The Excommunicated Communist

November 2, 2021   •   By Matthew Gleeson

A LITTLE OVER halfway through his 1943 novel El luto humano (Human Mourning), the Mexican writer José Revueltas inserts himself as a character so unobtrusively that it’s easy to miss. A government go-between, when hiring an assassin to kill the leader of an agricultural strike, complains, “First there was the agitation sown by José de Arcos, Revueltas, Salazar, García, and the other Communists. […] And now all over again…” It’s a sly wink at the fact that the novel’s scenario overlaps with the author’s life; it also foreshadows the way that Revueltas’s place in Mexican letters today is inextricably entwined with his dramatic biography.

Revueltas is a contradictory figure: titanic, maybe even canonical, yet at the same time obscure, underground, and seemingly impossible for literary society to fully assimilate without indigestion. This is not only because of his unrepentantly revolutionary politics and his numerous stints in prison, but also because of his writing itself, which is magnificently thick and convoluted in style, bleak and disturbing and often sordid in content.

Revueltas wrote novels and short stories, screenplays during Mexico’s Golden Age of cinema in the 1940s and ’50s, plays, journalistic essays, and political and theoretical analyses — the latter just reissued in three omnibus volumes by the publisher Ediciones Era in Mexico. A lifelong Marxist militant, Revueltas was also willing to openly criticize his comrades — a combativeness that led to him being expelled twice from Mexico’s Communist Party, and later from a Spartacist party he himself helped to found. Unlike those 20th-century Mexican authors (e.g., Paz, Fuentes, Castellanos) who found cozy positions as diplomats, Revueltas eked out a living through frenetic literary and filmic work, and often had trouble paying the rent. After decades of dramatic ups and downs, he saw his star rise again when he won the 1967 Xavier Villaurrutia Prize for a career-spanning collection of work, and he would go on after this to produce some of his most renowned and accomplished writing. He also became eagerly entangled in the student movement of 1968, which led to the mass murder of protesters by government troops in Tlatelolco. For his involvement in the movement, Revueltas was incarcerated in Lecumberri Prison for two and a half years. After his release, his health faltered, and he died in 1976 at the age of 61.

In the United States, Revueltas remains little known. The handful of works that have been translated, mostly in the past couple of years, barely scratch the surface of his output. But for those wanting to understand post-Revolutionary Mexico, as well as the larger history of our barbaric 20th century and equally barbaric 21st, he turns our attention, in the most provocative ways, to seldom-examined corners full of darkness and grime.

José Revueltas was born in 1914, part of a large family of artistic children. His brother Fermín was a painter and his brother Silvestre a composer: both would leave a powerful mark on the arts in Mexico (and on their younger brother José) before their early deaths. His sister Rosaura was an actress who sometimes collaborated with him and who is known for her lead role in blacklisted director Herbert Biberman’s 1954 film Salt of the Earth. Growing up in Mexico City, José secretly skipped out on secondary school in order to spend the day in the National Library; he would never return to formal schooling. By the age of 16, he was a full-fledged member of the PCM, the Mexican Communist Party. In his letters, the young Revueltas comes across as fiery, idealistic, avid for a purpose to hold like a torch. The Communist Party was illegal in those years — this would only change in the mid-1930s during the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas — and had to operate clandestinely. Revueltas threw himself into organizing work, traveled to Moscow for a youth congress in 1935, and was imprisoned several times for his activities.

In her recent book Autobiografía del algodón (2020; Autobiography of Cotton), Cristina Rivera Garza excavates a family history that intersects with Revueltas’s. Her grandparents, it turns out, were campesinos who migrated to the northern state of Nuevo León for the promise of a bit of land and paid agricultural labor; there, in the desert south of Texas, an irrigation system had been engineered and cotton was being grown. The venture would collapse, after a farmers’ strike against the plantation owners was followed by drought and a devastating flood. Rivera Garza’s book reconstructs this history with attention to both the human drama and the massive transformation of the landscape — the kind we see in places like California’s Imperial Valley. During that strike in 1934, the organizer sent by the Communist Party to help the farmworkers was José Revueltas, barely 19 years old. For Revueltas, the drama wasn’t finished when he left Estación Camarón, the site of the strike: he and other communist organizers were soon picked up by the police and shuttled across Mexico — first to the Gulf Coast then to the Pacific, kept on the move in order to prevent their comrades from finding out where they were — so that they could be shipped to the Islas Marías, Mexico’s prison islands. There Revueltas spent nine months, his second imprisonment on the isles. Certain aspects of the penal colony might sound like perks today: the long-serving prisoners, Revueltas reported, could invite their families to live on the main island if they were willing to homestead a small plot of land. But the captives, deprived of their freedom and separated from society by miles of water, were forced to do hard labor and left at the mercy of malaria and other diseases.

