This article is from the April 2001 The Mexico File
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by Charles Macomb Flandrau.
D. Appleton and Company,
1908, 294 pages
Available through www.out-of-print-books.barnesnoble.com
Lynne Doyle is a
long-time subscriber from Maine and a frequent contributor. She contributed a
comparison between Cancún and Puerto Vallarta in the March 2001 issue of
In her lovely travelogue, A
Visit to Don Octavio, Sybille Bedford calls Charles Flandrau’s book, Viva
Mexico! “the most enchanting...and funny...book on Mexico,” and I
wholeheartedly have to agree. An educated and sophisticated man, Flandrau was
nevertheless primarily drawn to observing rural Mexican life, about which he
writes with grace, charm and extreme wit. When he does occasionally venture into
Mexico City and other destinations more known to contemporary readers, his
reflections on these occasions are amusing as well, but also sentimental, moving
and – in my view – profound.
Born in 1871, Charles
Flandrau lived a life of wealth and privilege in Europe and the United States.
He entered Harvard at the age of twenty, and upon graduation, became a writer.
In 1903, he inherited enough money to life his life comforably and joined his
brother Blair, already living in Mexico and running a coffee plantation hear the
Gulf coast. Very soon thereafter, his articles on Mexican life began to appear
in American literary magazines. Eventually, he compiled a collection of these
stories into this book, which was published in 1908 and became one of the most
popular and most widely read books every written about Mexico. I find constant
references to Flandrau’s writings in the work of both early 20th
century and contemporary authors.
The books opens with
Flandrau’s hilarious observations of his fellow passengers as he travels by
boat to Veracruz to begin his life in Mexico, where he comments that “persons
of fashion...enjoy having traveled, but rarely enjoy traveling.” Here begin
the wry but telling and thought-provoking reflections that flavor this charming
book from beginning to end. An early chapter begins “Superficially, Mexico is
a prolonged romance” and it seems clear from the topics he chooses as well as
from what he has to say that Flandrau did have a lifelong thing going with his
adopted country. His investigations of the lives of the peasants around him are
often strong and graphic but always sympathetic and never judgmental. He himself
describes Mexican rural life as “always pictorial and always dramatic.” He
elaborates with amusing tales of street fights, the view of American residents
of their Mexican neighbors, the “plaza and balcony habit,” and Mexican
funerals, just to name a few.
In one of the chapters
relating details of life as “hacendado” of a coffee plantation, Flandrau
explores th ways in which his American viewpoint has been altered by life in
Mexico. “I used to think I should never allow chickens to take dust baths, or
burros to doze on my piazza. It seemed dreadfully squalid to permit it. Yet I
have long since come to it. So also is the custom of letting a few fastidious
hens lay eggs in one’s bed. But I have always been very firm about that.”
Flandrau also occasionally
delves into the politics of the time, describing then-president Porfirio Diaz as
a “person of great good sense,” and carefully relating his understanding of
the issues of the era between the Mexican government and the Catholic church.
History has altered the perspective we enjoy now, but it is still interesting to
get a look at the prevailing thought of a century ago.
There are two profoundly
moving chapters I found especially touching. One concerns a New Year’s Day
spent in the company of an expatriate British family, living in completely
impoverished circumstances on their defunct plantation but nevertheless keeping
up appearances, “dressing for dinner...even when they had no dinner in the
house to dress for.”
The other finds Flandrau
ruminating as he wanders through Jardin Borda in Cuernavaca on the fact that at
one time it was the summer home of Maximilian and Carlotta. In Flandrau’s
time, the garden was apparently not in its currently restored condition, and he
writes of the tangled coffee trees and heavy, broken old fountains as somehow
reflective of the tragedy of the fatuous Maximilian. I found Flandrau’s
reflections of particular interest for the simple reason that as a child, I
spent a lot of time in Jardin Borda and was fascinated with the legends
surrounding its past occupants. Even as an adult with a better understanding of
this sad era in Mexico’s history, I have felt the spirits of the blond
Maximilian and his doomed empress walking along with me through the cool rooms
and impermeable paths of the garden.
This book is a don’t-miss for anyone interested in a bygone Mexico, as well as a bygone American adventurer. Flandrau is by turns perceptive, thoughtful and uproariously funny as he explores a country, a culture and a society that, in the end, always remained just a little foreign to him.