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The City of Palaces

A Novel

Michael Nava

Publication Year: 2014

In the years before the Mexican Revolution, Mexico is ruled by a tiny elite that apes European culture, grows rich from foreign investment, and prizes racial purity. The vast majority of Mexicans, who are native or of mixed native and Spanish blood, are politically powerless and slowly starving to death. Presiding over this corrupt system is Don Porfirio Díaz, the ruthless and inscrutable president of the Republic.
            Against this backdrop, The City of Palaces opens in a Mexico City jail with the meeting of Miguel Sarmiento and Alicia Gavilán. Miguel is a principled young doctor, only recently returned from Europe but wracked by guilt for a crime he committed as a medical student ten years earlier. Alicia is the spinster daughter of an aristocratic family. Disfigured by smallpox, she has devoted herself to working with the city’s destitute. This unlikely pair—he a scientist and atheist and she a committed Christian—will marry. Through their eyes and the eyes of their young son, José, readers follow the collapse of the old order and its bloody aftermath.
            The City of Palaces is a sweeping novel of interwoven lives: Miguel and Alicia; José, a boy as beautiful and lonely as a child in a fairy tale; the idealistic Francisco Madero, who overthrows Díaz but is nevertheless destroyed by the tyrant’s political system; and Miguel’s cousin Luis, shunned as a “sodomite.” A glittering mosaic of the colonial past and the wealth of the modern age, The City of Palaces is a story of faith and reason, cathedrals and hovels, barefoot street vendors and frock-coated businessmen, grand opera and silent film, presidents and peasants, the living and the dead.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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Book 1: The Palace of the Gaviláns 1897–1899

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Chapter 1

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pp. 3-18

The first time Sarmiento saw the woman who would become his wife, he thought she was a nun. She rushed toward him across one of the fetid courtyards of Belem prison, where he had gone to find his father. She was clad in a long, dark dress he assumed was a nun’s habit and her...

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Chapter 2

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pp. 19-35

Sarmiento sat at a window table at the Café Royale watching a barefoot pelado herd a flock of turkeys down the center of Calle de los Plateros. The Indian, cinnamon- skinned and malnourished with a mop of inky hair, was, like most Indians to Sarmiento’s eyes, of indeterminate age...

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Chapter 3

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pp. 36-51

A servant led Sarmiento through the palace of the Gaviláns in stiffshouldered, disapproving silence. In Europe, he had met members of the nobility and they had received him at their residences, which were older and more elaborate than the colonial mansions of México, but in...

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Chapter 4

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pp. 52-67

On the evening of the first lady’s ball, the wind blew across the surface of dead Lake Texcoco, the city’s ancient sewer, creating a cloud of putrescence that descended into every nook and cranny of the city. Sarmiento and his cousin, in white tie and tails, smoking cigars to mask...

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Chapter 5

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pp. 68-84

Alicia parted the curtain and looked out at the Alameda, filled at twilight with children and lovers strolling beneath the poplar trees that gave the park its name. She and Miguel had been to the park only two weeks earlier. Now that he was her suitor, the gossips could no longer...

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Chapter 6

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pp. 85-101

At Sarmiento’s final meeting with Liceaga before going out into the field, the director deployed his favorite metaphor: “Remember, Miguel, you are now a soldier in the war against disease! In this struggle you will battle against enemies seen and unseen. I await your victorious return!”...

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Chapter 7

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pp. 102-120

From the shaded corridor where she embroidered a tiny smock for Reina’s baby, Alicia half listened to the murmured conversation between her husband and a man with a large goiter on his neck. Reina, sitting beside her, clumsily attempted to imitate Alicia’s needlework. She...

Book 2: The Apostle of Freedom 1909–1911

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Chapter 8

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pp. 123-139

The child sat in the mirador petting a small black cat in his lap as he recovered from his exertions. He had dug a deep hole in the palace garden, showering flower beds with dirt and uprooting a rose bush planted by his great- grandmother. The boy was short and slim and...

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Chapter 9

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pp. 140-155

Across the city, church bells clanged the hour, six o’clock in the evening the second day of Lent, at the beginning of March 1909. Sarmiento was locking up his apothecary cabinet after a long day of seeing patients at San Francisco Tlalco. As was their custom, his patients received his...

