'News From the Empire' by Fernando del Paso; translated from the Spanish by Alfonso González and Stella T. Clark

News From the Empire

A Novel

Fernando del Paso, translated from the Spanish by Alfonso González and Stella T. Clark

Dalkey Archive Press: 710 pp., $18.95 paper

"What happens," writes the Mexican novelist Fernando del Paso, "when an author can't escape history? . . . what can you do . . . when you don't want to avoid history, but do want to achieve poetry?" The question is rhetorical, and Del Paso has an answer waiting. "Perhaps the solution," he writes, is "to try and reconcile everything that might be true in history using the exactitude available to invention. In other words, instead of pushing history to the side, place it alongside invention, alongside allegory, and even mix it together with some wild fantasy."

More concretely, Del Paso's answer consists of the page on which those words appear and all the many pages of "News From the Empire," his variously fascinating, frustrating, hilarious, dull, mesmerizing, maddening, absurd and tragic novel, which, in its breadth and depth and massive reach, manages to achieve something of the noise and sweep of history itself.

Del Paso would undoubtedly object to that characterization. There is, he argues, no single history. "[R]ather than a true, impossible and (in the final analysis) undesirable 'Universal History,' we only have many little histories, personal and under constant revision, according to the perspectives of the times and places in which they are 'written.' " So, "News From the Empire" is not a historical novel so much as it is historiographical. That is to say, it is interested in how history is created, how multiple fictions and partial fictions compete and combine to form a narrative we recognize as true.

With that caveat, "News From the Empire" is, among many other things, about the unhappy adventures of Maximilian and Carlota, the European royals (respectively of Hapsburg and Bourbon descent) who, backed by the French army, attempted to establish a monarchy -- an empire even -- over the sovereign republic of Mexico. "Only a monarchy," Del Paso has one French soldier suggest, "will be able to save this nation from barbarism." Most Mexicans failed to appreciate the magnanimity of the gesture, and a bitter war engulfed the country.

It began in 1861, when Mexican President Benito Juárez suspended payments on the country's foreign debt. This proved a sufficient pretext for the European powers -- France, England and Spain, in a rare alliance of interests -- to dispatch their navies to the port of Veracruz. The United States was too distracted by civil war to enforce its hegemonic grip on the continent, giving the Europeans an opportunity to put a check on their young rival.

To the delight of Louis Napoleon the British and Spanish soon called back their ships, leaving France without any foreign competitors for the vast resources and markets of Mexico and points south. All that was needed was some willing fool with enough royal blood to lend legitimacy to the venture. Archduke Maximilian, second in line to the Austrian throne, proved perfect for the role.

Some things don't change with time, like the arrogance of power. The French expected to be "greeted with flowers and triumphal arches after a token resistance." When Maximilian and Carlota arrived in Veracruz in 1864, instead of roses, they were welcomed "by the silence and desolation . . . and by the buzzards." Undeterred, Maximilian issued his first imperial declaration, which began: "Mexicans, you have asked for me!"

But they had not, and his brief reign was an unmitigated disaster. When he was not leaving Carlota on the throne so he could chase butterflies (and young women) in Cuernavaca, Maximilian was alienating even the few Mexicans who had been glad of his arrival. He was, in his way, a man of the Enlightenment, and his liberal leanings sat poorly with the conservative landowners and clergymen who should have formed his natural constituency.

French presence

Meanwhile, the republican army chipped steadily away at France's early military victories. The conquest did not, as the French had expected, pay for itself.

The American Civil War ended and President Andrew Johnson made it clear that he would not tolerate such a French presence in the Americas. Louis Napoleon grew tired of the expense, the risk of war with the U.S., and finally, of Maximilian. Carlota returned to Europe to plead with the French monarch and promptly lost her mind. The French armies sailed home. In May 1867, after a long and bloody siege in the city of Querétaro, Maximilian surrendered. He was executed by firing squad one month later.

