- Cult of Defeat in Mexico’s Historical Fiction by Brian L. Price
Brian Price’s worthwhile and thoroughly researched Cult of Defeat argues that contemporaneous political and economic crisis leads Mexican novelists to look to the past for parallel setbacks. The imagined similarity between previous and present problems in Mexico facilitates a majestic historical review that stretches from Independence (1810) to the Bicentennial (2010), with special attention to the Mexican-American War and Santa Anna. Price examines historical novels by the very famous (Fernando del Paso’s Noticias del imperio, Jorge Ibargüengoitia’s Los pasos de López), the infamous (Francisco Martín Moreno’s México mutilado, Guillermo Zambrano’s México por asalto), and the in-between (Enrique Serna’s El seductor de la patria, Ignacio Solares’s La invasión). Price’s study takes exquisite care to cite the relevant major scholarship on any given topic and exhibits an impressive academic repertoire. All sources and quotations are incorporated into the body of Cult of Defeat, and this integration helps to ensure, first, that casual readers receive an accurate impression of the source material, and second, that even casual readers will have to wade through some highly re-readable sentences. Occasionally wearying changes in voice aside, the scholarship is interesting, sound, and, ultimately, original. Most indicative of the admirable quality of Price’s thought is the fact that the problems implicit in the book turn out to be at least as engaging as the explicit “answers.” The present review focuses on these embedded problems. For those readers in search of a quick “yes” or “no” evaluation, the recommendation in all cases is “absolutely yes.”
Price’s aversion to dead-end failure coaches a view of writing on losing as a useful, and perhaps not excessively emotional, experience: “The rhetoric of failure surfaces in the troughs and look[s] backward […] to other troughs in search of answers to present dilemmas. The rationale is that something must have occurred in the past that led the nation to its current state of malaise” (8). By omitting the possessive novelists’ before the word rationale, Price hints that he shares this desire [End Page 593] for rational “answers” in the midst of mess. For Price, the defeats that novelists select from Mexican history represent hope by propelling “corrective, recuperative, instructive, and redemptive rhetorical uses of failure” (19). The contradictory result of this magnanimous scholarship is that while Price is interested in failure, he himself is not willing to risk failing, a fear confessed in the first sentence of the text: “I will admit that the potential irony of failing to write a book on failure crossed my mind more than a few times during the process of completing Cult of Defeat” (ix). Thus from the beginning, Price establishes a difference between his successful project and the defeats that he would study from a distance. A desire for fair play has Price looking for solidly defined ground to referee; ergo, he rejects literary deconstruction and instead directs his analysis toward relatively current events, “toward a study of what makes fiction a vital and active participant in the present” (17). But is Mexican fiction “vital and active?”
If history is a competition, with winners and losers, Price’s optimism would guarantee that losers can always hope to be winners when their stories are reviewed, in the hunt for future lessons. By extension, historical novels could benefit from the process of eventual reappraisal. Thus despite the fact that literature does not sell particularly well in Latin America, as per the “abysmally small size of first-run printings,” Price seems to hold out implicit hope that the publishers of the future might still appreciate these loser books if, someday, people start to read more (14). Until that happens, the Cult of Defeat may accidentally identify the real loser in this contemporary story as the “intellectual,” and thus Price’s effort to remain a critic-referee rather than a writer-player likely fails to secure triumph in the present-tense. Of the five history-themed...