Review–On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey by Paul Theroux (Malawi)

On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey
By Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
448 pages
October  2019

 

 

Reviewed by Mark D. Walker  (Guatemala 1971-73)

I’ve travelled much of the world over the last forty years, thanks to Paul Theroux’s many books, which now number 56. I was especially eager to read this book since I’ve made the journey through Mexico several times with my wife in a car (VW bug) and a pickup truck, so I was familiar with some of the challenges and dangers, not to mention adventures the author would encounter.

The “Godfather of Travel Writing” follows his own critique for what makes a superior travel book, “not just a report of a journey, but a memoir, an autobiography, a confession, a foray in South America, a topography and history, a travel narrative, with observations of books, music, and life in general; in short, what the best travel books are, a summing up.”

This book includes countless memorable descriptions of Mexico’s landscapes and insight into the country’s history, as well as literary, including Mexican magical realism and political movements such as the Zapatistas.

A book on immigrations and the border is especially timely during this period of misinformation and distrust created by the present crisis. The author even admitted in an interview that his book was “inspired by everything that Donald Trump and other people were saying during the presidential campaign about Mexico, Mexicans, and the border – their uninformed opinions and stereotypes.” He refers to the “Wall” as our great national paranoia and goes on to say, “One of the great reasons for traveling is to destroy stereotypes, to see people and things as they really are, to see the dynamics and the complexity of a country. As soon as he started saying things like, ‘There’s too many of them, they’re coming over the border, they’re rapists,’ I had a great reason for taking a year or two to get to the bottom of it.”

As is often the case, the author reveals something about himself and his state of mind when starting this project. At 76, he felt he wasn’t getting enough respect, “I’d observed for years that the whole of American life caters to the 18-35-year old’s. Books, music, educational TV shows, movies—it’s all for them.” Youth have become ‘empowered by their spending, and that’s created a kind of contempt for older Americans.”

The author reveals that this feeling of rejection made it easy to identify with migrants and Mexicans, “who knew that same feeling of being despised.” As befits this obstinate traveler and author, his response was, “My work is my reply, my travel is my defiance. And I think of myself in the Mexican way, not as an old man, but as most Mexicans regard a senior, an hombre de juicio, a man of judgement…”

Theroux starts his journey crisscrossing the border interviewing a diverse group of migrants detained in Mexico, and then driving south to one of the poorest states of Mexico, Oaxaca. As one would expect of a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and world traveler who has used every mode of transportation imaginable to meet those off the tourist’s beaten path, his focus on the “common man” is reflected in who he meets and gets to know throughout his journey.

One lady, Maria, who touched his heart, was a middle-aged woman praying before her meal in a migrant shelter, the Comedor of the Kino Boarder Initiative. “She was Zapotec, from a mountain village in Oaxaca State, who had left her three young children with her mother, intending to enter the United States and (so she said) become a menial in a hotel somewhere and send money back to her poor family. But she had become lost in the desert and was spotted by the U.S. Border Patrol, seized, roughed up, and dumped in Nogales. The image of her praying did not leave my mind, and it strengthened my resolve. “On my trip, whenever I felt obstructed or low, I thought of this valiant woman, and moved on.”

As someone who has ridden on a few of the back roads in Mexico and is aware of the constant threat of carjacking, I was amazed that the author actually drove down from Cape Cod in his own car and kept going on to isolated villages outside of Oaxaca – where there were some narrow escapes, “…Some of the boulders had sharp edges, as though they’d been split by a lightning bolt. I wondered whether at some point a rockslide would broadside my car, toppling it and my passengers into the deep ravine to my left, or whether the whole unstable road would give way in a stupendous landslide of mud and stones, dropping my car into the abyss, and burying us.”

But his low-tech approach to travel is based on a desire to meet the common people, which means dressing down. In the introduction of the book he provides insights into what makes a good travel writer, such as seeing the “underside, its hinterlands, its everyday life” if you want to get at the truth of a country, which is what he strives to do in many of the stories of this book. He also cautions not to be in a hurry when traveling through a new country and always go low tech. You have a lot of mobility in a car that is unavailable to anyone waiting for a train or bus—you need mobility.

