Paul Theroux, On the Plain of Snakes (Mariner books, 2019)

By Clare Howell

Just shy of five dozen books published in a long career, Paul Theroux has now written a travel book on Mexico. He takes a car trip along the Mexican/US border in 2017, west to east from Tijuana to Matamoros, weaving his way back and forth across the border to see how Mexicans on both sides are dealing with the new Trumpian reality. “These dozen or so crossings were a revelation to me, putting the whole border debate into perspective, giving it a human face… It is at once more heartening and more hopeless than I had imagined…”

He then drives down through Mexico—Saltillo, Monterrey, San Luis Potosí, Dolores Hidalgo, San Miguel de Allende, CDMX, Puebla, Oaxaca, and into Chiapas where he meets Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos. 

Some readers find Theroux abrasive, giving the impression of irritability or condescension. He admits to alienating some readers: A legislator from the Solomon Islands proposed to ban his book Happy Isles of Oceania; a Greek-American threatened him with a lawsuit for libel against Greece for Pillars of Hercules. Some expats here were offended over comments he made at the writers’ conference several years ago. 

His style differs from most travel writers in that his subject is less about where he is than about how he feels about being there. “There is a kind of travel writing in which everything is about enthusiasm… everything I write is a reaction against that… I simply want to write about a trip, and about myself.”

I like his travel writing for this unique perspective. He breathes life and grit into what could be simply travelogues. But there is no edge to his commentary about Mexico or its people. He’s intent on shattering stereotypes and making friends here. He tells his taller with two dozen Mexican writers in CDMX, ”By driving from my home [in Massachusetts]… in a week or so I’m over the border… Friends, we’re on the same road.”

“… [I]t is easy in Mexico to leave the main road, take a side road, turn into a narrow track, and wind up in the past.” His method from the start was to drive without a destination for the day, and look for a place to stay for the night at around 4 or 5 in the afternoon, spotting a “That’ll do” lodgings by the roadside.

He takes a language course in Oaxaca, “I liked the idea that I was not so much studying Spanish as learning Mexican.” He makes copious notes: Gabacho is the insulting word in Mexico for gringo, No manches (don’t strain), Mande? (what did you say), and my favorites, Tengo ganas de una chela (I have an urge for a beer) and Está meando fuera de olla (to piss outside the jar… be tactless or off-putting).

He gives us a snapshot of the literary zeitgeist through his interactions with notables, deflating some reputations and revealing others: He thought Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude, “… pitiless but also one of the most insightful books I have read on Mexican attitudes and beliefs.” (“No,” says a Mexican friend whose views I respect, “it’s a tissue of stereotypes.”); Carlos Fuentes is the best-known Mexican writer to most Americans, but Mexicans let Theroux know that they considered him a fraud—too long removed from the country and ill-informed; Juan Villoro, journalist and novelist, much admired by Theroux, finds Frida Kahlo, “ghastly but unique.” Probably more esteemed in Europe and the US than in Mexico.

The novel most Mexican writers recommend to him is Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo. “I ended up reading it half a dozen times, with growing bewilderment… But the novel is considered a Mexican classic.” Published in 1955, it is the forerunner of Magical Realism, which is anathema to Theroux. “I’ve spent my reading and writing life, trying to see things as they are—not magical at all, but desperate and woeful, illuminated by flashes of hope.” The most recommended non-fiction book is, surprisingly, Barbarous Mexico (México Bábaro) by John Kenneth Turner, an American socialist (1879-1948) who did much to discredit Porfirio Díaz in the US. Theroux rues the fact that so many young Mexican writers have not been translated into English. 

And there is so much more: his hallucinatory bus ride; being extorted twice by police officers; the perils of crossing deserts on foot; picking up hitchhikers; how NAFTA worked out; the shocking disparities of wealth… These and other gems of knowledge, insights, and revelations await you throughout this timely work, witnessed in the comforting presence of an old friend ever ready for an adventure. This one is a great ride.