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Centaur of the North

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF PANCHO VILLA;\o7 By Friedrich Katz; (Stanford University Press: 1,032 pp., $29.95 paper)\f7

April 04, 1999|CARLOS FUENTES | Carlos Fuentes is the author of many novels, including "The Old Gringo" and "The Crystal Frontier: A Novel in Nine Stories." His new novel, "Los an~os con Laura Diaz," published by Alfaguara, will appear in English next year. His review was translated from the Spanish by Alfred Mac Adam

Friedrich Katz's "The Life and Times of Pancho Villa" is a masterpiece of contemporary historiography. Together with John Womack's "Zapata," it forms a diptych of great biographies of leaders of the Mexican Revolution. We still need books of the same quality about the other major figures: Francisco Madero, Venustiano Carranza, Alvaro Obregon, Plutarco Elias Calles and Lazaro Cardenas. To be sure, several of these have been the objects of notable novelistic incarnations: Madero, for example, in a novel of the same name by Ignacio Solarez, Obregon and Calles in Martin Luis Guzman's "Shadow of the Caudillo" and Carranza in Fernando Benitez's wonderful book "The Old King." Villa, in addition to appearing in Guzman's tale, was also a character for the writers Nellie Campobello and Rafael F. Mun~oz.

Katz's biography shares something with these literary works: the enigmatic relationship between language and action. Do the facts unleash the words, or do the words announce the facts? This is a central problem, but most especially in the case of revolutions. No one saw it more clearly than Louis Saint-Just, the young tribune of the French Revolution. When a revolution fights tyranny, it's epic. When it fights itself, it becomes tragedy. Saint-Just foresaw his own fate: He was guillotined at age 27 by the same revolution he'd bravely defended.

Francisco Villa's destiny is inscribed within the trajectory that goes from epic to tragedy. To cross the border in 1913 with only eight men and to stand, three months later, at the head of the Northern Division, with a force of 10,000 men, to seize Zacatecas and Torreon and to assure, more than any other armed body, the triumph over President Victoriano Huerta and the federal army: all that belongs to the order of the epic. A folk-epic in which the hero creates his own power, not inheriting it from anyone.

How did Villa use his power? Katz raises all the questions the "myth of Pancho Villa" overlooks. How did the military leader and the reformer coexist in him? As head of the government of Chihuahua, Villa, as Katz tells us, had vast resources at his disposal. He imposed iron discipline on his army; he avoided disorder, endemic in a triumphant people's army; he carefully avoided destroying property and prohibited all looting; he expropriated the land that belonged to the oligarchy, suspended debt owed to loan sharks and developed public education.

Was Villa, then, an extraordinary example of a revolution in progress that achieved military victories at the same time that it established land reform, education and health programs? What was the full extent and what were the limits of Villa's revolutionary action? Because the "Centaur of the North" led the Chihuahua government for only four months, his reform activities have to be measured within a very brief time span. Given these limitations, what were the achievements and defects of Villa's reforms?

Villa was far from being a bloody warlord (were Carranza, Obregon and Calles less bloody?): Katz describes the discipline Villa imposed on the Northern Division. At the same time, he doesn't exclude the outrages perpetrated by an uncontrollable man, Rodolfo Fierro, the corruption of Tomas Urbina, who was partial to moving into the haciendas of the former Chihuahua oligarchy. (Urbina, by the way, was the model for my character Tomas Arroyo in "The Old Gringo.")

Most important, Katz does not leave out Villa's reticence with regard to agrarian reform. If on the one hand Villa respected the tenant farmers who were the victims of the vast latifundia, he very carefully refrained from breaking up those haciendas. Most especially, he didn't touch, not even with a rose petal, either U.S. citizens or their property. Katz illustrates in complete detail the care with which Villa treated the "gringos." Why was he so solicitous? Because weapons came into Mexico from the north. And because Villa sought U.S. recognition.

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