- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 7, 2006


By Tony Cohan

Broadway Books, $24.95, 275 pages


Some years ago, I commissioned a magazine essay from Anita Desai, a writer of several exquisite novels who went often to Mexico. Her assignment was to write about how the places where she stayed influenced the fiction that she wrote, and how strongly she — an Indian artist living then in Boston — identified with those southern climes.

The essay that Mrs. Desai sent was predictably wonderful, but one thing struck me as odd: Though she wrote extensively of her connection to two specific Mexican towns, she never once mentioned their names. I immediately wrote to her, asking if we could reveal their identities; after all, we couldn’t print a magazine piece without them.

“I did not name the two towns,” she responded, “out of possessiveness … I couldn’t bear to be responsible for an influx of tourists to them.” We ended up printing the names of the towns — San Miguel de Allende and Tepoztlan — but wondered if journalistic obligation might just once have been ignored, in the interests of mystery and restraint.

For San Miguel de Allende, a 16th-century colonial town northwest of Mexico City, has, over the years, indeed been overrun. We find it saturated with outsiders at the beginning of Tony Cohan’s travelogue “Mexican Days,” as the writer, an American who has made his home in the town for many years, sits on a bench in the central plaza, watching the “Japanese tourists with digital cameras” and the “oversize gringos in Bermuda shorts lacing the air with English.”

Yes, San Miguel can seem like “a paradise,” a “site of fiestas and miracles, ecstatic religion and fiery revolt, unearthly beauty and curative air — a place for dreamers and artists.” But paradises are easily spoiled.

To make matters worse, a film crew has come to San Miguel, along with such actors as Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek and Johnny Depp, to make a picture called “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.” With a horde of Hollywood types essentially taking over the town, Mr. Cohan seems ready to cast himself out of paradise. When a magazine editor calls, asking him if he’d like to journey around Mexico for an extensive travel piece, it doesn’t take him long to flee.

Thus begins what is mostly an engaging travel narrative. Mr. Cohan is a great observer of detail, whether in the smog-choked streets of Mexico City or at a haunting resort in the Mayan jungle or among the urban ruins of the old silver city of Guanajuato.

With often sumptuous prose, Mr. Cohan gives us a loving and sympathetic portrait of his adopted homeland, without ignoring its political problems, its poverty or the changes that have marred its landscape (“Where a few years earlier there had been open country, ranchos, a wide blue horizon, and scudding clouds,” he writes as he approaches Mexico City, “now factories and new shantytown colonias crowded the roadside”).

Perhaps of more importance, he shows us a Mexico at once mystical and demystified, the Mexico of artists, writers, singers, working people and visionaries, separating this land of rich and diverse cultures from the place that northerners perceive.

“So Mexico stands in the foreign imagination,” Mr. Cohan writes, “as a permanently exotic, lawless, and untamed antidote to the gray sterility of its northern neighbor. If in fact most Mexicans’ lives are little different from those of their northern neighbors — jobs, family worries, discount shopping malls — and if gradually the country comes under the rule of civil law, Mexico still plays to North America as its collective unconscious, its Dionysian Other: land of salsa and sabor, fiestas and revelry, ghosts and gore. A country riddled with bullet holes and beauty.”

Still, despite a subtitle suggesting voyages into the heart of a country, “Mexican Days” is really a voyage into the heart of its author. Perhaps it is because Mr. Cohan’s experiences are mainly solitary ones — the people he does approach and interact with are, for the most part, friends, other expatriates, and not necessarily ordinary Mexican people; he typically enters a place, explores it, describes it, and moves on — the narrative has a quiet, superficial quality.

The writer is uneasy, restless, longing to be in motion, and we learn that travel is an antidote to all of this: “I experienced these journeys less as a catalog of attractions than as a succession of illuminations, discoveries, and encounters with a necessary Other — myself, of course, in new guises, revealed in reflection off the alien surfaces travel provides.”

There’s a touch of pretension in that statement, but more crucially, it poses a question: If travel serves to reintroduce the traveler with his Other, what purpose does the travel narrative serve for its reader? Surely when a book takes on such an inward dimension, when experience functions solely as a fulfillment of some deficiency in the traveler, when the primary encounter becomes the encounter with oneself, the external world remains distant — no matter how visceral the descriptions and haunting the prose.

Sometimes, the inwardness of the narrative is simply a result of missed opportunities. In Oaxaca, Mr. Cohan describes the “lofty, somber cathedral of Santo Domingo,” a structure that “had been rescued and restored, due largely to the efforts of the artist Francisco Toledo,” a man Mr. Cohan calls “the best Mexican artist of his generation” and a man who has done much to preserve the rich cultural heritage of Oaxaca.

When Mr. Cohan spots the artist, he follows him for a while. We expect an encounter, a conversation attempted, a moment of illumination. Instead, the writer, “wishing him some peace, [veers] off and [takes] a cafe chair beneath the portales.” If only Mr. Cohan had gone up to him! How much richer his story would have been.

When he does find himself among Mexicans, he often sounds a dispirited note, as if the modern world in which he has landed disappoints him. Modernity, global culture, hipness — these seem to be things that Mr. Cohan would not wish upon Mexico. A garden party in Xalapa, where pasta salad and French bread are served alongside chicken with mole sauce, “could have been in San Francisco or Chapel Hill or Austin, Paris or Prague or Buenos Aires.”

At a restaurant in Oaxaca, he is given tostadas with goat cheese; a soup with apple, lime and chicken; and green peppers stuffed with almonds and raisins. “If this was the New Oaxaca,” he writes with a whiff of elitism, “I was beginning to yearn just a little for the Old Oaxaca of mole, grasshoppers, and chocolate.”

Mr. Cohan can bemoan the existence of Wal-Mart and MTV in modern-day Mexico, but the fact remains: Mexicans, at least a great many of them (like their American counterparts), want their Wal-Marts and their music videos. The trick is to discover the authentic amid the mundane.

Last year in Zacatecas, a beautiful colonial city in the northern Mexican highlands, I met a man named Paco, who insisted that I accompany him and his girlfriend one Sunday morning to eat menudo (a delicious soup typically of tripe, chiles, onions and lime) in the neighboring town of Guadalupe. Not far from well-preserved colonial Zacatecas was familiar suburban sprawl: strip malls with Blockbuster Video and a Sam’s Club.

Later, however, in the center of Guadalupe, inside the loud and crowded menuderia, I was plunged amid a timeless scene: Mexican families devouring their menudo, eating their soup, wrapping the morsels of tripe (or spinal cord, in come cases) in piping-hot tortillas. This was the real Mexico.

But so, too, I had to admit, was the strip mall nearby (indeed, after lunch, Paco and his girlfriend wanted to stop off at Blockbuster for their afternoon’s entertainment). One world does not have to take precedence over the other; the two can exist side by side, or perhaps, like layers of a palimpsest, the ghost of the former world ever-present in the current one.

Sudip Bose is senior editor of Preservation magazine.

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