British writers on Mexico’s ‘night’ of violence and ‘day’ of magical attraction

As Mexican literature and publishing takes centre stage at the London Book Fair, it is worth reflecting on the procession of British authors who have depicted the two faces of Mexico: the fascinating history and geography and attractive people, and México bronco, the “untamed Mexico”, with its record of violence in the anarchy of revolution and wars against nations and drugs, that periodically surges into public view. The night and the day of Mexican life.

DH Lawrence, in his novel The Plumed Serpent and the poetic contemplations in Mornings in Mexico, shows a very particular relationship between Mexico’s “night” of violence and its “day” of magical attraction. The great influence of Lawrence as a prophet of sexual liberation has of course dwindled, and The Plumed Serpent, with its deification of violence and masculine power, is certainly the most fascist of his writings. But his picture of Mexico is much more complex. The Nobel prizewinning poet Octavio Paz, perhaps Mexico’s most devoted reader of Lawrence, claimed he “had a supreme poetic gift, the ability to transfigure whatever he dealt with. And so he manages … to convert the trees and flowers, the mountains and lakes, the serpents and birds of Mexico into presences.”

Arriving in 1923, after the later stages of the revolution, Lawrence showed no interest in the political and social aspects of what he called “Mexican Bolshevism”, nor the prospect of cultural renewal in the great artistic achievements of the muralists. What interested him was a mythical exaltation of “the Indian”.

His sexualised fantasies of indigenous power in Mexico were as extravagant as his social opinions, which included a complete dismissal of Catholicism as “unreal” and a repudiation of racial mixing (mestizaje) as a corruption of “pure” indigenous blood. But his novel offers insights into social developments, such as the political and religious nature of Mexican militarism. His main male character, presenting himself as a reincarnation of the god Quetzalcoatl, foreshadows a political leader (the philosopher José Vasconcelos) who, in 1929, ran for president, explicitly depicting himself as a reincarnation of Quetzalcoatl.

Lawrence’s literary religiosity left such a strong mark on Paz that it is hard to understand the tangible presence of the ancient gods in some of Paz’s most important works (such as The Labyrinth of Solitude, Eagle and Sun, The Violent Season or Posdata) without reference to him. Paz noted and feared the eruption of the volcanic nature Lawrence recognised within Mexicans and seems to have welcomed.

Another English writer who played out literary adventures in the “night” side of Mexico was Graham Greene. The Power and the Glory is set in a territory of extremes during a time of extremism, when the governor of Tabasco had imposed a ban on Catholic mass in his state, aiming at the elimination of priests and the eradication of Catholicism (to be replaced by a socialist and atheist faith). Priests who continued to work were to be executed. A fugitive “whisky priest” becomes the anguished, guilt-ridden martyr whose foil is a lieutenant who pursues him and finally captures and executes him. But the relationship between the two men is never simple, they are individualised excisions from a lost unity of religion and power. With their tortured dialogues, Greene touches on the nerve centre of traditional Mexican violence, the tension – for at least two centuries – between Catholicism and Jacobinism.

The third great English writer who dealt intensely with the dark side of Mexico was Malcolm Lowry in his novel Under the Volcano, set in the richly floral town of Cuernavaca. Against a backdrop of 1930s politics and the threat of fascist victory in the Spanish civil war, the book describes the descent of the alcoholic English consul into a hell worthy of Dante, perhaps more intimate and terrible since his Beatrice has returned to him but her love can’t save him. The second world war will soon begin. And the consul’s hell is not only inside him but outside, in the ill-smelling cantinas and dusty streets, the brutal police, the packs of wild dogs, the uncaring bureaucrats and the criminality that is rife during festivals.

But Lowry’s consul, his alter ego, is not repulsed by his surroundings. Instead he shows compassion in a multitude of unforgettable details – the old, bowed Indian emerging from a cantina carrying an even older, crippled Indian on his shoulders – but finds no escape for himself. At the end of the novel he is murdered by sinarquistas (Mexico’s homegrown pro-Nazi fascists), who “threw a dead dog after him” down the ravine into which his body is flung.

Among those British writers who have dealt with the “day” of Mexico, its inviting and entrancing face, are Frances Erskine Inglis (the Marquesa Calderón de la Barca) who wrote Life in Mexico, Rosa E King, author of Tempest over Mexico, and Sybille Bedford. Bedford’s A Visit to Don Otavio, published in 1953, is set in the same town, Chapala, in which Lawrence wrote The Plumed Serpent, but her book is deliberately opposed to his. “The Plumed Serpent was full of fear and violence, and Lawrence loudly kept the reader’s nose to the grindstone. He had to loathe those crowds in the bull ring, he had to be awed by the native ritual. But the reality, for better or worse, was Lawrence’s rather than Mexico’s,” she wrote. Bedford does not delve into the volcanic subconscious of the Mexican people nor focus on the irredeemable past. She concentrates on the swarm of collective humanity, cities and legends, the cryptic language and the aromas of breakfasts and flowers. Not that her vision idealises the country or its people – it contains sharp criticism of upper-class customs – but she clearly celebrates Mexico’s luminous face and life itself.

And finally Rebecca West, who arrived in the 60s, hoping to write a book with the comprehensiveness and power of her portrait of the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. She no longer had the energy for that task and yet, in her posthumously published essay collection, Survivors in Mexico, she really looks at the Mexican people rather than cloaking them in a Lawrence-like mythology. She avoided writing about the Day of the Dead as she “could only have DH Lawrenced that”. And while Lawrence felt that Mexico’s mixture of races produced “mongrel men of a mongrel city”, West, rightly, deemed it one of the glories of the country: “coffee, chocolate, chocolate and milk, coffee and milk … but always brown”.

Looking out from my house in Cuernavaca at the ravine down which the consul’s body is thrown in Under the Volcano, I often think of the dark and light expressed in these two strains of British writing. They have offered us mirrors that reveal the frightening familiarity of my people with death but also with sweetness and courtesy, that strange mixture that was, is and perhaps always will be Mexico.

Publicado en The Guardian el 11 de abril de 2015.

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