Paul Theroux is the grand man of living American travel writers and this, his latest tome, is a revelation – perhaps not in the way he intended. After decades of venturing far afield (his career started as a Peace Corp volunteer in Malawi), he started to look closer to home with his last book, Deep South, which detailed exuberant road journeys from his home in Cape Cod to repeatedly visit – for most elites at least – the foreign country that occupies the Bible Belt. There he winningly praises the indescribable freedom of American roads and shares his delight in, for him, new discoveries. (Welcome, Paul, to what many of us roadtrippers have known for some time!)
As a follow-up, it seems, he decides to take his second hand SUV to visit our truly foreign neighbor just south of south. At first he slides along the long and maligned border, from Texas to California, before getting up the courage to plunge deeply south. Part I is titled Borderlands, which makes me wonder if he read my Borderlands USA journey.
Allow me to say upfront: for his 76 years, Theroux (or Don Pablo as he prefers to be called in the book) is incredibly energetic and fearless. He is warned repeatedly of the many dangers served up by narco terrorists, desperate migrants, and corrupt policemen, and encounters the last not once, but repeatedly. He drives his car along cliff-hugging, dilapidated roads hovering over the abyss (which I have also done in Mexico) and braves the bewildering downpours so common to the Latin tropics.
Having said this, Theroux is getting somewhat long in the tooth and long in the text, repetitive, and prone to overwriting. In the book’s introduction:
“…Chiapas is dominated by masked idealist Zapatistas, and – at the Mexican margins – the spring-breakers, the surfers, the backpackers, the crusty retired people, honeymooners, dropouts, fugitives, gun runners, CIA scumbags and snoops, money launderers, currency smurfers, and – look over there – and old gringo in a car squinting down the road, thinking: Mexico is not a country. Mexico is a world, too much of a mundo to be wholly graspable…” [p.3]
Yet, Theroux Inc. is a well-oiled marketing machine – the book’s 2019 launch was accompanied for months by fawning reviews and New York Times Magazine promotion pieces – with the book’s inner flap extolling “the same humanizing sensibility he employed in Deep South.”
The grand man of letters is also accompanied by several photographers – even though the reality and logistics of this is nowhere broached in the text – and following the front piece the Also By The Author list includes 51 books – not the kind of modesty evidenced by other prolific travel writers such as V.S. Naipaul.
One September review in a prestigious journal was titled “Why María Left Oaxaca,” but I would hazard the book is more about why Don Pablo left America.
He is more up front with why:
“Knowing the risks that migrants took emboldened me, and hearing nothing but ignorant opinion about Mexicans, from the highest office in America to the common ruck of barflies and xenophobes (maybe disinhibited by their bigoted leader), I decided to take a trip to Mexico.” [p.7]
So it is more that he felt bigotry towards Mexicans from his fellow Americans and “their” leader, and wished to dilute their load of ignorance with knowledge – an admirable goal, one can readily agree. This was similar to the Deep South’s aim of offering a “humanizing” picture of Southerners – to counter, one can surmise, the bigotry of his fellow New Englanders and others of the cultural elites. Bravo.
Yet, I have to say, Theroux’s “humanizing” impulse seems to fail in the other direction, that of Mexican prejudice towards Americans and specifically our President.
The book’s emotional core, for me, comes half way in, when Don Pablo teaches a writing course, in English, to over a score of local aspiring and established writers in Mexico City. They open many doors for the author and envelope him in the Latin warmth that many of us who spend time south of the border love and admire. (He claims repetitively that he learned much from these students, I lost count at four or five times.)
Yet Don Pablo commits what for me is a cardinal sin of overseas Americans wishing to curry favor with their hosts: he repeatedly goads them (and others during his travels) to come up with epitaphs for President Trump. “What kind of cabrón [translated elsewhere in the book as “dickhead” by the author] is Donald Trump?” he asks his students after a long lunch with liquor.
Due to what I would call the innate courtliness and politeness of Mexicans, “At first they wouldn’t be drawn out, but it was now late in the afternoon…” [p.155]
With more coaxing, he gets them to describe Trump as stupid, vulgar, a jackass, perverse, clownish, vain, decadent and crazy – and so on. Thank you, Don Pablo, for encouraging the bias towards and hatred of both Donald Trump and America from our southern neighbors! Diplomatic he is not – unfortunately, the word craven comes to mind. One has to wonder which emotional needs of Theroux, and not of Mexicans, that are being met. He had even told his students, “One great reason to travel, I said, was to destroy stereotypes.” [p.151] And what of stereotypes of America or its President?
