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  • Representing Horror through Ritual:José Revueltas’s Los motivos de Caín
  • Rebecca Janzen

José Revueltas’s Los motivos de Caín (1957) is about a US Army deserter, Jack Mendoza, who has fled the US for Tijuana.1 Religious themes, including the obvious allusion to the Biblical account of Cain, as well as modified religious rituals, figure prominently in the text. Los motivos de Caín, moreover, takes place in spaces set apart from everyday life: in Tijuana, in a Mexican barrio in Los Angeles, and in a war zone in Korea.2 In Los Angeles, the novel removes itself from linear time by anachronistically conflating distinct historical events. Then, in Korea, Jack and his fellow soldiers perform the rituals of Bible reading and prayer and allude to the liturgy; in each case, the rituals are explicitly tied to horrible situations even as they transport the characters to another level of existence or meaning. Los motivos de Caín’s distance from previously-held understandings of space and time in Mexico allows it to take place in a ritual space, which, in turn, is reinforced by the novel’s own presentation of religious rituals. This double representation of ritual plays a crucial role in the novel’s exploration of the horrors of war.

My study participates in the recent re-evaluation of Los motivos de Caín within Revueltas’s work. Revueltas, an author and political essayist, whose life and work propagated social change and justice, criticized any aspect of Mexico or of Marxism that he found wanting.3 He was so critical of Mexican communism that he was asked to leave the Mexican Communist Party in 1943 (Escalante, “Introducción” xxii).4 The Party reinstated him in 1956, and when Los motivos de Caín was published one year later, it cemented his commitment to the Party (Escalante “Introducción” xxii). Because of the novel’s overt connection to communism, critics have ignored it for many years. Early critics, for instance, called the novel Revueltas’s least impressive, denigrating it as pamphleteering consistent with orthodox Marxism (Ramírez Garrido 43; Slick 60). Recently, however, other critics have analyzed this [End Page 293] explicitly Marxist text and come to more fruitful conclusions. Alejandra Herrera has linked its protagonist Jack Mendoza to the Biblical Cain, and Martín Camps has used theories of pain to illuminate torture scenes in the text.

Both schools of thought on the novel agree that it possesses strong religious and Marxist connections. Los motivos de Caín, evokes the story of Cain and Abel. The novel further alludes to the Biblical text through its epigraph from Genesis 4:10-14.5 This outlines the story of Cain, who was condemned by God to walk the face of the earth after he murdered his brother Abel.6 Revueltas, a prominent intellectual familiar with a range of literary and religious texts, wrote for a limited audience already familiar with the account. Los motivos de Caín encourages these readers to identify themselves with Jack Mendoza, who possesses.

La turbia conciencia de ser un Caín que ha perdido la memoria, pero que sabe con certeza absoluta que él es el asesino de su hermano aunque ignore cuándo, cómo, dónde, en qué remota edad, o si en este mismo instante, fue cuando cometió el crimen (38).

These paratextual and textual clues ground the representation of ritual in the novel, particularly the religious rituals of Bible reading, prayer and liturgy. Rituals, according to Ronald Grimes, occur when characters are intentionally present in a time and space set apart from everyday life and consist of a series of actions, gestures and words that give meaning to awful situations. Rituals surpass both dialogue and language to confront the unspeakable. Victor Turner agrees, stating that rituals take place in border zones between one state and another (84). Catherine Bell adds that rituals evoke experiences of a greater, higher, or more universalized reality – “the group, the nation, humankind [or] the power of God” (158-9). In accordance with these observations, the first ritual, Bible reading in a field in a war zone, evokes the reader’s Midwestern roots; then...


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