Revueltas’s first two published novels emerge directly from this cauldron of experience. Los muros de agua (The Walls of Water) appeared in 1941, a fictional account of the trials of incarceration on the Islas Marías. Revueltas would gain more acclaim two years later for El luto humano — the only book of his to be translated into English in the same decade of its release. (This 1947 translation by H. R. Hays, called The Stone Knife, went out of print decades ago; another translation by Roberto Crespi, entitled Human Mourning, appeared in 1990.) A fictional depiction of the flood in those cotton-growing areas, El luto humano is as apocalyptic as the finale of The Grapes of Wrath. Critics have complained that the story is overburdened with symbolism — Octavio Paz criticized it partly on these grounds in 1943 then significantly revised his opinion years later. But its treatment of environmental catastrophe, a brutally crushed agricultural strike, and Mexico’s history of war, recounted in gradually deeper flashbacks, has tremendous power. The book won a prize organized by the publisher Farrar & Rinehart and earned praise from consecrated communists like Pablo Neruda.

Revueltas wouldn’t be a darling of the Party for long: he was officially expelled in 1943 for his “factionalism.” Still, the 1940s was a decade of intense activity: he worked as a journalist, remained politically engaged, and wrote screenplays for Mexican film directors such as Roberto Gavaldón. Many of these movies — such as La diosa arrodillada (1947; The Kneeling Goddess), En la palma de tu mano (1951; In the Palm of Your Hand), and La otra (1946; The Other) — are still celebrated as classic works of noir, full of skillful melodrama and juicy dialogue. La otra, Revueltas’s first collaboration with Gavaldón, is the story of a woman who usurps her rich twin sister’s life and finds herself taking on the weight of past sins; it is a stunning class-conscious noir in which the female lead is no femme fatale but a full-fledged Shakespearean tragic hero. During these years, Revueltas might be found on a ship to Peru, where a magazine sent him to cover a solar eclipse, or on film sets in Veracruz and Yucatán, furiously writing dialogue. He was the kind of writer who could come home to wherever he was staying after hours spent giving political talks or teaching, work on his typewriter until his neighbors complained about the noise, sleep three or four hours, then complete and send a long letter to his wife in Mexico City.

He was also writing what would be his most controversial novel: Los días terrenales (1949; Earthly Days), my translation of which was published last year by Archive 48. Earthly Days trains a smoldering gaze on the contradictions of the Communist Party Revueltas knew in the 1930s: in a dense, brooding atmosphere, amid settings ranging from rural Veracruz to clandestine apartments in Mexico City, he portrays communists wrestling with hopelessness, egotistical desires for self-sacrifice, and a dogmatic rigidity that leads them to become “red priests” and “believing machines” who lose their capacity for human affection. (In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, totalitarian horror is famously summed up in the formula “Two plus two make five”; in Earthly Days, published the same year, a related horror is encapsulated in the sentence “Two plus two make four.”)

With this novel, Revueltas had gone too far. His comrades across the left excoriated him, accusing him of propagating existentialism and being out of touch with the masses. Even Pablo Neruda attacked the younger writer: in the blood of the “noble Revueltas” he had once known, Neruda proclaimed, there now “stagnates the poison of a past epoch, with a destructive mysticism that leads to nothingness and death.” The harsh response seems to have caused a genuine crisis within Revueltas. Faced with the possibility that his novelistic work would cut him off from his political comrades, he made a drastic decision. He asked the publisher to withdraw all copies of Earthly Days from circulation in early 1950 and shut down production of his similarly lambasted play El Cuadrante de la Soledad (The Quadrant of Solitude), whose sets were designed by Diego Rivera. The novel would not be available again until his collected works were published in the late 1960s. In 1955, Revueltas officially applied to rejoin the Communist Party, a process that included flogging himself with written apologies for the error of producing an anti-revolutionary existentialist novel. But by 1960, he would be expelled again.

Despite his dramatic differences with the PCM and his growing opposition to Stalinism, Revueltas never questioned his commitment to Marxist analysis and struggle. After the Cuban Revolution, he drew close to the country’s new communist regime, spending six months in 1961 giving filmmaking classes in Havana, invited by the recently formed Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos. In 1962, he published, via the Leninist Spartacist League, Ensayo sobre un proletariado sin cabeza (Essay on a Proletariat without a Head), which analyzes the Mexican Revolution as a triumph of the bourgeoisie and denounces the Mexican Communist Party as unsalvageably disconnected from working-class consciousness.

