“The City of Palaces” by Michael Nava— A Story of Mexico

the city of palaces

Nava, Michael. “The City of Palaces”, University of Wisconsin Press, 2014.

A Story of Mexico

Amos Lassen

“The City of Palaces” is a historical novel that is seen through the eyes of Jose, a nine year old boy who is in love with David who is older than him. This is storytelling at its best. Before the revolution, Mexico was governed by an elite that modeled itself on European aristocracy and wealth and white purity. At the same time, the majority of Mexicans were either Indian or mixed Indian and Spanish (mestizo). They were not allowed to vote and were very poor. Don Porfino Diaz ruled Mexico and he was ruthless whose official motto was “progress and order” but he preferred his unofficial motto, “bread or the stick”. He assumed the presidency in 1876 and held on to the position through ruthlessness, terror and benevolence once in a while.

Our story opens in a jail in Mexico City where Miguel Sarmiento, an idealistic young doctor who has come home to Mexico from Europe and suffers guilt because of something he did ten years ago meets Alicia Gavilan, the daughter of an aristocratic family but whose looks are marred because of the smallpox she suffered as a child. Alicia has devoted her life to working with the poor of the city. They fall in love even though their views on religion separate them and marry and have a son, Jose. It is Jose who tells us the story of what happened in Mexico when the old order collapsed.

The story is set in Mexico City which was populated by a half-million people and set in a valley which was surrounded by volcanoes and built on the ruins of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan which had been conquered by the Spanish in 1519 and for the following three hundred years remained the jewel in the crown of the Spanish empire. Because of the beautiful buildings, it was known as the city of palaces. As time passed, the city moved forward to the modern age but only in part. The inner city had electricity and automobiles while on the outskirts, people lived in squalor. Sewerage, like electricity was for the rich and so there was a terrible odor to the place. It was also a place of extremes especially in wealth and social class.

Our tale begins as the story of two people—Miguel who is lost in his own guilt and Alicia who had been living a life of solitude before meeting Miguel. Their son, Jose, was beautiful to gaze upon but was a lonely boy. He tells us the story of when tradition clashed with modernity and his story is actually a series of stories about such characters as Alicia’s mother who represented the old aristocracy and Don Porfiro Diaz who wanted a modern Mexico. We see this in Alicia’s brother-in-law who got rich from shady dealings. We meet Francisco Madero, the idealist who was able to overthrow Diaz with help from Miguel but who quickly learned that overthrowing the leader does not mean success in overthrowing the system. We meet Luis, Miguel’s cousin who is run out of the country because he is a homosexual but was able to return years later and be who he was. Faith and reason come together although not always peacefully and it is the story of the people of Mexico—epic in scope and a delight to read.

Michael Nava writes with great style especially when he describes Jose as he realizes that he is in love with David. He watches him play the piano and he sees a softness in him and realizes that he wants to be with all of the time. I especially love the construction of the novel which I believe to be unique. Nava uses the syntax of the Spanish but for the English text and he throws in Spanish words occasionally to remind us that his characters live in a different period than the present.

I understand that this is the first in a quartet of novels. This volume centers on the Mexican revolution and the years preceding it. We read of the near genocide of the Yaqui Indians, emigration to America’s borderlands. The story goes from Mexico City to Douglas, Arizona, to Hollywood. This is a love story and a historical look at Mexico. As Chris Bram says, “I fell in love with these people and did not want to say goodbye to them” but we won’t have to yet because there are three more books coming. The only negative is that the book will not be available until April, 2014 but you want to add it to your to read list now.

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