Theroux quotes Kerouac from On the Road to express what it is like to start this road trip, —“

joy verging on euphoria. Behind us lay the whole of Americana and everything Dean and I had known about life, and life on the road. We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed the extent of the magic.”

Although the majority of Theroux’s Mexican journey was in rural areas, he did spend ten days in Mexico City with 13 million inhabitants and all the chaos and police shakedowns which that entails. Of the 28 students in his class of authors, he agreed to teach for free, only one had never been to the U.S., but Theroux was struck by how few wrote about places like Oaxaca, where the per capita income is the same as Bangladesh. “In the Mexican literary tradition,” he says, “almost no one writes about the rural areas. There’s no William Faulkner, no Wright Morris, no Robert Frost.”

His advice to the class was, “If you want to do something, go live in a small village in Chiapas. Live there like a Peace Corps volunteer and write about the people there. Mexico City is connected ‘more to the big world than to the hard-up hinterland’”.

Theroux would attend a number of celebrations in small villages in Oaxaca and Chiapas, which reveal much of the Mexican culture and mindset. “Where protest was mingled with the fiesta, the fiesta with ritual and many of the ritualized masquerades had their origins in ancient Aztec culture, an empire of blood sacrifice and skulls and glittering masks.”

He’d attend a number of “The Days of the Dead” fiestas, which he describes as a “solemn ritual. It was a vigil in graveyards, it was a masquerade, it was a binge, it was an occasion for dressing up and looking fabulous, it included political protest, and it was a party.” Disputations on death are a national pastime in Mexico, says the author, and Octavio Paz sums it up best, “The Mexican chases after death, mocks it, courts it, hugs it and sleeps with it. He thinks of it as his favorite plaything and his most lasting love.”

Theroux asked his students in Mexico City to visit “La Capilla” of Santa Muerte (Saint of Death). He learned that the government had targeted some shrines that were associated with drug cartels. As the cult had grown in popularity, so government disapproval increased. The Santa Muerte would become the fastest growing faith in Mexico with millions of believers. Offerings of hope to the desperate (which included drug dealers, prostitutes, smugglers and gangsters) provided a spiritual shield from authorities.

Although much of the book includes anecdotes about the families who live in rural Mexico, the author’s acute observations offered some eye-popping political and social analysis.

Mexico’s quagmire of impunity has also been affected by the American drug and gun control policies. …The U.S. has criminalized the economy that services its vast appetite for drugs. The consequence is that Mexico pays a disproportionate share of the cost of the American gun and drug habits, further weakening the state….

He goes on to reveal that Americans are, “the world’s largest consumers of illicit drugs, spending more than $100 billion a year on cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamines smuggled across the border, according to the 2014 RAND Corporation report.” No surprise when the author reveals that “El Chapo” ran the largest airborne operation in Mexico, with almost 600 aircraft seized, while Aeromexico had a “piddling” fleet of 127 planes.

Other revealing statistics include that more than 200,000 people have been killed or have disappeared since December of 2006, and in the first ten months of 2017 there were over 17,000 murders in Mexico. By the end of 2017, Mexico would record over 29,000 murders, the majority of them cartel related.

The book ends in the southern, mostly Mayan Indian populated states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. According to Theroux, who profiles many of the local residents throughout the book.

You’re dealing with people who have very little money and get very little help from the government. But they have a great culture they’re very proud of, their family values are very strong, and they’re very self-sufficient and creative. They mend their clothes, they fix their shoes, they’re actually able to take something that’s broken and repair it, they have a lot of cottage industries. I admire that, and I admire the ones who pick up and go to the border. Most of the people I’ve met who crossed the border just wanted to earn some money to send back and then go home; they weren’t here to go on welfare or be the parasites they’re identified as.

The author manages to connect with Subcomandante Marcos, the Mexican insurgent and former military leader of the Zapatista, which in 1994 was fighting for the rights of indigenous farmers throughout Chiapas, and whose base of operations was in the Lacadone jungle. Much to the authors surprise, not only was he invited to one of the group’s camps, but was asked speak at an event. Theroux was nervous, since he respects what this leader represents, and when he approached the stage for the event, Subcomandante Marcos shouted, Venga Compañero Escritor (come fellow writer), and with a strong handshake and a hug welcomed him.

