The Lightning of August

Latin America not only has a history of dictators, but an entire genre of dictator novels, from Miguel Angel Asturia’s The President to Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat. In The Lightning of August, Jorge Ibarguengoitia offers us a different viewpoint, that of General Jose ‘Lupe’ Arroyo, whose attempts to gain power have a tendency towards catastrophe, none of which, in his telling, are his own fault. The novel holds the heroes of the Mexican revolution up to the light and finds them wanting: rather than heroism what we see is self-interest, back-stabbing and military incompetence. In making Lupe the narrator of his own story, zealously defending his own actions, Ibarguengoitia mines a rich vein of ironic humour.

As the novel opens it is clear that Lupe has some score-settling to do, targeting, in particular, the memoirs of a fellow general:

“I want to make it perfectly clear that I was not born in a dirt-floor hut, as Fatty Artajo claims, and my mother was not a prostitute, as some have hinted; nor is it true that I never entered a school room.”

Such asides occur throughout the novel and, such is Lupe’s propensity for presenting himself in an unfailingly favourable light, they often have the effect of seeming more believable than his own version of his life story. This, and his not unrelated inability to back down, are his defining characteristics. We see the latter in effect early in the novel, alongside the bad luck that will dog him throughout. Lupe is appointed Private Secretary to the newly elected President, Marcos Gonzalez – but Gonzalez manages to die while Lupe is in transit to his new posting, and before officially taking office. When Lupe does arrive, Gonzalez’s widow tells him her husband’s final words were, “I want Lupe to have my gold watch,” but the watch is now missing. Lupe immediately blames the only other visitor to Gonzalez’s death bed, Eulalio Perez, whom he promptly pushes into an empty grave at the funeral. The next day, however, Lupe and his comrades, plotting to seize power, are outmanoeuvred and Perez is named Acting President. Though his fellow Generals beg him, Lupe refuses to consider apologising, even when he returns to his hotel room to find a note from Gonzalez’s widow to say she has found the watch:

“I decided that even if Perez hadn’t stolen the watch in question, the punishment was well deserved anyway because he’d been a dishonest man all his life.”

The real power, however, lies with Vidal Sanchez. When Lupe complains that Perez is incapable of organising an election, Sanchez retorts, “Where did you get the idea anyone gives a damn about a free election?” The novel goes on to recount the lead-up to the election. Sanchez forbids the military from belonging to any political party, but Lupe and his friends think they have outwitted him:

“While it would appear the party’s sole assets were two remarkable orators… it would actually boast some twenty thousand fully armed and equipped troops.”

However, Sanchez promptly resigns his post so he can stand for election.

The approaching election is more about military manoeuvring than campaigning for votes. Though often bordering on farcical, the novel also highlights an atmosphere of fear, for example when the generals are meeting and find their telephone lines cut:

“People I’ve told this story to invariably ask why we were so frightened. They don’t realise that anyone who gets involved in politics has to be prepared for the worst.”

The generals work together but have little respect for each other – one is even known as the Jinx and, when, in perhaps the novel’s most farcical episode, attempts to roll a train carriage full of dynamite towards the enemy repeatedly fail, Lupe has an idea:

“And then it occurred to me that the best idea might be to let it go with the Jinx on board. Maybe he’d take his bad luck with him.”

Lupe is similarly scathing when it comes to their presidential candidate, Juan Valdivia:

“The fact that Juan Valdivia was incompetent had been fully demonstrated. What I can’t understand is not that the troops realised he was a bungler, but that we hadn’t discovered it before we made him Commander in Chief of the East Army of the Restoration Forces.”

The Lightning of August is history as farce, demonstrating that the fate of a country often relies on the whims and flaws of those in and with power, and that political rhetoric is frequently used to excuse personal ambition. That Lupe himself reveals this in the story he tells is a masterstroke, his apparent openness uncovering his own delusions.

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