At the start of his new book, Paul Theroux (“The Mosquito Coast,” “The Great Railway Bazaar”) feels out of sorts, seeing himself as “no longer interesting, parasitical, invisible to the young.” His remedy for this sorry state of mind? A road trip along the entire US-Mexican border, followed by a deep dive into the heart of Mexico itself.
His account of his travels in “On the Plain of Snakes” (the title is a translation of an indigenous place name) couldn’t be more vital, informed, inquiring or big-hearted. Anyone yearning for an in-depth look at the actualities on the ground will savor this complex, contradictory, empathetic picture of our southern neighbor.
“The country eludes the generalizer and summarizer,” Theroux reflects. “[I]t is too big, too complex, too diverse in its geography and culture, too messy and multilingual.”
The drug-cartel violence wracking northern Mexico is given its due, along with power abuses by the police and military throughout the country. Theroux learns of a cartel-related killing of 43 students from a teacher’s college, and is shaken down twice by corrupt cops himself. (“You can always count on the Mexican police for an illegal surprise!” Mexican writer Juan Villoro quips, learning of Theroux’s misadventure.) But citizens’ common fear of these threats, Theroux observes, has “unified good people and created watchful communities.” At every opportunity, he talks to members of those communities, asking if they’ve been to the US and, if so, what their experiences were.
No story is like any other, but patterns emerge. NAFTA’S introduction of American agribusiness to Mexico, Theroux learns, has made it nearly impossible for small farmers in Chiapas or Oaxaca to live off their land, driving them to low-wage factory jobs on the US border or to illegal agricultural labor in the US itself. He also discovers via the Los Angeles Times that a significant number of economic migrants from India, Bangladesh, China and even the Middle East have made their way lately to the US via Mexico — something that hasn’t much registered in the news here, rightly overshadowed as it is by what Theroux condemns as our country’s “barbaric and inhumane violence” toward refugees from terror in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, including family separations and child incarceration.
He does his homework on migrant-labor policies, noting that one program in effect from 1942 to 1964 was terminated over worries that Mexicans were being “exploited and manipulated as low- wage workers” rather than fears that they were stealing jobs from Americans. He has a sharp eye for the tight bonds between cross-border communities. “Among other things,” he remarks, “the borderland is a living repository of native peoples.”
Having surveyed the tricky juncture where the two countries meet, Theroux aims for the heart of Mexico itself. Because he’s in his car, he’s able to look beyond tourist sites to a gritty, sprawling side of urban Mexico most visitors don’t see. He often addresses cultural stereotypes and debunks them or complicates them in ways that reflect the realities, both spirited and tough, of the country’s populace.
The first big city he encounters, Monterrey, an hour or so south of the US border, is “surprising for its obvious wealth, its boomtown bustle, and its intensive building.” Its educational institutions, high-tech companies and manufacturing facilities, he notes, leave the Texas towns on the US border one hour north of Monterrey looking “sad” and “struggling” by comparison “another reason Mexicans feel belittled and misunderstood” by their neighbors to the north, Theroux suggests.
Out in the countryside, his descriptions of his physical surroundings can be downright heady. “Black clouds were mounting ahead,” he writes on the road to Oaxaca, “building beyond the ridge, as dark as smoke billowing from an oil fire, thunderheads, tall and dense, closing in as they heaped up against the hills, as black as clouds could be, and really not like clouds at all but a black bulging wall about to burst.”
Still, he says, “travel is less about landscapes than about people — not power brokers but pedestrians, in the long march of Everyman.” In Chiapas, where he meets with Zapatista rebels, Theroux experiences “a clarification of much that I had seen in my traveling life, an elaboration of the challenges of poverty and development, the curse of bad government and predatory corporations, the struggle of people living on the plain of snakes who wish to choose their own destiny.”
Trenchant commentaries on Mexican art, literature and indigenous cultures (including a Zapotec “third sex” cross-dressing tradition in the southern city of Juchiteco) round out the book. Observing Day of the Dead festivities, Theroux turns to Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz (“the most acute of Mexican writers on Mexican life”) for insight into what he’s seeing.
“The Mexican,” Paz writes, “is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love. … True, there is perhaps as much fear in his attitude as that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony.”
That attitude rubs off on Theroux, leaving him “eager to wake each morning and see what the day would bring — even when what it might bring was a nighttime vigil in a cemetery and an array of skulls.”
Whether you’re a longtime Theroux fan or just curious about Mexican realities beyond the headlines, “On the Plain of Snakes” offers deep satisfactions.
ON THE PLAIN OF SNAKES: A MEXICAN JOURNEY
By Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 436 pp., $30
Paul Theroux reads from “On the Plain of Snakes” at Wellesley Books on TuesdayOctober 22.
Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.