“The hug calmed in a way that went beyond helpful reassurance. The Comandante did not release me immediately, as I expected. He held me and said, ‘Welcome’.” As they departed, he shook hands with the other key leaders, “They were not the hands of commissars or bureaucrats. They held on, gripping my soft writer’s hands with their crusty workers hands. Their strong handshakes made the men seem bigger somehow, their grip conveying power.”

During his presentations, he connected with the audience of local Zapatista followers by revealing, “To you, I am sure I seem like just another gringo. But in fact, I am also part indigenous—the proudest part of my secret being. My paternal grandmother was a Menominee, a nation of people who lived in what is now Wisconsin, a people who lived in that region for six thousand years. This knowledge helps me understand your struggle a little better, because the indigenous people of the U.S. have been massacred and cheated and pushed to the margins ever since the first colonizers arrived on the continent. I share your defiance, and for this I am happy to be among you…”

He went on to say, “Being welcomed in this way by the Zaptistas—embraced, accepted, listened to—I felt I had been admitted to a band of brothers and sisters who had resisted all that was negative and destructive n Mexican life…”

As was the case in his last book, “Figures in a Landscape”, the author struggles to accommodate the impact of groups that are purportedly helping the isolated communities in Southern Mexico,

“…All my adult life, beginning with my teaching in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I have tried to understand how to reconcile the nature of poverty, the role of charity, the intervention of aid organizations, and the maneuvering of governments, especially those in the third world. After repeated visits to Africa over fifty years, I concluded that foreign aid as it is conventionally practiced is essentially a failure, futile in relieving poverty, and often harmful relieving the ills of a few at the expense of the many. Most charities are diabolically self-interested, proselytizing evangelists, tax-avoidance scammers with schemes to buff up the image of the found—often someone in disgrace or mired in scandal or obscenely rich…..and the charities do the government’s work and in doing so, prevent oppressed people from understanding how they are being exploited.”

On his way back to the U.S. border, a sense of melancholy descended on the author. “I guessed this was because of the self I remembered from being here long before, the defected man who had no idea where he was going. But I was a different person now, because I knew where I had been. Instead of being purified by suffering—sometimes the consequences of a travel ordeal—I had made friends on the road through the plain of snakes, and that had lifted my spirits.”

My spirits were raised, as well, after reading this edgy but ultimately hopeful story, which mixes visit reportage and emphatic political commitment and includes a well-informed prescription for improving the situation between the U.S. and Mexico.

Mark Walker (Guatemala 1971-73) spent over forty years in the developing world. He then went to Phoenix as a Senior Director for Food for the Hungry, worked with other groups like Make-A-Wish International and was the CEO of Hagar USA, a Christian-based organization that supports survivors of human trafficking.

His book, Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond, was recognized by the Arizona Literary Association for Non-Fiction.  He has been published in Ragazine, WorldView Magazines, Literary Yard, Literary Travelers and Quail BELL, and the anthology published by Wising Up Press.  His wife and three children were born in Guatemala. Follow him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/millionmilewalker/

2 Comments

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  • I’m so elated that Paul Theroux keeps writing brilliant books. I’ve read almost all of them. I thank him for his comment about “ageism,” which I, too, put up with, being of a certain age.

    And will share his imperative observations about immigrants and Mexicans, in particular. He always champions what he called “the bare-assed poor people” as I recall, in Dark Star.

    You are our champion! Lead on!

    Leita Kaldi Davis
    (Senegal 1993-96)

  • Leita–I like to think that’s his “Peace Corps” spirit coming through by focusing on those “bare-assed poor people.”

    I’m also of a certain age (Guatemala, 1971-1973) and totally endorse his response to being considered, “over the hill” through his work and travel.

    You’re either writing and traveling or you aren’t–

    My next article on immigration, “Justice and Responsibility: The Plight of Central American Caravans” will be out in the November issue of “Revue Magazine.” Theroux’s latest book–and an interesting encounter at the Sedona Art Festival with a jewelry artist from Chihuahua inspired my next article which includes my travels through Mexico, “The Bracelet/La Pulsera”.

    Cheers,

    Mark

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