Enrique Krauze on the Aztec tendencies in Mexican history.

Mexico: Biography of Power–A History of Modern Mexico, 1810-1996
By Enrique Krauze
Translated by Hank Heifetz
HarperCollins; 872 pages; $35

Enrique Krauze is one of the liveliest intellectuals in the Americas, and if not too many people know his name in our own particular America, the blame lies with the sorry facts of gringo provincialism and not with any of Krauze’s achievements. In Mexico Krauze has stood at the center of quite a few national debates (e.g., on privatization, which he favors, and on Carlos Fuentes, whom he does not favor), which means that, among Krauze’s fellow Mexicans, not everybody loves him. In a bookstore in Mexico City I once ran across a pamphlet indignantly attacking him under the title ¿ Enrique Krauze, Historiador? Krauze himself has called one of his books Textos heréticos (a collection of essays snapping at the conventions of Mexican political thought) in acknowledgment of his ability to shock. But in Mexico everyone does read him, and I think that in the United States we ought to get into the habit of reading him, too.

Krauze’s Mexico: Biography of Power is an enormous history of his country, and one of its themes is the mysterious dual nature of Mexico’s national character–half modern and forward-thinking, half ancient and autocratic. He tells us that the old Aztec political culture focused on a figure called the tlatoani, “He-Who-Speaks,” the all-powerful, who later blended with the Spanish vice regency. And the resulting heritage of Azteco-Spanish authoritarianism has proved sturdy in the extreme–even during periods when Mexico has set out to create a modern and democratic republic.

Krauze’s book could be compared to Richard Hofstadter’s The American PoliticalTraditon. Krauze strings together biographical narratives of men in power during the last two centuries–from Father Hidalgo, who led the original insurgency against imperial Spain in 1810 (with the stirring cry, “Take! My children! For everything is yours!”), through Benito Juarez and Porfirio Díaz in the 19th century, onward through Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa and the other revolutionaries, all the way to President Ernesto Zedillo and Subcomandante Marcos in our own time. And in every one of these portraits, with only a few exceptions, he shows us someone who strove heroically for a more modern Mexico, only to end up resurrecting or reinforcing bits and pieces of the ancient authoritarian past.

There is the example of Porfirio Díaz, who brought to his presidency a fine set of liberal principles drawn from the Jacobins of the French Revolution, and dutifully set about building railroads, yet succeeded finally in erecting a grotesque dictatorship. Then Díaz was overthrown and all hell broke loose, and when order was re-established, it fell into the hands of, among others, President Plutarco Elías Calles, a schoolteacher, who in the 1920s and 1930s endowed Mexico with a forward-thinking commitment to rationalism, anti-clericalism, education, and stability. Only Calles, too, evolved into a strongman, el Jefe Máximo, and ended as a fascist sympathizer, communing with the dead at spiritualist séances. And so on through the years.

I t’s curious to think about Krauze himself in the context of these portraits. Krauze serves as the No. 2 editor, under the poet Octavio Paz, of the magazine Vuelta, which is said to be Latin America’s most prestigious literary magazine, the maker and breaker of reputations. Vuelta is a journal of high modernism, not unlike the old Partisan Review of 50 years ago–a journal dedicated to what used to be called “advanced” positions in both literature and politics. At Vuelta“advanced” in literature means Paz’s hard style of poetry, often Surrealist–the poetry that won Paz his Nobel Prize–together with an appreciation of the Latin American novelists. “Advanced” in politics means the sort of radical leftism that has evolved in recent years into a democratic liberalism of a certain kind, suspicious of state ownership–a politics that, in the Mexican context, is generally viewed as right-of-center, yet keeps hinting at something far more. The magazine ends up pretty exciting; at least, sometimes it does–it is the only journal I know that still exudes an élan of the “advanced.”

Yet in this same forward-thinking journal you do see the occasional giant paw-print of He-Who-Speaks. Paz’s distinguished name is everywhere you look. The magazine’s cover is always announcing a new essay by Paz, or at minimum an essay by someone else on the topic of Octavio Paz. The ads promote Paz’s complete works in (so far) 11 volumes. All of which casts a wonderfully ambiguous light over Vuelta’s No. 2. For Krauze is a natural heretic, and a man who stands at the summit of Latin American cultural power. A liberal democrat; and also, as Paz’s right-hand man, a leader of a faintly Aztec literary cult.

A part from Mexico: Biography of Power and Textos heréticos, I’ve read one other book of Krauze’s, Personas e ideas (People and Ideas), which is a lively collection of interviews with Paz, Irving Howe, Isaiah Berlin, and other intellectuals who figure among Krauze’s pantheon of heroes; and I find in that book a remark by Paz that might seem to lay out a program for Krauze’s historical writings: “Without a poetic vision,” says Paz, “there is not historical vision.” I suppose that Krauze’s comprehension of the ancient-and-modern Mexican duality would count as a poetic vision,. Yet Krauze’s virtue as a historian seems to me largely to consist of staying away from everything that might normally go under the name of poetry. His chronicle is lucid, not lyrical. He makes no appeal to the forces of Destiny, and by the last pages he seems to be thoroughly fed up with poetic visions altogether.

He wishes he could be more optimistic about the future, but he keeps seeing theatrical repetitions of events from the Mexican past: the old Aztec tlatoani s and Spanish vice regents re-created in the modern presidents, the old Indian insurgents re-created in the new Indian insurgents. In Mexico people intoxicate themselves on history, he tells us, and while the ordinary Mexicans of today may be perfectly willing to abandon that particular joy, the elite persists in its ancient habit. Krauze would like to see Mexico break its historic pattern, and he tells us that, in the future, there is no reason why Mexico cannot do exactly that. But he also tells us that Mexico could have broken the pattern several times in the past, and somehow never did, in spite of the most spectacular efforts. His book is rich with detail and observation, grand in its themes, pleasingly intelligent–, but also a little discouraging.