News from the Empire, By Fernando del Paso

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The Independent Culture

In 1861 the Mexican President, Benito Juárez, suspended payments on his country's foreign debt to Europe. This prompted France to send in the troops and an Austrian, Ferdinand Maximilian of Habsburg, was persuaded to become Emperor of Mexico. As Fernando del Paso demonstrates in his dramatic reconstruction of the ill-fated French intervention, the story of Maximilian is intimately entwined with the ambitions of the last French monarch, Napoleon III, and his wife Eugénie.

Maximilian and Charlotte (who became known as Carlota) daughter of Leopold I of Belgium, arrived in 1864 expecting to be welcomed with open arms. But "the Mexican Empire that Carlota had hoped would keep Max truly busy, and that the latter thought would keep Carla amused, very soon become a nightmare." Del Paso lays bare the imperial ambitions of the Europeans, attributing to Maximilian the arrogant belief: "The more I study the Mexican people, the more I am convinced that I have to make them happy in spite of themselves."

The Mexican liberals, led by Juárez, and the United States refused to recognise Maximilian's rule. There was continuous warfare and as political intrigues threatened to overwhelm the couple, Carlota returned to Europe to plead their cause. Pressures from the financial cost of the expedition, the loss of French life, the threat of war with the US and concern about Prussia's growing power led Louis Napoleon to abandon the whole enterprise. Maximilian remained in Mexico as the French army were evacuated, but in May 1867 he was captured and a month later was executed by firing squad.

News from the Empire is a colossal work, in which del Paso offers various versions of events. One of the strengths of the novel is the mosaic of voices - from the Mexican street vendors to the husband of Concepció*Sedano, with whom Maximilian was rumoured to have sired a child - allowing for some fascinating, almost voyeuristic, detail. Given this complexity, the lucidity of Alfonso González and Stella T Clark's translation is impressive.

Del Paso enjoys fictionalising history and we are offered the fevered rants of Carlota, who went mad following her return to Europe. She was deemed insane until her death in 1927. Alongside these audacious flights of imagination, Del Paso recreates the conversations between Juárez and Maximilian and their respective secretaries.

News from the Empire is not a traditional historical novel and its sprawling structure won't appeal to all. But del Paso invests a rare poignancy into this retelling. His postmodern take, the lavish descriptions of clothes and settings, the blending of the real with the imaginary, and the interweaving of viewpoints all add to the book's complexity and the reader's enjoyment.

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