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Review: What happened when Paul Theroux bought an old Buick and set out across Mexico

Paul Theroux’s “On the Plain of Snakes”
In Nogales, Ariz., relatives live on opposite sides of the U.S.’ border fence. This image is included in Paul Theroux’s “On the Plain of Snakes.”
(Steve McCurry)

The U.S.-Mexico border stretches 1,954 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico and has 330 points of entry.

For renowned travel writer Paul Theroux, each border crosser also has a story to tell. These stories, however, have become lost in the current immigration enforcement debate that’s as embattled and polarizing as the wall that separates the two countries. Thus, tired of hearing “nothing but ignorant opinion about Mexicans, from the highest office in America to the common ruck of barflies and xenophobes,” Theroux buys a used Buick and takes a road trip from the international border to the southern state of Chiapas.

He gathers the highlights of this journey through Mexico in his “On the Plain of Snakes.”

To begin debunking the myth that all of Mexico is a place of poverty, desperation, and violence, Theroux has to come to terms with the troubled environment that fuels that impression: the borderlands. He notes that in the past decade, “120,000 migrants have disappeared en route, murdered or dead and lost, succumbing to thirst and starvation.” Undocumented migrants are also subject to being “brutalized, abducted, or forced to work on Mexican farms, as virtual slaves.” The dangers lurk everywhere, from drug cartels seeking mules, to traffickers who betray their charges and hold them for ransom. On the American side, little sympathy awaits border crossers, including those who arrive with children, when detained by Homeland Security.

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Paul Theroux’s “On the Plain of Snakes”
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt )

The life-saving gestures of humanitarian organizations like No More Deaths, which leaves water and blankets in the perilous desert, and El Comedor, which offers food and shelter to recent deportees, provide glimmers of light in an otherwise bleak landscape. But the woeful testimonials Theroux collects from migrants in transit at El Comedor overshadow those sparks of hope. The chaos on the border, Theroux surmises, is caused by the disruption of a decades-long relationship between Mexico’s supply of low-wage labor and the U.S. demand for it. New players, like President Trump, the drug lords and the asylum seekers, have destabilized the stage.

Mexico is more than its conflicts on the border, however. To really know another country, “stay longer, travel deeper,” Theroux advises.

Indeed, the farther he moves into Mexico, the wider the range of people and experiences he encounters. In Mexico City, he teaches a writing workshop to a group of well read and well traveled middle-class Mexicans with whom he shares so much in common that he eventually refers to them as friends.

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Paul Theroux’s “On the Plain of Snakes”
A Day of the Dead procession in Oaxaca, pictured in Paul Theroux’s “On the Plain of Snakes.”
(Steve McCurry)

In contrast, he’s quite critical of the expat community in San Miguel de Allende, made up of “foreigners, fairly well-off and living in a bubble, by its very nature privileged and parasitical.” What calls to him the loudest are the rebels and the underdogs like the Zapatistas and the indigenous populations of Oaxaca and Puebla, who defy pressures to assimilate completely to contemporary Mexican society and rule of law, maintaining their vibrant political and cultural identity.

Herein the fascinating zigzag of Theroux’s observations. He affords great respect and kindness to the working-class people he meets, humanizing their stories, admiring their struggles and applauding their dignity and pride. In another instant, his comments come across as self-serving, as when he longs for a simpler Mexico with “inexpensive meals that were delicious, cheap motels that were comfortable, and friendly people who, out of politeness, seldom complained to outsiders of their dire circumstances: poor pay, criminal gangs, a country without good health care or pensions, crooked police, cruel soldiers, and a government indifferent to the plight of most citizens.”

In an effort to see past the negative stereotypes, he latches on to a no less objectionable one: the good Mexican, humble and resourceful, “making the best of it” when resisting the pull toward the border or resigned to the improbability of migration due to lack of funds. Elsewhere, Theroux writes, “[In] a poor country, people value what little they have.”

Paul Theroux’s “On the Plain of Snakes”
Paul Theroux, left, talks with a man who was deported to Mexico after working for 12 years in the U.S. Such conversations fill the book.
(Steve McCurry)

Eventually Theroux does manage to distance himself from his initial startling premise that his trip to Mexico had something to do with the fact the he, a 78-year-old white man, identified with the “despised Mexican, the person always reminded he or she is not welcomed, whom no one ever misses.” He does this by relinquishing the center of the narrative to people who don’t think that about themselves, like the late artist Francisco Toledo, insurgent Subcomandante Marcos, and even the diminutive elderly woman from Santa María Ixtacatlán he meets on her way to trade a woven hat for the use of mill to grind her corn. For the most part, Theroux’s portraits of Mexican lives are powerful, candid, and multivalent, with a few notable exceptions: the corrupt policeman with eyes like “tiny, dark pebbles, pierced with a wicked glint — and his nose was an enlarged snout, like a stabbing weapon” was a bit heavy-handed and cartoonish, in line with Theroux’s disdain for the “bad hombre,” to quote a presidential quip.

Theroux traveled to Mexico and found, unsurprisingly, a complex country with a rich history and culture that’s beset by travesty and contradiction exacerbated by class differences and a lack of economic and educational opportunities. But what allowed him to conclude the journey “uplifted, smiling when I set off for home, my hand on my heart, promising to return” was his insistence on celebrating the downtrodden Mexico, which he characterizes as resilient and, despite the odds, self-sufficient. Though his sendoff acknowledges that he has changed, the Mexico he prizes most is the one that adheres (as a form of resistance) to its old traditions and deferential values.

Nonetheless, Theroux’s impeccable research and superb descriptive prose make “On the Plain of Snakes” a trip worth taking.

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On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey

Paul Theroux

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 448 pages; $30

González is a professor of English and director of the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark.


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