I finished it. Most Mexicans read this in high school, but somehow I didn't. I enjoyed it a lot. As for the title, it's certainly hard to translate. A literal translation would be "The Ones Below", but indeed "The Downtrodden", as Joffre proposes, would work quite well. As it is, "The Underdogs" is OK because the "army" depicted in the novel is rather far from the main action and is not on the winning side in the end.
A little historical background, in case it is useful: In November 1910, Madero started the revolutionary movement. After very little fighting, in 1911, dictator Porfirio Diaz left for France. Madero, after winning elections, took power. But immediately, in 1911, the very overestimated and indeed treacherous hero Emiliano Zapata took arms against Madero. Thus, what could have been a peaceful revolution became a bloodbath of another ten years. Madero sent the most evil character in Mexican history, Victoriano Huerta, to defeat Zapata, and then staged (with the help of the American ambassador Henry Lane Wilson) a coup d'etat, assumed power, and had Madero assassinated. This put everybody in arms, from Pancho Villa to Carranza, both in the North.
The novel starts precisely when the former original revolutionaries are fighting the counter-revolution of Huerta. So, the novel takes place between 1913 and 1915, possibly the most chaotic period of the entire civil war. We'll discuss it later on, but one outstanding fact of the book is that Azuela's characters are never very sure which side they're fighting on, who they're fighting against, and what's happening. The main political point is that most revolutionaries did not revolt in favor of any ideals, causes, or principles; not even in terms of national causes, but only out of very local, very personal motives, like hating the oppressive landlords. Many of them (though by no means all) were basically rascals and other guys who had pending counts with justice. They soon become as brutal, greedy, and murderous as the previous regime. One sentence by character Luis Cervantes shocked me deeply: it seems to be prescient of the current state of affairs in Mexico: "Perhaps we had overthrown a murderous tyrant to empower twenty thousand".
--Previous Message-- : No, I have never read In Cold Blood. In fact, : I don't think that I have ever read a line : by Truman Capote. I'm not necessarily : averse to the "nonfiction novel," : having read the much longer The : Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer. I : enjoyed that quite a bit. I still think : that "nonfiction novel" is a : contradiction in terms. (I've also read a : lot of Tom Wolfe, e.g. The Right Stuff, and : much of What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer. : Both read like novels, both call their work : "journalism.") While using : historical figures "fast and : loose" in fiction, as in The Three : Musketeers or Ragtime, is still clearly : fiction (and therefore a novel), I think : that if you are doing your best to recount : an event accurately, it is history or : journalism. Not a novel. : : --Previous Message-- : : I've read this and enjoyed it pretty well. : : Question: is this a historical novel or is : it a non-fiction novel? : : I'm sure certain aspect of it are : fictionalized, i.e. completely untrue to : history; but I imagine the same can be said : of In Cold Blood. It doesn't seem right to : call it historical since it was begun during : events the author was present at. : : By the way, Sterling, you said you'd never : read In Cold Blood. I avoided it for years, : suspicious of the whole non-fiction novel : business, but I really enjoyed it. : : The introduction discussed issues of : translation, particularly about the title. : Even before reading that, the title bugged : me. I thought of The Downtrodden. I think it : sounds good, but I'm not sure it's right. : : :