After a literary silence in the first half of the 1950s, he produced two short novels that are his least read today — En algún valle de lágrimas (1956; In Some Vale of Tears), a portrait of a self-satisfied bourgeois man including even his bathroom habits; and Los motivos de Caín (1957; Cain’s Motives), a disturbing vision of US militarism and racism during the Korean War that is critically sharp but has some unfortunate flaws as a novel. He also published some terrific short stories. Many critics think his return to form came with Los errores (1964; The Errors), a sprawling novel that intertwines lurid noir — featuring a heist performed by a pimp and an alcoholic dwarf — with political intrigue in Mexico and the Soviet Union, including an acerbic criticism of Stalinism. A few years later, during his incarceration in Lecumberri following the student uprising, he wrote his most famous work, the novella El apando (1969), along with numerous political essays and several of the stories that would make up his final and most experimental collection, Material de los sueños (1974; Dream Material).

In 2018, El apando appeared in an English translation by Amanda Hopkinson and Sophie Hughes from New Directions entitled The Hole (in Lecumberri, the “apando” was a small cell where prisoners were put for special punishment). The story follows three inmates who hatch a scheme to smuggle in a batch of drugs; the unfolding of the gritty details in a single paragraph that flows like magma is often seen as Revueltas’s stylistic pinnacle. A strong film adaptation by director Felipe Cazals, scripted by the author José Agustín, appeared in 1976.

Revueltas’s unflagging struggle for sociopolitical transformation sits rather uneasily with his fiction’s relentless pessimism and its focus on crime, squalor, cruelty, death, and the grotesque. Indeed, his Marxist commitment often seems peculiarly absent from his fiction, and when present it’s less than triumphal. His comrades used this fact against him when Earthly Days was published. Why the insistent focus, some asked, on dying children, sexual infidelity, unemployed people reduced to beasts, and human shit in the city dump? Such depictions are light-years distant from the heroic “socialist realism” prescribed by communist regimes. Uninterested in optimistic illusions, Revueltas was more attracted to the kind of honesty that dredges up ugliness and the kind of raw human nakedness he witnessed in prison. His fiction is animated by uncontainable passions, tortured searches for meaning, and the throbbing presence of sexual desire. His fascination with the effects of alienation on marginalized people only intensified over the course of his career. He writes about the criminal underworld, prisoners, addicts, and other people who slide between (to use Marxist terms) proletarian and lumpen. What happens, he wonders, in the souls of workers who become unemployed? And how do prostitutes, ubiquitous in Revueltas’s books, charged with moral stigma yet undeniably workers, fit into the picture?

You don’t have to look far in Revueltas’s fiction to find damning political critiques. Without the slightest mention of Marxism, The Hole declares the oppressiveness of carceral society even for those who uphold the system: its prison guards are imagined as captives in the cage of their own lives, barely sensing “an irremediable loss of which they remained ignorant.” The story’s ending is a shockingly brutal and brilliant scene, a perfect collapsing of the literal and the metaphorical — both an act of physical violence and a representation of the force of the state itself, aloof and “geometric” the way structural violence always is. The ending of Earthly Days is another inquiry into state violence, asking what it means when those who jail and torture and kill us present themselves as victims (a raw question today in the United States). But Revueltas takes it a step further, turning the question back on the left: What does it mean when our side does the same? And what does that say about the whole endeavor of being human? Most of his comrades recoiled from this challenge.

Revueltas’s writing style is baroque, maximal, excessive. His vocabulary is idiosyncratic and recondite. Adjectives multiply like mosquitoes. His sentences can run half a page or more. And while some masters of the long sentence, from Julio Cortázar to Fernanda Melchor, may string together clauses using parataxis to create a sense of consciousness rushing onward, Revueltas tends to rely on formal grammar as connective tissue, loading his sentences as if they were horses carrying multiple saddlebags stuffed to bursting. Many critics consider his writing rough and imperfect, and I sometimes agree, but he also achieves brilliant heights of virtuosity, and his maximalism does things that minimalism can’t.