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Chapter 10

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pp. 156-171

Before he left the city to rejoin Madero’s campaign, Luis had given Sarmiento a copy of Edward Carpenter’s book The Intermediate Sex, which purported to be an explanation of homosexuals. “You’re a rationalist,” Luis had challenged him. “You pride yourself...

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Chapter 11

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pp. 172-188

La Niña emerged from the crypt beneath the altar of the church of San Andrés to rain pounding the stained glass windows and gloomy shadows flooding the sanctuary. The smell of incense permeated the still air—the odor of sanctity, she thought with distaste. She could not...

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Chapter 12

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pp. 189-205

A storm broke over the valley of Anáhuac on the night of September 14, 1910. Great swags of lightning illuminated the smoky sky and sheets of rain, like a downpour of darkness, blinded the city. Sarmiento sat in his study draining a bottle of brandy. Newspapers scattered on his desk...

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Chapter 13

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pp. 206-220

The Mexicans killed my mother.” Plink, plink, plink. “I wanted to avenge her.” Plink. Tomasa lifted her fingers from the piano keys and glanced at Alicia. “I know now that not all Mexicans are bad. Maybe they sent all the bad ones to Sonora to make war on my people.” Plink...

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Chapter 14

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pp. 221-236

On the sidewalks of El Carmen, awed passersby stopped and pointed at the Silver Ghost. Even on the colonia’s gouged roadways the Rolls- Royce’s engine purred, unlike the firework explosions of less opulent automobiles. The vehicle moved steadily forward in the direction of the...

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Chapter 15

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pp. 237-250

Alicia sat in her parlor embroidering an altar cloth for the altar at San Francisco Tlalco. In past times she would have been at the weekly luncheon of the Daughters of Jerusalem hosted by the first lady at Chapultepec castle. Soon after she had returned from Arizona, however...

Book 3: Tragic Days 1912–1913

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Chapter 16

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pp. 253-272

Beneath the summer sun, the air was as warm as flesh. It released the scents of earth and water as long, flat- bottomed vessels— trajineras— drifted beneath stone bridges among the ancient floating gardens on the still, green waters of the canals of Xochimilco. In La Niña’s childhood...

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Chapter 17

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pp. 273-298

Slivers of silvery light illuminated the tangle of trees. The branches were leafless and twisted. They ended in nubs like the amputated limbs José had seen in one of his father’s medical books. His heart pounded in his chest, and a spasm of nausea constricted his throat. His feet sank...

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Chapter 18

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pp. 299-320

On the afternoon of the seventh day of the battle, Alicia returned from visiting families who had chosen to remain in the neighborhood. She hurried to the toilet, where she gushed watery diarrhea. She composed herself and started toward the kitchen to help the cooks, but she did not...

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Chapter 19

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pp. 321-337

The casket carrying the body of Francisco Madero was gently lifted onto a funeral tram. The sides of the car were draped in black bunting, and it flew the flag of México as it made its way from the Zócalo to the Panteón de Dolores, where Madero would be laid to rest. The mob of...

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Chapter 20

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pp. 338-354

Sarmiento plunged into the crowded streets behind the National Palace. When he and Alicia had discussed the possible consequences of his speech, they had agreed the likeliest outcome was his arrest and confinement in Lecumberri. She would seek him at the prison when he did not...

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Epilogue: Welcome to America May 1913

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pp. 355-360

At every station between the capital and the border, Sarmiento saw fresh evidence that México was disintegrating. The train was running two days behind schedule as it made its way to Arizona, diverted from bad track that had not been repaired because once again the countryside...


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pp. 361-362

E-ISBN-13: 9780299299132
E-ISBN-10: 0299299139
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299299101
Print-ISBN-10: 0299299104

Page Count: 368
Illustrations: 6 b/w illus.
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Mexico City (Mexico) -- Fiction.
  • Mexico -- History -- Revolution, 1910-1920 -- Fiction.
  • Mexico -- History -- 1867-1910 -- Fiction.
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