- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 15, 2005

THE ZIGZAG WAY

By Anita Desai

Houghton Mifflin, $23, 158 pages

A crucial aspect of Anita Desai’s “The Zigzag Way” is the history of mining in Mexico. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that the action of the book, which concerns broad abstract themes of alienation, exile and selfhood has been fashioned in much the same way 19th century Indian tenateros, the beasts of burden in the mines of Mexico, transported their bounty along perilous inclines:

“They walk in a zigzag direction because they have found from long experience that their respiration is less impeded when they traverse obliquely the current of air which enters the pits from without.”

In other words, give strong characters a complex narrative animated by exotic history and landscape and they will thrive.

The book opens with Eric, a graduate student at Harvard having trouble getting down to business with his book on immigration. His girlfriend Em, with whom he lives, has an easier time focusing her energies. She is off to Mexico in order to join colleagues doing scientific research there and reluctantly agrees to let Eric accompany her. Through a startling coincidence, Eric discovers that he has ancestors who were drawn to that part of the world — English immigrants who settled in Mexico when the closing of English tin mines forced many men from Cornwall like Eric’s grandfather to seek work abroad.

In Mexico, Eric encounters the ostentatiously dressed and imperious Dona Vera, the imposing “Queen of the Sierra” who has emigrated from Europe and installed herself as keeper of a museum dedicated to the Huichol Indians and the treasures of pre-Columbian Mexico. She has many secrets concerning her fate in pre-war Vienna — was she a Nazi or was she a resistance fighter?— and the circumstances that directed her to Mexico. Her determination to be perceived as a scholar devoted to studying the Huichol and preserving their culture — despite her connection by marriage to a mining company which exploited them— causes her to mistreat visitors whom she doesn’t deem worthy. This, from a woman who by the way, does not and cannot speak Spanish.

After some rough going early on, Eric and Dona Vera come to easier terms when he shows her that he is sincerely interested in knowing what life was like for the ‘Cornish Jacks,’ their wives and the Huichol. This leads Eric to uncover the story of Betty, which began in England in 1910. After becoming engaged to Davey, the young girl from Cornwall leaves her family and heads across the ocean to a new land. “It’s just like in a painting,” the cheerful Betty writes to her sisters and father about her new home, a place of “Palm trees along the beach and women in long skirts and white blouses with baskets of fish and fruit on the heads.”

But life is not easy for Betty. From hope there follows despair, first reckoning with the transplanted culture that has caused men to act badly and the natives to retaliate. The story line following the fate of this hopeful girl, who Eric learns is his grandmother, is the book’s most poignant story.

The destinies of these three strong and powerfully drawn characters become intertwined during the celebration of Le Noche de los Muertos, the Mexican version of Halloween, but far spookier. This novel is, among many things, a very spiritual book, one that gracefully and tenaciously explores the beliefs of cultures that at first may seem forbidding.

The author possesses a remarkable sensitivity to the interplay of culture and individual loneliness. Critics often point to Ms. Desai’s dual heritage — she is half-Indian, half German — to account for her understanding of the profound despair that can come of being set apart from the mainstream, but that’s a risky critical road to take. A more productive approach to considering her remarkable oeuvre is to credit her talent for creating characters from well-observed and telling details. Eric, Dona Vera and Betty are outsiders but they are also characters with history. Eric’s mother is part of a sprawling Maine fisherman family that likes to tease him about his unease with his first Halloween. Dona Vera likes to be deferred to and Betty is fond of making her small kitchen in her new land usable in spite of the absence of familiar foodstuffs.

“To her sisters she proudly reported, ‘I baked my first batch of pasties today in a little clay oven and Davey said the men at the mine would envy him. Now he wants me to bake him a saffron cake but there is not yeast to be had. Mrs. Moran told me the women use ‘piulque’ instead . That is a kind of spirits they make out of the juice of the cactus. I don’t like to touch it but better to eat it in bread than drink it in the tavern, for sure.”

The portrait of Betty, arguably, is the strongest in the book and the window it offers on the lives of the Cornish women who ventured to Mexico is rewarding. Observations about the early stirrings of the Mexican revolution and the influence of Zapata and Pancho Villa are also compelling.

Dona Vera is the book’s most colorful character and, quite possibly, the most visionary of those populating this sometimes mystically charged book. Here is how Ms. Desai writes about Eric and Dona Vera meeting near the mine where his grandfather once worked:

“He came out after her with her linen hat and she put it on irritatedly, and waved him away, then set out to find some trace of the mines that had once belonged to [her husband]. Except for a few abandoned excavations and ruined entrances to shafts and tunnels, there was none. The silence was so intense that she could hear the wings of the zopilotes circling watchfully above on currents of air; she had to imagine the sounds the mountain must once have contained — explosions of dynamite, small avalanches of gravel followed by the thunder of following boulders … . Perhaps even the hoofs of Zapata’s horses, carrying the message of the Revolution: ‘Tierra y Libertad!’”

This is a book of passions and destinies with not a single wasted word.

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