Translator Gustavo Pellón writes that THE UNDERDOGS is "universally hailed as the most important novel of the Mexican Revolution and a foundational work of modern Mexican and Latin American literature". Thus, there are good reasons for students of certain nooks of history and literature to read it. But it also is a decent novel and reading it was rewarding for a generalist such as myself.
The novel follows one band of revolutionaries, led by Demetrio Macías (a full-blooded Indian) over a two-year time span (1913 to 1915). They are local, with local grievances. Local "caciques" call in the Federales to exterminate them, but Macías and his men prevail. With success, Macías attracts many new followers, his army swells, and he becomes entangled in the more national "Revolution". Living off the land, he and his men take to drinking, whoring, looting, and murdering -- oppressing the campesinos they encounter much like they had been oppressed by the caciques. They defeat the Federales, but the guerilla warfare continues, now among the different factions of revolutionaries (or, different warlords). At one point, one of Macías's key lieutenants blurts out, "But what I really can't get through my head is how come we gotta keep on fighting. . . . Didn't we lick the Federales?" THE UNDERDOGS (the Spanish title "Los de abajo" literally means "the ones below", or those on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder) poses the question, Will the Revolution accomplish anything?
That question is phrased prospectively rather than retrospectively (i.e., "DID the Revolution accomplish anything?") because Mariano Azuela actually wrote the novel during the Revolution, based in large part on his own experiences serving as a field doctor with the army of Julián Medina, one of Pancho Villa's supporters. Azuela eventually withdrew from the revolutionary whirlwind to El Paso, where he wrote and published THE UNDERDOGS in 1915.
For a novel from 1915, THE UNDERDOGS is remarkably modern. It also is quite realistic. Neither the peasants nor the revolutionaries are airbrushed or mythologized. The novel is profane and raunchy at times. It proceeds at near breakneck speed. There are some rough edges to the writing, and on occasion the dialogue is not convincing, especially when one of the characters launches into a hortatory or political speech. But the novel is good enough from a literary perspective to be more than an historical or regional curiosity.
There are at least two other English translations of THE UNDERDOGS currently in print, including one by Carlos Fuentes published by Penguin Classics. My guess is that the novel is assigned reading in many college courses and that the publishers are competing for sales to that captive audience. I can't offer an opinion as to which translation -- Pellón (Hackett Publishing) or Fuentes (Penguin) -- is better. Points in favor of this Hackett Publishing edition are that it includes an excellent afterword on the historical and literary context of the novel, a useful chronology and map, as well as fifty pages of "related texts" (two book reviews and excerpts from John Reed's "Insurgent Mexico" and Anita Brenner's "Idols behind Altars"). Plus, as of the posting of this review, this Hackett Publishing edition is a little cheaper than the Penguin Classics one.