Interestingly, to justify his fishing for epitaphs, Theroux reminds the reader of some of Trump’s misconstrued campaign statements, such as when he crowed:
“‘They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.’ And, ‘The Mexican legal system is corrupt, as is much of Mexico.” [p.155]
Theroux is sufficiently blinkered by his dislike for Trump that he doesn’t seem to realize his travel tale in Mexico confirms, again and again, every one of Trump’s observations – where, it is eminently fair to say, “they” refers to the coyotes and border drug runners, not to Mexicans as a whole. Again and again, with great heart and justification, Theroux laments the corruption of both Mexico and the legal system that poor Mexicans must put up with. As he readily admits, “The natural protections that Americans take for granted are almost unknown in Mexico.” [p.386]
To say that this is moral blindness is not the saddest part of it. It was a tragic missed opportunity for Theroux to encourage love and understanding in the world by actually explaining and clarifying Trump’s statements – even if he didn’t entirely agree with them. That is, to help diminish stereotypes.
Theroux is no dummy, and elsewhere in the book he succinctly details how his Deep South travels helped him to understand how so many Americans felt betrayed by our leaders, the establishment, and the elites. But he makes no attempt anywhere among his countless conversation in Mexico to share any of the same information to help our Mexican friends better understand America’s populist revolt. This seems no less than a betrayal – to Theroux’s own ideals.
But the revelations don’t stop there. The author’s other emotional epiphany comes with the book’s final chapters, in Chiapas. Through contacts made in Mexico City, Theroux is invited to attend and speak at a secret Zapatistas conference in San Cristóbal, where he meets the masked Subcomandante Marcos. Immediately, he recognizes the outlaw’s charisma:
“Perhaps I was projecting, dazzled to be meeting a man I regarded as a hero.” [p.420]
This is not the place to go into the Zapatistas more admirable aspects (secession from the overwhelmingly corrupt Mexican state) or to the less admirable ones (described even by Wiki as “a far-left libertarian-socialist political and militant group,” to which Marcos “add[s] a Marxist element”). While Theroux claims the movement is entirely pacifist, then why do they extol Che Gevara, who is undeniably one of the greatest moral monsters (and cold-blooded executioners) of Latin American history? Nowhere does Theroux critique any of this.
Theroux appears dazzled indeed. Here is the Zapatista school whose slogan is To Resist is To Exist (perhaps coming to a school close to you). There is a comrade named Pablo Casanova, whom Marcos “complimented on his great age and passion” and whom Theroux lauds as “still radical at ninety-six – a great example to me.” [p.425] In Theroux’s speech to the Zapatista throng, he compliments Marcos’s work as a continuation of, and an improvement on, that of Che.
Clearly, radical chic has a long history among our cultural elites. And Theroux – whose interviews prior to the book launch make him sound much more moderate – displays little of the ignorance of young socialists today – ignorance of both our country’s history and that of Communism’s and Socialism’s endless killing fields. So I don’t begrudge Theroux his passions. After all, he sums up,
“I had begun my trip to Mexico in a mood of dejection and self-pity, feeling shunned, overlooked, ignored, rejected – easily identifying with migrants and Mexicans, who knew that same feeling of being despised. I’d hope the trip would be salutary, a cure for my sour mood, and so it proved.” [p.426]
This is the travel lark’s (and yarn’s) promise of transformation, of taking a person out of themselves to better see those around them. But Theroux’s neat progressions no longer seem to add up well. Like the photographers never explained, and his Spanish, which he charmingly admits started out minimal and ends up middling (while the Spanish quoted in his conversations from start to finish, besides admitted fumbles, appears flawless), there seems to be another man, like his hero Subcomandante Marcos, lurking behind the mask.
What a pity. Ideally, travel and writing are about discovering more about yourself by finding out more about others, and getting honest about it. The bane, then, of much travel writing is the leaven of fiction. So which is the real Paul Theroux, the urbane man giving interviews or the Don Pablo narrator of the book?
I am disappointed in my old friend Theroux – or at least he feels that way, since I have accompanied him on so many of his journeys by words. His prior work in Deep South was such a mind-expanding challenge for the author, who brought the fresh perspective and openness to discovery of an experienced foreign traveler to a disparaged area of the country. Perhaps a Woody Allen- and chameleon-like ability to please whomever he is with is one of his secrets as a travel writer, fitting in wherever he goes.
Still, his reverting to radical chic while apparently betraying his own ideals– in the book at least – disappoints.
Paul Theroux, On The Plain of Snakes, A Mexican Journey, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, New York, 2019