cover image Book of Lamentations

Book of Lamentations

Rosario Castellanos. Marsilio Publishers, $24 (400pp) ISBN 978-1-56886-038-1

A classic of Mexican literature since its publication in 1962, this historical epic appears in its first English translation with fortuitous timing. It takes place in the impoverished southern Mexican state of Chiapas, where, since 1994, Mayan rebels known as the Zapatistas have won sympathetic media attention for their grievances against the Mexican government. Castellanos (1925-1974) takes events that occurred in 1712 and 1868 and resets them in the 1930s to create a complex tale of race, class and gender. Constructing an entire provincial society, she portrays macho landowners, exploited Indians, submissive wives, misguided politicians and corrupt religious officials clashing with one another and among themselves in a thirst for power. At the center of the landowners' elite circle is political aspirant Leonardo Cifuentes, who incites fear and hatred of the Indians, claiming they pollute the region's civic, moral and religious values. The indigenous community, long abused by the landowners, revolves around Catalina, an ilol, or prophet, who instigates a rebellion when she creates a cult around three stone idols. The major confrontation occurs at Easter, when indigenos crucify a boy conceived in a rape of a young Indian girl by Cifuentes years before. The novel features intriguing interior monologues and indirect discourse, but the third-person omniscient narration doesn't quite unite the many characters and plot lines or satisfactorily compress the immense volume of historical detail into digestible form. Still, this is an always panoramic and often moving novel that brings Mexico's turmoil to complex, tragic life. (Dec.) FYI: In 1974, Castellanos was electrocuted while trying to plug in a lamp in Israel, where she served as Mexico's ambassador.