In the decades before the Revolution, Mexico was governed by a tiny elite that aped European culture, grew rich from European and American investment, and prized racial – meaning white – purity. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Mexicans, who were Indian or mestizo – of mixed Indian and Spanish blood – were politically disenfranchised and increasingly impoverished. Presiding over this authoritarian system was Don Porfirio Díaz, the ruthless and inscrutable President of the Republic. Don Porfirio’s official motto was Progreso y orden – progress and order – which he imposed with his unofficial one, pan o palo – bread or the stick. Beginning with his first presidential term in 1876, Díaz imposed an iron peace on Mexico with a mixture of seeming benevolence and actual terror.
It is against this backdrop that The City of Palaces opens in a Mexico City jail with the meeting of Miguel Sarmiento and Alicia Gavilán. Sarmiento is an idealistic young doctor, only recently returned to Mexico from Europe and tortured by guilt for a crime he committed ten years earlier. Alicia Gavilán is the old maid daughter of an aristocratic family whose face was disfigured by a childhood bout of smallpox and who, as a result, 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 and through their eyes and the eyes of their young son, José, we follow the collapse of the old order and its bloody aftermath.
Most of the novel is played out in the capital, which, at the end of the nineteenth century, was home to half-a-million people in the basin of a valley ringed by volcanos. It was built on the ruins of the legendary Aztec city of Tenochtitlan which the Spanish conquered and sacked in 1519. For 300 years, the capital was the jewel of the Spanish empire, its massive colonial buildings earning it the title of the city of palaces. By 1900, the city lay half in the colonial past and half in the modern age: horse-drawn carts shared the cobblestone streets with the first automobiles, the central city was lit with electric lamps while its impoverished edges were still lit by torch light. The rich flushed their odure into a sewage system built for their neighborhood while the poor emptied their buckets of “night soil” into the streets. Beautiful and squalid, the city of Mexico in the age of Porfirio Diaz was famous for its translucent light and nauseating stink; it was a place of incredible wealth and bone-grinding poverty. It is the beloved city of Miguel and Alicia and a character of the novel in its own right.
Because Nava has written a novel, not a history. The City of Palaces is a city of stories. It is the story of two people, one of them lost in his guilt, the other surrendered to her solitary fate, who find each other and create a marriage of loving equals. It is the story of their son, a boy as beautiful and lonely as a child in a fairy tale. It is the story of the clash between the traditional Mexico represented by Alicia’s mother, a shrewd old aristocratic, and Don Porfirio’s modern Mexico represented by Alicia’s rags-to-riches brother-in-law who grows rich from backroom deals. It is the story of the idealistic Francisco Madero, who overthrows Díaz with Miguel Sarmiento’s help, only to discover that he has overthrown the tyrant but not his system. It is the story of Miguel’s cousin Luis who is hounded out of Mexico for being a “sodomite,” only to return a decade later making no apologies for his nature. It is the story of faith on the one hand and reason on the other and how they meet and fail to meet in the marriage of Miguel and Alicia. It is the story of street cars and water vendors, grand opera and silent film, presidents and priests, the living and the dead.
It is out of these stories that award-winning novelist Michael Nava has created the glittering mosaic that is The City of Palaces.