute to poor Ignacio Matus – a proud Mexican teacher fired from his job for his constant rants about the American theft of Texas…

But how did he get there?  To find out we need to go back and relive some of the events leading up to poor Matus’ demise.  After stopping by 1924, where young Matus runs his own marathon, a shadowing of the event happening over at the Paris Olympics, we return to the day he is dismissed for his radical views and decides to embark on a quest.  He declares that the accursed Gringos have squatted on Mexican land long enough and calls for a group of brave souls to assist him in his mission to reclaim Texas for the mother country.  Most simply ignore his rants, but one group of very special people sees a chance here to write their names into history, and the Enlightened Army rides forth, changing Matus’ life forever.

The Enlightened Army is an entertaining, at times farcical, tale, with the story jumping back and forth between the three principal time strands (1924, 1968 and the present day, where the narrator reflects on earlier events).  It’s the tale of one man and his historical grievance, strengthened by a personal grudge, with his anger at not making it to the Olympics morphing into a quest to cross the border.  In his mind, it’s perfectly reasonable to steal the territory the Americans stole from them, especially since they also took away ‘his’ medal.

However, despite the initial focus on Matus, the real stars of the novel are the soldiers he recruits to his army.  His younger brother, Fatso Comodoro, is mentally disabled, attending an institute every day.  His is a fairly dull existence, so when he sees his brother’s recruitment poster, he’s eager to take up the cause, as are his friends.  While the idea of invading the US might seem like little more than a fantasy, for the enlightened ones the line between reality and fantasy is unclear at the best of times.  They really believe they’re off to retake the Alamo, or die in the attempt.

It’s little wonder they’re so keen to head off.  Their lives at the institute consist of boring fairy tales, afternoon naps and hours of colouring, so this journey into the unknown is guaranteed to broaden their horizons, with river crossings, shooting practice and a visit to a bar/brothel.  Undoubtedly deluded, they can also be decidedly lucid, quick to see through meaningless obstacles.  Quite apart from their interesting views on the futility of tactics in dominoes, they frequently have perceptive takes on the ‘normal’ folk they encounter:

Ubaldo says he was fascinated by the priest’s story about the body that dies and releases an invisible puff of smoke that flies up to a place of blue clouds and happy faces where it will live forever.  Didn’t you see he was serious?  That priest needs to be sent to the institute.
p.100 (University of Texas Press, 2019)

You might think it’s crazy to take on the might of the Americans, but when the alternative is rotting away in glorified day care, you can see their point.  It’s better to die in battle than colour your life away.

The Enlightened Army isn’t just an amusing tale.  Underlying the bizarre story is a subtle analysis of the relationship between Mexico and the US through its surreal comparison of the two countries.  Matus’ hatred of the Gringo he believes stole his glory is representative of his country’s envy and resentment at past injustices.  This is only exacerbated by the reality that there’s nothing they can do about it, and the Olympics, in which their neighbours will once again win the lion’s share of the medals, is just another symbol of the Americans’ superiority.  Matus’ small team is a perfect example of the limited power of the country in the shadow of the Yankees, an impotent land dreaming of past glories.

Of course, the main appeal of Toscana’s novel is its entertaining nature, and the quest at the core of the story can only be described as quixotic.  Instead of windmills and giants, we have the dramatic crossing of the Rio Grande and the storming of the Alamo, providing Mexicans with a new band of legends to read about in their history books.  Comodoro, Milagro, Cerillo, Azucena and Ubaldo all perform admirably, but spare a thought for Caralampio, the poor boy caught short at an inopportune moment:

Where’s Azucena, Ubaldo, Cerillo, Milagro?  He goes over to the middle of the patio and looks around but can’t find any of the others who’d raised their hands after Comodoro’s speech.  He sees that they’ve abandoned him, and glory has slipped away from him in the wink of an eye, in the time it took for him to take a dump; the ship set sail leaving its most valuable cargo behind at the dock. (p.54)

Imagine being cruelly deprived of a place in history by your unreliable bowels…

It’s also well written, with Toscana’s style notable for its blending of voices, achieved through a lack of quotation marks and speakers’ names.  In addition, the constant humour contrasts nicely with the pathos of Matus, his country’s faded glory and the ragtag army.  If there is a weak point, it perhaps lies in the marathon strand.  It does tie affairs up nicely, and is an integral part of the story, but at times it can appear a little forced, a sub-plot to explain our hero’s motivation and help break up the main strand of the invasion quest.

However, overall, The Enlightened Army is an enjoyable romp, a clever look at Mexico past and present, as well as an examination of the wisdom of fools and wanting to make something of your life.  Of course, there’s also a slightly surprising conclusion we might draw from the exploits of the Enlightened Army.  With people like that across the border, Texas will need to be on its guard.  Trump’s wall may have a use after all 😉


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