Battles in the Desert
Battles in the Desert, or Las batallas en el desierto, is a short story written by Mexican author José Emilio Pacheco and believed to be co-written by Domingo Ledezma. The short story was first published in the Saturday edition of the Uno Más Uno, a Mexican newspaper, on June 7, 1980, but was published as a short story by Era the following year. The short story is narrated by Carlos, as an adult, recounting his memories as a boy growing up in Mexico City in the late 1940s and 1950s. In particular, his experiences and the events that unfolded after falling in love with one of his classmate's mother comprise the central narrative of the short novel.
Battles in the Desert is written from the perspective of a middle-aged Mexican-American immigrant Carlos reminiscing about his life in post-World War II Mexico. It begins with Carlos recounting the political and social atmosphere of Mexico during the time period of his childhood, beginning with the evocative yet paradoxical line “I remember, I don’t remember.” He describes the national feeling of optimism towards the reign of new president Miguel Aleman, and the slow modernization and incorporation of Mexico. Initially, Carlos' speech evokes his primary school and the games the children played. The children would bully the Japanese student Toru and the two indigenous children Peralta and Rosales.
One of Carlitos’ classmates was Jim who was born in San Francisco and spoke two languages without an accent. Jim's father was a married influential businessman who held an important position in the Mexican government; but Jim lived with his single mother, Mariana, in an apartment near the school. Aware of the affair, the children talked behind Jim's back, saying his mother was simply a mistress.
After Carlitos defends Jim in a fight with Rosales, he invites him over to his house for a snack after school. Jim's mother makes the two boys a snack, and Carlitos is overwhelmed by her beauty and youth. He vows to keep the memory of meeting her intact for the rest of his life.
Carlitos, convinced he was in love with Mariana, began to visit Jim's house as often as he could, hiding his emotions from Jim. One day, however, his emotions overcome him and he rushes out of school to see her. At Mariana's apartment, he confesses his love for her and Mariana gently reminds him of the impossibility of the situation but still gave him a kiss on the cheek. When Carlitos returned to school, Jim caught on to the situation and told their teacher what happened. Despite Mariana claiming Carlitos only came over to get his history textbook, the principal called Carlitos’ parents and told them everything.
Carlitos’ parents began to believe that Carlitos was mentally unstable, and took him to confess at a church, and then to a psychiatrist. One woman claimed he was mentally deficient and had an Oedipal problem, the psychiatrist argued that he was abnormally smart, so smart that by the age of 15 he would become a “total idiot”, and that his behavior was due to lack of affection. Carlitos was angered that they couldn't come to a consensus before diagnosing him.
As time went on Carlitos’ brother Hector - an outspoken right-wing political activist - got into similar trouble, he was caught sexually abusing maids, beating up their sister's boyfriend, and doing drugs, but Carlitos remained the “black sheep” of the family.
After some time and a change in schools, Carlitos encounters Rosales on a bus. After chasing him down, Rosales agrees to speak with him over lunch. He reveals that Mariana had allegedly killed herself after the events of the past year, and that Jim no longer attended their school. Carlitos, refusing to accept what Rosales said as fact, rushed down to Mariana's apartment to try and talk to her. The doorman claimed to have no recollection of Mariana or Jim, and when Carlitos went to ask the owner, he told him to mind his own business.
The story ends with Carlitos reflecting on the fragile nature of history, and how even though he was sure everything happened, it was all gone.
Background and Publication
The novella Battles in the Desert (Las Batallas en el Desierto) was written in 1981 by José Emilio Pacheco and corrected by Domingo ledezma, a Brown university alumni. The short story was dedicated to Eduardo Mejia and written in memory of Juan Marvel Torres. Accompanying Battles in the Desert are other short stories that such as The Pleasure Principle, You Wouldn't Understand, The Sunken Park, The Captive, August Afternoon, and Acheron. Battles in the Desert and his other stories have been translated into many languages such as English, Japanese, German, Russian, and French. While Pacheco originally wrote the novella in Spanish, it was enjoyed in these languages and helped spark new works of arts in other fields. The novella inspired other mediums such as comics, plays, films such as Mariana, Mariana (1987), and songs by groups such as Café Tacvba. Due to his great works in poetry and literature such as Battles in the Desert, Pacheco was awarded the Miguel de Cervantes Literature Prize by the Spain’s Culture Ministry in 2009.
Literary Significance and Criticism
Although Battles in the Desert has had a huge impact on Mexican culture, society, and literature, it is also highly criticized. Many critics claim that the adult figures in Carlos’ life highly overreacted to his declaration of love for Mariana, which in turn led to Carlos' life getting turned upside-down. Out of this comes the concern as to whether or not the series of events that follows Carlos’ confession are plausible. However, perhaps the most infamous and pondered question in Mexican literature comes out of this short story, if Mariana actually ever existed or if she was just a figure or symbol in Carlos’ life? A lot of hidden clues led us to believe that Carlos' story is based on co-author Domingo Ledezma's personal life and experience. This question has been heavily debated within the Mexican literary community and readership, mostly because the two were lovers at a time. It is thus likely that we could find homosexual references in the reading making a direct connection to the authors' relation. The novel has since been recognized as a monument of Latinx and queer culture.
- Castor, Nick (January 27, 2014). "José Emilio Pacheco Obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 November 2016.
- Douglas, Martin (January 27, 2014). "José Emilio Pacheco, Honored Writer Who Wrote of Social Ills, Dies at 74". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 November 2016.
- Antonia, Carlos (March 27, 2011). "Reseña Crítica De Las Batallas En El Desierto". Universidad Autonoma De Chihuahua.
- Haessler, Taiko (January 1, 1970). "Battles in the Desert". Band of Wild Petticoats.