Paul Theroux’s On The Plain of Snakes, A Mexican Journey: Review

This latest Paul Theroux book, On The Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey, is not an easy read. Mostly because it is not a travelog like most readers expect. It is not a fun romp through the beach towns, famed archeological sites, Colonial cobbled streets that are hallmarks of travel writing. It doesn’t recommend best hotels, restaurants or things to do. It touches on those, sure, but it goes much deeper. And, it’s uncomfortable.

The first half is an accounting of the border conflicts and gang violence. Topics most of us don’t want to read about. A good part of the book deals with immigration and the difficulties of life in Mexico for indigenous people. It gets more interesting and less brutal once Theroux gets to Oaxaca!

Theroux writes a personal journal, and social and political commentary about his road trip. He starts off along the US/Mexico border, zig-zagging back and forth across the frontier from Mexican to US border towns, checkpoints, the miles of the futile fence, and talking to boundary jumpers and border patrollers. Cartels and crossings take up the first half of the book. It’s heavy. The reader has to be willing to take the detours with him. Most of us may not be that dedicated.

Years ago, I read Riding the Iron Rooster (1988) about his experience traveling by train across China. I was particularly taken with his descriptions about Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia, a place I always wanted to visit (I never did) because of him. I loved that book.

On The Plain of Snakes is different. Perhaps his age is requiring of him to be more direct. Or we forgive him his ramblings because of it. He tells us about his age and vulnerabilities as he describes the travel writers who go to Oaxaca for four or five days and then report as if they know the place — deeply. I’ve read what they have written, too, and because I live there, I know they gloss over a lot of real life in the interest of tourism promotion. What they offer is a shiny, polished, superficial look at Mexico.

This book is dirtier, gutsier, grittier, and at moments, downright difficult to digest. We know the backroads are unpaved, bumpy, potholed and perilous! I think this is a metaphor for the poverty and lack of institutional supports for most people. It is about resourcefulness, but mostly about the underbelly, survival and self-preservation.

So, for anyone looking for a book about what to see and do in Mexico, this one will surely disappoint. I think it is more real than most people want to get into. That’s what makes it a challenging and unpleasant read — though for those of us interested in immigration, cross-border migration, cultural understanding, it is an overall fair account. You have to be willing to take the ride down the bumpy road with Theroux.

I especially loved the later chapter about the descriptions of Oaxaca village life intermingled with his take on the various literary figures of Mexico. Theroux focuses his discussion on magical realism played out in Day of the Dead observances. This celebration is not a party! He summarizes the feelings of so many indigenous people who, born into a life of hardship and struggle that is difficult to escape from, embrace death as a form of liberation.

This part helps me understand the melancholy fatalism (so called by my friend Kalisa) assumed by so many Mexicans. It also explains why, during the Covid-19 pandemic, not enough take the precautions necessary — perhaps dancing with death.

Does he do Oaxaca justice? Not really. But Theroux touches on her essences: mezcal, textiles, fields of native corn, hard-at-work campesinos and cooks, adobe builders and palm weavers, burros and dogs, tlayudas and goat stew, the steamy Isthmus of Tehuantepec and muxes. We get a sense of place. It’s a taste.

Online, you can buy the hardback for under $15 USD

I appreciated Theroux’s honesty about age. I think he said he was age 76 when he took this road trip. In my opinion, this gives him license to say whatever he wants! He’s earned it. He also talks about how age is revered and respected in Mexico, while not so much in the USA. I felt he embarked on an incredible act of courage to take this journey alone, in a car, often venturing into areas of isolation and potential danger. That was heartening — or foolish! For most of us who live in Oaxaca, we submit to the adventure.

Theroux’s premise is that to know Mexico one must know her people, her pueblos, get beyond cities and into villages where the heart and soul of the country lives. To know Mexico is to understand and appreciate the lives and motivations of her workers and farmers, their opportunities and limitations, dreams and disappointments, the draw of family and connectedness, why they immigrate and why many return. This is the insightfulness of On the Plain of Snakes and why it’s worth reading, despite the book being at times sluggish, pedantic, and self-absorbed.

At the end of the book, Theroux states, “Mexico is rich in many tourist-friendly respects — the traditional hospitality, the varieties of food, the elaborate fiestas, the gusto of the language, the consolations of family and faith. These attractive attributes are well known to the vacationer, and are the pride and boast of the Mexican. But there is more, and some of it is not pretty, and all of it is complicated.”

That about sums it up for me.

If you have read On The Plain of Snakes, A Mexican Journey, what is your take on it? Did you enjoy it or not, and for what reasons?

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