Travel, for many a 78-year-old American, is what you do on a cruise ship, or maybe just between the couch and the kitchen. For writer Paul Theroux, it’s lately been a matter of Chiapas, Oaxaca, magnificent scenery, charming hitchhikers and the occasional duck taco.
Theroux, the author of about 50 novels and travel books in the last 45 years (including “The Great Railway Bazaar” in 1975 and “The Mosquito Coast” in 1981), has just published “On the Plain of Snakes: a Mexican Journey.”
This book has little to do with the beach resorts where so many American tourists “get hog-whimpering drunk on tequila,” as the author writes. And unlike several of Theroux’s best-known travel books, this one has nothing to do with trains. It is based on months of driving the border and backroads, looking for grit and grace beyond the usual information Americans get about their southern neighbors.
“One of the ambitions I had for this book was to go to the villages that people are leaving. In Chiapas and Oaxaca in particular,” Theroux said in a recent interview. “I wanted to see why they’re going. What’s their life like there? And are they staying away? When they send money back, what happens to the money? What happens to the family?”
He is relentlessly curious, ready to be charmed by a duck taco lunch with a gaggle of bright students in Mexico City, or awed near San Luis Potosí by “magnificent mountains of sharp, shining granite peaks, some like shattered knives and others like fractured black bones, or marked with odd, inky splashes of obsidian.”
But Theroux is also as acerbic as ever. Entering Puebla, he writes that "[t]here is not a big city in Mexico — no matter how charming its plaza, how atmospheric its cathedral, how wonderful its food, or how illustrious its schools — that is not in some way fundamentally grim, with a big-box store, a Sam’s Club, and an industrial area, a periphery of urban ugliness that makes your heart sink.”
Browsing the well-trafficked museum at Frida Kahlo’s old home in Coyoacán, he decides that the artist “is a detour and a distraction. It was her genius as an artist, and her neurotic narcissism, to turn her whole self into art — her love, her suffering, her accident-prone life — and in the process make herself an icon, for the Mexican tradition is full of icons, especially Madonnas. It did not hurt her career that the 43-year-old Diego Rivera dumped his wife and married the teenage Frida (she was 19).”
At the journey’s beginning Theroux is 76 (and he does encounter a snake). He marvels at the tragedies endured and risks taken by migrants; quizzes factory workers; teaches writing; studies Spanish; pays mordidas (bribes) when extorted by authorities; gets big laughs by accidentally calling himself a cabrón (literally: male goat) in the wrong place; and sits down with one of Mexico’s most celebrated artists and its most notorious living revolutionary. In many areas, he also sees the long shadow cast by drug cartels.
“The cartels are not going to take over the country. But they’re dangerous. They’re ruthless. They’re violent. Not to tourists,” Theroux added. “But there is such a thing as crossfire.”
The writer, who has homes in Hawaii and Cape Cod (and Massachusetts plates on his car), spoke about the new project by telephone. Questions and answers are edited for sequence and brevity.
How is your Spanish?
I think it’s adequate.... I’ve been speaking Spanish since probably the mid-’70s, when I first began going to Mexico.... Really, you understand very little of Mexico if you don’t speak the language.
You’ve said you admire Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz, historian Enrique Krauze, novelist and journalist Juan Villoro and scholar Claudio Lomnitz for their insights on the country, and also novelist Juan Rulfo, whose 1955 novel “Pedro Páramo” explores life in a ghostly small town. Did those writers prepare you for the countryside?
One of the problems is that Mexican writers tend to live in Mexico City. So there isn’t as much writing about the provinces, about rural areas, about villages. Particularly fiction.... I’ve told Mexican writers that. “Do yourself a favor. Go live in a village and write about it. Go to Chiapas. Go to Oaxaca. Go to some distant place, live there and write about it. Be William Faulkner.”
You made it a point to meet two globally known Mexicans. One was the artist Francisco Toledo, the Oaxacan artist and activist.
He was the greatest living Mexican painter…. He was in his late 70s and I’m in my late 70s. It’s very enjoyable to talk with somebody who has seen what you have seen.” (Toledo died Sept. 5, age 79.)
You also met with Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatista rebel leader who’s still in Chiapas.
I’m constantly trying to understand poverty, change and revolution, and he seemed to have a lot of the answers that I was looking for. If I was much younger, I would probably go and be a teacher in a Zapatista village.
On the road
As an observer, what did you gain and lose, traveling mostly by car?
Many of the places I went to are only accessible by a car with all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive….
Often when I was driving, I picked up hitchhikers.... And that was a very helpful thing, too, because I was able to ask them what their lives were like. And I also felt protected. Because if I had a hitchhiker with me, I thought, if I get a flat tire, or I get lost or something, here’s someone in my car who can help me.
Your travels took you through plenty of places where you could feel the influence of the drug cartels. But you did avoid many areas in which cartel-related violence has been most widespread, such as the states of Michoacán and Guerrero (which the U.S. State Department urges all American travelers to avoid). How did you decide what to avoid?
If a Mexican said to me, do not go there… I listened.
And if an American warned you?
A lot of people told me, “Don’t drive in Mexico.” But they tended to be Americans who had not driven there…. Big, tough people in Texas, motorcycle guys, said “Don’t go there, man. You’ll die.”
It seems you have mixed feelings about Frida Kahlo.
She represents a kind of Madonna figure — the tortured woman, let’s say. But she was taken up by people from outside. When Mexicans noticed there was a lot of interest in her, they catered to that interest.
What did Francisco Toledo say about Kahlo?
He said, “I started out hating her. Then I realized that she had something.”
The past and the future
How many countries have you visited?
The honest answer is I really don’t know…. I’ve never been to Sweden. I’ve never been to Finland. I’ve never been to Norway. I’ve never been to Montana…. Never been to Idaho. And I’ve never been to Greenland. I don’t want to write a book about Greenland, but I’d like to see it... They have a history of great kayak construction.
The Huntington Library in San Marino has acquired all your papers from 1965 to 2015, during which you traveled in and wrote about Europe, Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Americas. If I dig up your notebooks from the ‘60s or ‘70s, how different will they be from your Mexico notebooks?
I’ve always written in longhand and I’ve always kept very meticulous notes…. You get better at these things. You get better at noticing.... You ask more penetrating questions, I guess. But as you get older, you get forgetful, so you want to write everything down.
I don’t keep a daily diary, [but] I keep diaries in significant years.
And in 2020?
It’ll be great. No matter what happens. It’ll be worth watching. That’s my general feeling: Don’t let it get you down. It’s time passing and people being as stupid, or as clever, as they’ve always been.