El Zarco the Bandit, by Ignacio Manuel Altamirano

El Zarco the Bandit was written by Ignacio Manuel Altamirano towards the end of the nineteenth century, but the action takes place back in the mid-century, in the years of civil war which followed Juarez’s Mexican revolution (Juarez himself actually appears momentarily towards the end of the novel). Mexico is at this time a lawless realm, in which humble farmers are terrorised by bandits (just as, for instance, in The Seven Samurai, or perhaps even The Magnificent Seven, which may even be set in or near Mexico; – or, if I’m to believe the media, and the bandits changed to drug lords, most of Central America today). It tells the tale of two beautiful women – not entirely related, one of them is perhaps fostered – who live in a village and are looked after by the elder one’s mother. The elder, Manuela, is being courted by a morally upright farmer, whom she despises, for she is really in love with the notorious local bandit-leader El Zarco, with whom she has secret liaisons; – while her foster-sister secretly does love the dull moral farmer.

Anyway, eventually, Manuela runs away with El Zarco to live in his hideaway fortress, only to be quickly disabused of her romantic conception of the bandit life – apparently they go about killing people (especially women and children) and aren’t entirely pleasant towards their women. This part of the book, where Manuela discovers the true horror of her situation and realises she has doomed herself to misery and death, is by far the best, in what otherwise – aside perhaps from the chaotic vision of life at this time – is rather a simplistic and turgid affair.

My edition appears to be a somewhat abridged version in which “a number of the more extravagantly romantic passages have … been toned down as it was felt that if given literally, they would raise a smile with the reader of today” – which is a pity, because I rather enjoy being amused at the naivety of previous centuries.

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