Review | On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey

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It seems almost superfluous to commend a travel book by Paul Theroux.  He’s a past-master of the genre.  Over the decades, since The Great Railway Bazaar or The Old Patagonian Express, he has produced one after another, each as informative and thought-provoking as they are entertaining.  He’s a best-selling novelist, literary critic and memoirist as well, with over fifty titles altogether.  The subject of his new book is of particular appeal to Americans: Mexico, a land so familiar to us and yet so little truly known – until, that is, you finish this book, so rich is it in evocative revelatory incidents.

To get the feel of the country, before travelling deep into it, Theroux begins by driving the length of the nearly two thousand-mile border, from San Ysidro, California to Brownsville, Texas, nipping across the border for brief visits a dozen times along the way.   His account of this border reconnaissance makes up ‘Borderlands,’ the first of the four major parts of the book.  It is not a pretty picture.  The towns on the Mexican side of the border, from Tijuana to Reynosa, are either controlled by one or the other of the Mexican drug cartels or are battle-grounds as they fight for control, with civilians caught in the cross-fire or even deliberately targeted to ‘deliver messages.’  The police and the army sent in to deal with the drug violence compound the violence or are even co-opted by the cartels.  All fueled by the multi-billion dollar drug trade, driven by the American market for illegal drugs.  ‘The simple statistic…is that more than 200,000 people have been killed or have disappeared since December, 2006, when the Mexican government declared war on organized crime.’

Still, there is: ‘I had been beguiled by Reynosa’s façade – its picturesque plaza, its handsome church and friendly shop owners, its good restaurants and taco stands and flourishing market, the sight of schoolchildren in uniforms, carrying book bags.’   Behind the attractiveness of this very real and ever-present Mexican civic pride, Theroux discovers, for us, the back-streets of drug violence:  ‘Ciudad Aleman…was a well-regulated town.  The factories ran twenty-four hours a day, the streets were clean, the buildings painted and presentable…in spite of the fact that…a violent drug cartel dominated the place.’

Theroux drives deep into Mexico, first, as described in ‘Mexico Mundo,’ to Mexico City and, then, on to ‘Oaxaca, the Inframundo’ and, in ‘The Road to Nueva Maravilla,’ to the deepest south of Chiapas, where he meets with Subcomandante Marcos, leader of the Zapatistas, the separatist movement whose success has been built on its deliverance of good governance (however, the less said about Theroux’s ‘understanding’ of economics, the better).  The corruption and/or indifferent incompetence of the Mexican government and the resulting insecurity, indeed, danger, of travel are motifs throughout, all voiced repeatedly by the Mexicans Theroux engages with.  His focus, within his lyrical descriptions of the natural beauty of the geography – or the austerity of the northern deserts – and the attractiveness of the architecture of ancient villages and towns, is on the ordinary Mexican and his or her story.  Thus, he gives us both the stunning sight of the unaltered ‘colonial town of Oaxaca in its high mountain valley…the whole yellowish place of sun-struck and eroded stucco and stone, looked as though it had been carved out’ and the economic realities of a region and a town where there are no viable jobs, where the majority of the population are or have been illegal migrants to the United States.   Everywhere, Theroux seeks out, in their villages, the many many indigenous peoples of Mexico, the Yaquis and Zapotecs and Mixtecs and others, those who, by retaining their native languages, ‘have made themselves unassailable and remote,’ and, everywhere, he meets with writers and artists and, above all, with the ordinary Mexican – laborers, plumbers, barmen, old women selling tacos; he listens to them; and he recounts their stories to us. Why did they put themselves into the hands of ‘coyotes’ (professional people-smugglers, usually working for a cartel) and make hazardous, physically dangerous crossings of the U.S. border? Quite simply, to find a job that would pay them enough to support their families.  Theroux gives us, in multiples, individual recountings of the struggles of specific named individuals, which, accumulatively, make a mockery of those who denigrate illegal migrants as ‘criminals;’ and his graphic descriptions of the fall-out of drug-spawned violence makes a mockery of those who argue that Central American migrants, fleeing violence in their home countries, should seek asylum in Mexico.

Danger is everywhere Theroux travels; the police corrupt and exploitative.  But Theroux is determined to experience the real Mexico, as a traveler, not a tourist.  He takes his own car across, its Massachusetts license plates all but signalling him out as a shake-down target for corrupt police.  He recounts for us two such encounters, the second routine (so prevalent are such police shake-downs), the first frightening:  the policeman ‘had now worked himself into a froth of spitting rage, and as he screamed out of his congested face I saw that he was wrapped in belts, a holstered pistol in one, handcuffs in another, a truncheon…his uniform tight against his hard, fat body.’  At each stop for the night, Theroux finds a hotel with a guarded parking lot. In 1962, as a teenager, I drove with friends from California to Mexico City and back, crossing into Mexico at Nogales and stopping in Guaymas and Mazatlan on the way to the capital and in Monterey and Chihuahua on the way back to cross at El Paso.  We took cots (World War II surplus) with us and, at night, simply pulled off the road.  The Mexico of then is not the Mexico of now.

There is, often, something of a disgruntled edge to Theroux’s writing. He reminds us often that he is an old man (78 when he decides on the journey), almost as though he is telling us that this book is to be his swan song.  Let us hope not.

Paul Theroux On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019), pp. 436  ISBN: 9780544866478  $30 (publication date: 8 October, 2019)


A copy of this book was provided for this review.
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About the author
G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.