- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2003

In the 1930s the English writer Rebecca West traveled to Yugoslavia and fell in love with the country. What emerged from her visits was a great book, “Black Lamb and Gray Falcon,” published in 1941 and replete with passion, wisdom, and well digested learning about an impressive variety of subjects. “Black Lamb and Gray Falcon” is a big book — 1181 pages in this reviewer’s well worn 1966 two-volume paperback edition — and done with great skill and ingenuity, with a large cast of well drawn characters. There’s never been anything quite like it and many regard it as its prolific author’s magnum opus. In the 1960s West, then in her 70s (she was born Cicily Fairfield in 1892), made a trip to Mexico and developed a love for that land and its people. She planned a large work filled with her thoughts on history, art, and much else, similar to the wide range of ruminations offered in “Black Lamb and Gray Falcon.” But the book on Mexico was not to be. Bernard Schweizer, who assembled West’s surviving chapters on Mexico in this new book, writes in his introduction to “Survivors in Mexico” that her husband grew ill after she began the project and her care for him absorbed her time and energy. It was also a book of which West’s husband did not approve and he discouraged her from writing it. Much of what she did complete, however, is vintage Rebecca West. She writes beautifully about the great 20th-century Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, “a huge, rip-roaring man,” and Rivera’s much younger wife, the artist, Frida Kahlo. Figures from Mexico’s Aztec and early Spanish past come alive, Conquistador Hernan Cortes, for example, and Cortes’ beautiful mistress, the Indian princess known as Dona Marina. In describing the Aztec Emperor Montezuma and his gentle pesonality, West makes use of her famous wit: “If the centuries had suddenly fused, Montezuma might have gotten along well with Adlai Stevenson.” She has great fun reminding readers that though the conquistadors were vigorous, striking men, they very likely were bowlegged from horseback riding and the then “widespread disease of rickets.” And she notes that the Aztecs had difficulty comprehending the Spanish lust for gold, a metal they valued, but not highly. “It is one of the great jokes of history that [the Spanish] would have made a saner impression had they asked for chocolate,” which the Aztecs loved, she writes. On landscapes, climate, and Mexico’s material culture, West’s writing can be both exquisite and precise. About a sunset, she writes, “Only here does it seem that the skies go on fire as solid objects do, as if their ashes might rain down on the spectators.” Open street markets aroused her admiration: “The fruit shone brightly as if they were in a poem by Keats, some, like the one with the pale gold husk curling back from garnet-red pulp, were formal like jewelry.” She visits a beautiful park and notes that it serves as a “polo-ground where beautiful rich young men [play sport], who ought to be odalisques if women had their right.” Much of West’s commentary is based on personal observation. She was an intrepid traveler and always sought out the right people to talk to and listened to what they had to say. But most of her writing on Mexico comes from her reading, which is not to say that this book is ever pedantic. No reader has ever turned what she read into material that carries her own stamp and characteristic way of looking at things more than did West, who chose her reading well. She makes major use of Jacques Soustelles’s “The Daily Lives of the Aztecs.” She loves the writings of Bernal Diaz, the friend of Cortes who accompanied the conquistadors. She approves of C.A. Burland’s “The Gods of Mexico.” But no writer earns greater praise than the California historian Leslie Byrd Simpson, author of “The Encomienda of New Spain.” Simpson, she avers, was “a scholar crackling with vitality,” a description that might serve to describe West as well. As with “Black Lamb and Gray Falcon,” readers of “Survivors in Mexico” will learn much that seems only peripherally related to the subject at hand. The Basque people do not tolerate lawyers and excluded them from standing for public office, for example. And: The Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin once wrote a letter to a fellow communist who had fallen ill, warning him not to seek the aid of a doctor who was a party member because “the faithful are such idiots.” When she describes what Aztec society must have been like, West is excellent. Writing about that culture’s vast bureaucracy which attempted to care for its citizens from cradle to grave, she observes: “They had constructed something like an efficient Fascist dictatorship, tempered by an element which no modern people has ever combined with Fascism: a scrupulous observance of the rule of law.” Aztec law could be severe. For the first offense of public drunkenness, a plebeian “got beaten and his head shaved.” For an additional offense, he (or she) was “publicly strangled.” For patricians, the punishment was harsher: private strangulation following the first offense. But West adds that the Aztecs allowed and even encouraged their old people to drink. She takes up Aztec human sacrifice only once. In an unforgettable passage, she recalls visiting years earlier, long before the trip to Mexico, a place where animals were sacrificed. She recalls the stench. “In the last moment of life the goats and lambs voided their bladders and bowels, and so would men,” she muses. Then, ominously, she adds: “There was a further horror beyond the blood and the sewage” when it came to human sacrifice in ancient Mexico. “The joints were taken from the temples to the public markets, were hung up there to air, in Bernal Diaz’s words, “as beef in the towns of Castile and sold for food.” Sometimes her comments are directed as much toward America and England of the 1960s, as toward Mexico. “In Mexico the bottom has not yet fallen out of parenthood. Here it is rare to see a child staring in hatred at its mother and father, seeking with Spock-fed vitality for a grievance, which, if it goes on taking its orange juice, it will be able to convert into a cause of life-long wrath; nor does one see parents pale with that look of guilt-ridden panic which is the meal ticket of modern psychiatry.” Mr. Schweizer provides excellent notes to West’s text. But he should have excluded the following observation (surely West would have left it out upon consideration) about the hands of Mexicans which she calls “more beautiful than not.” “It is only we Europeans who have ugly hands, with thick fingers, broad palms, heavy wrists, and an alarming liability to go uglier still in age,” she claims. With such ugly hands, she asks, is it any wonder “we [Europeans] have had to excuse ourselves by technological activity.” This is a gratuitous swipe at the appendages of Europeans and makes little sense. Can one make such sweeping generalizations about a people’s hands? Are we really to think of European technology as a coverup of unappealing digits? As good and solid as West’s writing frequently is in these pieces on Mexico, the final product is only partially satisfying. It is easy for a reader to see the much larger book the author planned to do: a work that fused Mexico’s remote Aztec past with the group of 20th-century muralists — Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Siqueiros, who strove to revive that great pre-Columbian past — into an organic whole. It would have been a terrific book, a long look at Mexico from earliest times through the 20th-century revolution that shook the country to its very roots, with asides on all the subjects that sprang into West’s acute mind. “It is these painters who have furnished the minds of these passionate people,” she writes about the muralists toward the end of her book. “I had always thought of the Mexican muralist movement as a neatly developing organism, but it had the full untidiness of life,” she concludes. But it was the very untidiness of life that Rebecca West had celebrated in her great book on Yugoslavia and that untidiness would not have deterred her from an equally fine work on Mexico, had not her husband’s illness, his discouragement of the project, and (perhaps) her age, intervened. How much she would have loved to finish “Survivors in Mexico” can be surmised from a comment she makes in the book when she’s discussing the character of the people she has chosen to write about: “One would almost call the Mexicans a cynical people,” she writes. then in a twist that is pure Rebecca West, she adds, “were it not for the hope that flashes on their faces like the reflection from sunlit water.”

Stephen Goode is senior writer at Insight magazine.

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