Though Maximilian, Carlota, Juárez, Louis Napoleon and the French Empress Eugénie all play large roles, the real protagonist here is "the delirious festival of history."

"News From the Empire" is gleefully polyphonic, with interstitial chapters of mad Carlota's ravings and others in the voices of a beggar, a spy, the father of Maximilian's mistress, a priest betraying the secrets of the confessional, and a soldier who may or may not have been part of the firing squad that killed Maximilian and who thereafter became convinced that the archduke was Christ reborn. ("[Y]ou can believe, if you like, that half of the things I say are lies and the other half are true," he says, tidily expressing Del Paso's authorial stance.)

This dizzying array of voices is rendered with extraordinary skill by Del Paso's translators, Alfonso González and Stella T. Clark. Lurking behind these voices is that rare thing in a postmodern novel, an almost perfectly reliable narrator. In his more straightforward historical chapters, Del Paso takes pains to cite his sources: Bertita Harding's "The Phantom Crown," Egon de Corti's "Maximilian und Charlotte von Mexiko," Gustave Gostkowski's "Los últimos momentos de la vida de Maximiliano." He tells you when and how they differ, speculates on the agendas they appear to pursue. He tells you when he's guessing and, sometimes at least, when he's making things up: "If it didn't happen this way, because this is obviously a fantasy," he writes of his account of Louis Napoleon learning that Juárez had suspended interest payments from a wealthy Mexican émigré hiding beneath Eugénie's crinoline, "we'll still say that whoever it was, and however he said it, went on to add. . . . "

In the end, Del Paso's assessment of his subjects is more than generous. His Maximilian is a good-natured if deeply racist sap, more interested in the pomp and frills of ceremony than in actual governing. He passes the journey across the Atlantic composing a 500-page "Court Ceremonial" detailing everything from the uniforms of court functionaries ("Gold braid in black velvet strap for the headdress of the auditors") to the embossment on the royal butter cubes, and spends his captivity grooming his fine, golden beard, trying to decide whether he can bear the indignity of cutting it in order to escape Mexico unrecognized. (He cannot.)

Quite the contrast

Del Paso's Maximilian is the antithesis of his Juárez, as white as the Mexican president -- a Zapotec Indian -- is dark, as pompous and flighty as Juárez is modest and learned. (Juárez is depicted in long, didactic exchanges with his secretary, discoursing on everything from Fichte and Hegel to the interrelations of European royals: "They're all actually one big family. That's the reason for their degeneration and insanity.") But Del Paso acknowledges the courage with which, after much vacillation, Maximilian faced his end: "he transformed it by force of will into a noble and meaningful death, into a courageous death. In a word, into a very Mexican death."

It is Carlota, though, who gets the last word. She had the misfortune to live until 1927 -- 60 years after going mad. Her ravings and occasional flashes of lucidity comprise a dozen chapters and nearly a third of the novel's bulk.

She speaks of what happened while Maximilian was alive and nearly everything that happened after his execution: the invention of cinema, the modern bicycle, the machine gun; the deaths of thousands -- in Paris after the Second Commune, at the battle of the Somme, in the Congo, which her brother ruled from Belgium.

Taken together, Carlota's rants are too much of a good thing: at once the novel's most impressive literary accomplishment and, by the third or fourth chapter, the most tedious sections to read.

Still, in Del Paso's hands, Carlota becomes far more than the favorite daughter of Leopold I of Belgium who briefly occupied a spurious throne and outlived not only everyone she knew, but also "a whole era, a whole concept of the history and destiny of mankind and of the idea that man had of himself and the universe."

She becomes -- in her delusion, her lust, her paranoia and her self-lacerating grief -- the voice of modernity and its nightmare incarnation: bald and blind and drooling, so fearful of being poisoned that she compulsively scrubs every surface in her bedchamber until it occurs to her that the water may be poisoned too. And the soap.

Ehrenreich is the author of "The Suitors."