Essays South of the Border
by Michael Hogan. Intercambio Press, 2001
Stories of Mexico
by David Lida. William Morrow and Company, Inc. 2000
Escape to Mexico,
An Anthology of Great Fiction
edited by Sara Nickles. Chronicle Books, 2002
Reviewed by Lynne Doyle
I love to read about Mexico. I’ll read just about anything having anything to do with Mexico. It seems to be of never-ending interest to me to get a look at other people’s impressions of this country I’m so fascinated with, while at the same time maybe picking up some information that will help me to understand what is essentially an alien culture. Over the years, I’ve formed impressions of my own, as well as what I hope is a constantly expanding knowledge of Mexican culture, but there is always more to know about dealing, negotiating and forming relationships with Mexicans. I’m especially attracted to collections of writings about Mexico, and this trio of books is as interesting as any I’ve found, most particularly because of the extreme contrast they provide.
Michael Hogan is an American, now a permanent resident of Guadalajara and head of the Humanities Department at the American School of Guadalajara. Mexican Mornings is a series of careful, thoughtful, exceedingly sensitive essays highlighting many of the observations Hogan has made during his years in Mexico. Hogan doesn’t explore vast topics, or take on huge philosophical questions. Rather, he carefully examines the details of life lived in the slow lane, at the same time delivering the message that living in the slow lane is precisely what allows him the time to make his careful examinations. Even though he discusses some of the less attractive aspects of life in Mexico (i.e., the prodigious variety of insects described in “The Crawling Things of Paradise”), he manages to make his observations positive, in this case by including commentary regarding Mexico’s ecosystem with such lushly descriptive language as to make one ashamed of ever enjoying a screen. When he writes about Octavio Paz, whom I have always found to be a rather inaccessible political and social commentator, Hogan discusses instead Paz’s poetry and its impact on his students. “Through Us The Universe Talks to Itself” provides a unique and remarkable insight into Paz’s character, while at the same time touching on how to connect with students emotionally as well as intellectually.
Hogan’s love of Mexico shines through every sentence; his minute observations reflect his joyful interest in all things Mexican. What was most enjoyable for me, however, was that in each of his pieces, I was able to connect to a Mexico I know. In “The Bus From Hell,” which discusses Mexico’s respect for Fidel Castro, Hogan offers hilarious commentary on Mexican drivers. “The Blind Men of Indostan” examines with wry amusement the adventure of language barriers. “Journal in a Rainy Season” muses much as I have myself over the ironic vagaries of Mexican weather. The genius of Hogan’s book is the spirit he evokes of the Mexico we all know, but seldom have the time to observe closely. Each essay revealed to me things I have noticed, even sometimes chuckled about, while traveling, but which were for the most part lost in the more riveting aspects of my surroundings – all in all, a lovely little reminder to next time, take a slightly closer look.
David Lida’s work is oddly dark. The topics of his short stories are not those one would ordinarily connect with the traveler’s Mexico, and yet they are intimately Mexican. His characters are not nice or even necessarily very interesting, but as he tells their strange stories, Lida creates an atmosphere every one of us will recognize. In weaving his plots, he incorporates feelings all of us have had. In “Bewitched,” his American journalist frets over the hidden meaning behind slow service and her enigmatic maid. She even behaves badly, as some of us have in moments of frustration. “Taxi,” “Free Trade,” and “A Beach Day” perversely examine the fears we have all occasionally felt, and perhaps even experienced, as we have moved through Mexico.
For those of us who view Mexico as a romantic, colorful, essentially benign destination, these disturbing stories will forever shatter our illusions. Those of us who have experienced vague unidentified anxieties during our travels – in spite of never having had anything bad happen to us – will forever look more carefully around us after reading these tales. I scoffed initially – Lida’s Mexicans are not those I meet when I travel – but after some thought, I realized that Lida had totally captured the mixed emotions that are such a critical component of my fascination with Mexico. His work will never be considered uplifting or his subject matter ordinary travelers’ fare, but his strangely evocative writing is indeed a travel advisory, warning us that what you see isn’t necessarily all you get.
Escape to Mexico is a collection of fiction from some of the world’s greatest authors, writers who at some point found refuge and inspiration in Mexico and then included their impressions and experiences in their work. Some of the excerpts are totally familiar – Harriet Doerr’s Stones for Ibarra, The Night of The Iguana by Tennessee Williams, Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – others are less so. The remarkable aspect of this book is the many different perspectives of its contributors. Some of the offerings are contemporary, many are not. Some are amusing, most are not. A few evoke the atmosphere and places of Mexico, some are only set in generic Mexican towns. This book’s special gift is its contrast – the melodious language of Dashka Slater’s “Wishing Box” next to the disjointed grammatical nonsense of Kerouac, the desperate evocative mist of Tennessee Williams’ Miss Jelkes alongside the sardonic cruelty of Sherwood Anderson’s narrator in “Mexican Nigh,t” Wallace Stegner’s essential images of a Mexican home versus Anais Nin “Collages,” which could have been set anywhere.
If I were compiling an anthology of writing done in and about Mexico, I’m not sure I would have chosen all of the offerings included here. I enjoyed some much more than others. These pieces reflect many different attitudes towards Mexico and her people, both positive and negative. However, if the purpose of the collection is to illustrate the impact Mexico has had on a group of very diverse writers, it has been admirably fulfilled, and it is always of interest to me to match such impact against my own.
It is possible that these three works should not be read one after the other as I read them. The contrasting approaches and impressions left my brain swimming. On the other hand, while total immersion is often shocking and occasionally unpleasant, it almost always leads to an expanded way of looking at things. In this case, it was much like spending time in Mexico – sometimes exhilarating, sometimes annoying, sometimes relaxing, sometimes an adventure, sometimes amusing, sometimes frustrating, sometimes downright disagreeable, but never, ever a bore.