Revueltas was a writer of unbounded exuberance and astonishing descriptive powers who trained himself steadily over the years in the subtleties of his craft, absorbing and using everything from Hegelian terminology to sailors’ slang. His fiction is grounded in what might be called “realism,” but he reaches toward philosophical and psychological depths, exploring different ways to depict the play of consciousness and pushing the limits of language to describe inner experiences and impressions that are nearly impossible to articulate. Thus, the boy in Los errores who secretly shoots a gun from his rooftop and feels “a nebulous discovery of his own person” and “an unspeakable contact, as if someone were caressing his body beneath the skin with capricious, pleased fingers, while he bled from every pore, to the point of emptiness, to the point of being emptied completely into the emptiness.” Thus, the woman in Earthly Days who, realizing she no longer loves her husband, launches mentally into a future in which she has already done the hard work of leaving him, and begins to experience the current moment as a memory.

There is also in Revueltas’s work a dark, bloody, mythic grandiosity that might be called biblical. Revueltas was a firm atheist, but you would be hard-pressed to find an atheist more steeped in Christianity. His fiction is haunted by quotations from the Reina-Valera translation of the Bible. In both the Old and New Testaments, Revueltas seemed to find a poetry and drama that expressed, in tragic terms, the painful struggles of the earthly world and the human search for answers. At the same time, he clearly saw connections between religious dogma and political party doctrine and the zealous orthodoxy that often animates both. Revueltas engaged with such orthodoxy seriously, even bought into it sometimes, but he also struggled mightily against it. This led him to become, in words I take from the Oaxacan writer Abelardo Gómez, an “excommunicated communist.”

Put another way, the religious was political for Revueltas, and vice versa. His first two collections of stories, Dios en la tierra (1944; God on Earth) and Dormir en tierra (1960; To Sleep on Land), frequently train their gaze on the church. The first book’s title story is a harsh distillation of the Cristero War of the 1920s, a little-discussed episode in Mexican history when heavy-handed measures by the government to reduce the Catholic Church’s power led to bloody battles between troops and religious congregants. Another story, “¿Cuánta será la oscuridad?” (“How Great Is the Darkness?”), dramatizes the traumatic aftermath of a Catholic pogrom against a Protestant community. “La hermana enemiga” (“The Enemy Sister”) depicts the destruction of a young girl by her family’s spiteful conservatism, an abusive policing that comes at the hands of the women around her but is clearly an expression of the forces of Catholic patriarchy. A thread runs through works like these: an appalled fascination with fanaticism and the violence it wreaks. Revueltas’s attention to the theme is broad, encompassing religious fanaticism, anti-religious fanaticism, moral fanaticism, political fanaticism. He shines a scathing spotlight on conservative society, but he’s not afraid to turn it upon his leftist comrades as well. We humans, he seems to say, are animals capable of being possessed and consumed by an abstraction. If that idea doesn’t seem sharp enough to draw blood today, perhaps we’re not listening.

A complex, imperfect, remarkable writer, José Revueltas is still waiting for us to encounter him — to read him, translate him — in light of our own moment in history. Readers today will have valuable things to say about the unusual mix in his work of sexual frankness, machismo, in-depth exploration of male possessiveness, and denunciations of women’s oppression. In historical and political terms, Revueltas illuminates a Mexican reality that is often forgotten or reduced to stereotype, a world of underclass hardship and political resistance at great cost, as seen through the lens of one messily engaged man.

A true reckoning with his vision of Mexico, however, will require dialogue with Indigenous thinkers and writers. As anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla argues in his 1987 book México profundo, “deep Mexico” is and always has been Mesoamerican culture; the Occidentalized culture that aspires to be the country’s image and future is an “imaginary Mexico,” an imposed racial and political ideology. For Bonfil Batalla, both capitalism and socialism are part of this imaginary Mexico — a perspective that offers a potent challenge to Revueltas’s Leninism-Marxism, which differs from many Indigenous ways of thinking about collectivity. At the same time, there are entryways to these ideas in Revueltas’s writing itself: take the first chapter of Earthly Days, in which labor organizer Gregorio confronts his difficulties in understanding the campesinos of Acayucan.

Above all, Revueltas put everything he had into expressing the passion and torment of being alive. Every great writer’s work contains an excess that readers can put to their own uses, and in Revueltas, that excess is as rich and as fertile as it gets.

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Translations from El luto humano and Los errores are by Matthew Gleeson. Pablo Neruda is quoted in Los días terrenales, critical edition, ed. Evodio Escalante (Madrid: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1996). Translation by Matthew Gleeson.

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Matthew Gleeson is based in Oaxaca, Mexico. His translation of José Revueltas’s Earthly Days was published in 2020 by Archive 48.