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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Enlightened Army

David Toscana

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To purchase The Enlightened Army

Title: The Enlightened Army
Author: David Toscana
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006, rev. 2013 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 232 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Enlightened Army - US
El ejército iluminado - US
The Enlightened Army - UK
The Enlightened Army - Canada
L'Armée illuminée - France
El ejército iluminado - España
  • Spanish title: El ejército iluminado
  • Translated by David William Foster

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Our Assessment:

B : entertaining ideas, but doesn't do quite enough with them

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
El Cultural A 26/4/2007 Ernesto Calabuig

  From the Reviews:
  • "Pero más allá de la anécdota de la obra, Toscana ha escrito una hermosa alegoría inconformista que empuja hacia la necesaria rebeldía (personal o nacional) y hacia el afán por no ser en balde, por inventar otras vidas no domesticadas, que trasciendan nuestra contingencia cotidiana, el destino previsible y esperado, la interminable espera ante un semáforo “de eterna luz roja”." - Ernesto Calabuig, El Cultural

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Enlightened Army begins with Ignacio Matus' end, his body dismembered on some railroad tracks. There's an Olympic Games connection: it is 1968 and the Olympics are being held in Mexico City -- and the body is adorned with an Olympic bronze medal, from many years earlier: 1924. It is an appropriate triumph-cum-catastrophic-failure for this central figure in the novel, though author Toscana takes his time in making clear exactly how and why he comes to this peculiar end, and how he got there.
       Somewhat irritatingly, the novel constantly shifts back and forth between a variety of periods, mainly centered around Matus' life; there might be something to be said for not unspooling a story chronologically (and adding some long-after-the-fact commentary), but a work like this also suggests this narrative trick has perhaps become overworn if not outright exhausted: some back and forth here might be effective, but it winds up being more pointlessly (and annoyingly) confusing than anything else.
       The book does center on the highlights of Matus' life, four decades apart. A long distance runner in his younger days, in an age when running around the streets in shorts made him an object of ridicule, Matus' dream was to run in the Olympics. With the Games an ocean away and the Mexican government showing no interest in paying his way, there was no way Matus could compete in the actual Olympics, held in Paris in 1924. Wanting to measure himself against the best, he did the next best thing: he ran the race back home, setting off at the same time and covering the same distance. Not only that, his time -- of 2:47:50 -- would have been good enough for third place in the actual race.
       Matus then spends a lifetime feeling cheated: that bronze medal that went to Clarence Demar -- a gringo, no less ! -- should, he feels, by all rights be his. He makes his claim too, repeatedly writing to Demar and asking for the medal that he feels is due him to be forwarded forthwith; for decades the letters go unanswered -- but since we know Matus died with the medal around (what was left of) his neck that, of course, isn't quite the end of the story.
       Matus became a history teacher -- albeit with his own peculiar, and strongly nationalistic, opinions about history, specifically that much of what is considered the United States still rightfully belongs to Mexico. So also his classroom map is an ancient one that still shows all the old Mexican holdings -- until a student draws the border along the Rio Grande ..... He's scolded annually by the director for his fiery claims and invective -- and finally gets himself fired over it; calling his students: "cowards and traitors; you youngsters today are born defeatist, he told them", the straw that broke this camel's back.
       Freed from his teaching duties Matus has even grander ambitions: a reconquest of the Alamo, to put the Americans in their place. He enlists a ragged band of students, forming an 'enlightened army', and sets off to defeat the Americans. It is a truly motley (and very small) crew he assembles, including a girl and the simple-minded Cerillo -- whose mother is the only adult who is enthusiastic about the undertaking, seeing it as an opportunity for her son to either die heroically in battle, or, at worst, return a conquering hero. (She almost gets what she prayed for, but her reaction when the smoke finally, prosaically clears is priceless.)
       The idea of a half-dozen ill-equipped amateurs managing even the smallest scale military incursion against the great power in the north is, of course, beyond absurd, but Toscana plays the Quixotic fantasy out in reasonably amusing fashion -- complete with would-be crossing of the Rio Grande and furious assault and then defense of ... well, not quite the Alamo. Launching their advance -- and then forced into predictable, ignominious retreat -- during the time the Olympics are being held in Mexico City does, however, have some advantages, as far as consequences go. And if Matus can't really revel in that triumph, he at least can, once again, once he's back home, have a go at running, concurrently, the Olympic marathon .....
       The Enlightened Army is at its best on the personal level, Toscana nicely presenting the guileless teens who follow Matus, including the hopelessly innocent Cerillo (and Cerillo's mother, and her hopes for the boy, and her disappointments, are a nice feature). The let's-invade-the-US premise does strain credulity, even for a work that's meant to be ironic and comically absurd -- it's just too much of a stretch -- while Matus' running ambitions aren't nearly as fully exploited as they could be, focused just on his two run-along (with the Olympics) escapades. And setting much of the novel in 1968 without more fully allowing the events of that year in Mexico to leach into the story also seems a lost opportunity. Indeed, for all the political premises of The Enlightened Army, Toscana almost entirely avoids actually dealing with them anywhere near head-on; just as Matus is quickly hustled out of school when he is fired, there's little more than the premises itself on offer, with far too little engagement with them. (Admittedly, some of this presumably resonates more strongly for Mexican readers, fully immersed in the history of the times at issue here, but even so, Toscana could have made much more of these.)
       Piece by piece, The Enlightened Army is creative and quite entertaining, but Toscana does himself (and the reader) no favors by jumbling the pieces as much as he does. With some inspired ideas -- both Matus' Olympic obsession and the enlightened army's charge -- the novel feels not so much flat as deflated: a lot more could have been made of and with these. It is quite fun, but could have been something considerably grander.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 March 2019

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The Enlightened Army: Reviews: David Toscana: Other books by David Toscana under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Mexican author David Toscana was born in 1961.

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© 2019 the complete review

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