Mexico Revisited: Waugh, Greene and Theroux

Travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux recently published a travel book about an automobile trip to Mexico. This is entitled On the Plain of Snakes and is reviewed in the digital academic magazine by Ignacio Sanchez-Prado, professor of Latin American literature at Washington University (St Louis). Sanchez-Prado considers Theroux’s book

…the richest portrayal of contemporary Mexico available to Americans, and an urgent one: it’s a picture of the complex country and people upon which many of the privileges of the United States are built. Mexico is a faithful friend, the source of the largest population of immigrants in the United States, and a trade and cultural partner. Yet Americans are often unable or unwilling to understand their southern neighbor in all of its complexity. On the Plain of Snakes can be read as an attempt to address the lack of quality renderings of contemporary Mexico in English-language literature and media.

Prof Sanchez-Prado also puts Theroux’s book into literary perspective:

It seems that Theroux and I agree on the failings of past American writing on Mexico. In fact, he begins On the Plain of Snakes by revisiting this canon, showing how, for these writers who came before him, “Mexico invariably represents … the exotic, the colorful, the primitive, the unknowable.”

Rejecting this lineage, Theroux notes how often these writings were “bad-tempered” and “joyless,” as he characterizes Greene’s The Lawless Roads; or full of “hatred or contempt for Mexico,” as he describes Evelyn Waugh’s Robbery Under Law. He even notes that Mexican writers are equally problematic in representing their own country: “No one is more antagonistic toward Mexico than the Mexicans themselves.” (footnote omitted)

Here Sanchez-Prado is referring to Theroux’s introductory chapter in which Theroux himself discusses those foreign writers he considered his literary predecessors. What follows is taken from that chapter:

…Stephen Crane, D. H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, Malcolm Lowry, John Dos Passos, Aldous Huxley, B. Traven, Jack Kerouac, Katherine Anne Porter, John Steinbeck, Leonora Carrington, Sybille Bedford, William Burroughs, Saul Bellow, Harriet Doerr, and more—the list is long. Mexico has been lucky in the eminence of its visiting writers, and though they all see something different, Mexico invariably represents for them the exotic, the colorful, the primitive, the unknowable. One of the common deficits of the visiting writers is that they had a very slender grasp of Spanish.

On his short (five weeks) trip to Mexico in 1938, Graham Greene did not speak Spanish at all. His Lawless Roads is lauded by some critics, but it is exasperated and bad-tempered, a joyless, overdramatized, and blaming book, contemptuous of Mexico. He traveled in Tabasco and Chiapas at a time when the Catholic Church there was under siege by the government (and elsewhere in the country the government battled with heavily armed Catholic “Cristeros”). Greene, a convert to Catholicism, took the suppression of religion personally. “I loathed Mexico,” he writes at one point. And later, “How one begins to hate these people.” Again, “I have never been in a country where you are more aware all the time of hate.” He describes praying peasants (indigenous Tzotzils probably) in Chiapas with “cave dweller faces” and his having to suffer “unspeakable meals.” And toward the end of the book, “the almost pathological hatred I began to feel for Mexico.” Yet the novel that was inspired by his Mexican travel, The Power and the Glory, is one of his best. […]

Hatred or contempt for Mexico is a theme in Evelyn Waugh’s obscure and rancorous travel book, Robbery Under Law: The Mexican Object Lesson, and in Aldous Huxley’s better-known Beyond the Mexique Bay. Waugh: “Every year [Mexico] is becoming hungrier, wickeder, and more hopeless.” Huxley: “Sunrise, when it came, was a vulgar affair,” and “Under close-drawn shawls one catches the reptilian glitter of Indian eyes.”

But I have not found a traveler or commentator, foreign or Mexican, who has been able to sum up Mexico, and maybe such an ambition is a futile and dated enterprise. The country eludes the generalizer and summarizer; it is too big, too complex, too diverse in its geography and culture, too messy and multilingual—the Mexican government recognizes 68 different languages and 350 dialects. Some writers have attempted to be exhaustive. […]

An implication in all books about the country is that, though Europeans successfully emigrate to Mexico and become Mexican, no American can follow suit: the gringo remains incorrigibly a gringo. In practice, this is not a hardship but amounts to a liberation. […] Owing to Mexican generosity and good humor in a culture that values manners, especially the manners that govern jocular teasing, an American who accepts the role of a gringo is licensed in his gringoismo. A gringo who doesn’t abuse that status is given the latitude to be different.

The US edition of Waugh’s book was published in June 1939 as simply Mexico: An Object Lesson. Unlike Greene, Waugh did not follow up with a novel based on his trip to Mexico. Whether he ever seriously considered doing so is doubtful since he next set to work on what was published as an unfinished fragment under the title Work Suspended. He started writing this in October 1939 but was quickly interrupted by WWII.


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