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?

24 responses to “Paul Theroux’s On The Plain of Snakes, A Mexican Journey: Review

  1. Hi Norma,
    Thanks for writing this great review.
    My husband, Bruno, and I have read almost all of Theroux’ books over the years. We both think this one may be his best. I have always marveled at his ability to travel with few or no amenities. His traveling began when he was in Malawi in the Peace Corps in the 60s. He says it’s the poorest country in Africa.
    I don’t always love his attitude, but in this book I really admire what he does. Bruno read, as suggested in the book, a book about the 43 disappeared students from Ayotzinapa. I followed that story for several years on Democracy Now.
    Thanks again for a thorough, thoughtful review.

    • Pat, thanks for your thoughtful and considered reply. Yes, I completely agree with you and Bruno. There is much to admire here. I love his use of language, and I even have to stop to look up the words he uses — he is so expressive and illiterative. And, throughout, his politics and commitment to social justice shine through. He is definitely an advocate for the people of Mexico, from a compassionate and humane point-of-view. All my best to you both, Norma

  2. I’m half way through the book and have enjoyed reading the comments here. I read some, put it down for a while and then pick it up again. It’s very thought provoking and, at times, difficult to read. I can’t remember when it’s taken me so long to read a book. Your review and the comments following it encourage me to keep at it.

    • Hi Mary. Thanks for writing. Many of us had a similar experience: slog through it, push through it, keep at it, skim over it, put it down and pick it back up again. Worth it, but definitely not an easy read! Be well. Norma

  3. Hi Norma! I enjoyed his book and found it a balanced report of his travels in Mexico. Not too sweet nor too sour. I’m so glad he mentioned Linda Hanna. I had the pleasure of accompanying him in his visit tonHuayapam y San Agustin Yatareni. Linda asked me to tntrofucebhim to.immigrants who had returned from the US. We ended our time together with a meal at Illegales. I am so glad he focused on the complicated immigration issue, giving a face to this problem

    • What a lovely thing to have happen, Patrice, a day with Paul Theroux! Good for you. And a perfect pairing — you being an immigrant rights attorney and him an immigrant sympathizer! Yes, his book is a thread about immigration from start to finish. A challenging topic for the casual travelog reader, for sure! Sending big hugs. Norma

  4. I too read this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. I feared for his safety driving through the area of the cartels but he seemed to be open to any experience. What I liked were his encounters with people he met along the way. Even though poor, so many were warm and welcoming to him. That is the real Mexico. I think it is an honest portrait of today’s Mexico.

    • Thank you, Gail. I completely agree with you, although my caveat would be that I enjoyed most of it, not all of it. The ending was the clincher. He knew he had risked a lot by driving through cartel territory, and he escaped unscathed! That was very lucky. Tackling Mexico from north to south is a huge undertaking. I think he did it, overall, with compassion and humanity.

  5. Oh my gosh! Well, Norma, if I were half as articulate as you & recalled the book with any lucidity, I would write a review. But your review was so well written and so spot on, why bother? I can be lazy & let Norma, (Smarty Pants, Talented & beautiful wonder-dog)do it for me! I stopped reading after Oaxaca. I feel like he ran out of steam somehow, but he did point out that Oaxaca is the poorest of all the Mexican states which I found very hard to fathom after learning about the poverty along the border & elsewhere. It was a very dense read & so many allusions you other writers I felt in awe that he knew all of them well enough to quote, but also a bit overwhelmed with the asides those references offered up; tough to stay focused on him & his take on the journey. I marveled at his sheer courage/stupidity/bravado going into some of these places…I was very intrigued with the Muertos references & feel compelled to read more. When I returned from Chiapas I ordered several books about Chiapas & the Uprising through the large western MA library catalogue. Every one of those books is so dense; it seems like they’re all dissertations. Too difficult for someone like me: a novice. But I also don’t like travelogues that are too light and fluffy, like Under the Tuscan Sun. No thanks. Anyway, thanks for your brilliant review, Norma!!

    • Well, dear Julia, thank you for the compliments. I’m honored. Writing takes practice and I had just finished the book, so it was fresh in my mind! You missed the last chapter about the Zapatista movement in Chiapas and the embrace of him by Subcommandante Marcos. This was quite an honor and I think it overwhelmed him in many ways. I found this last chapter to be very emotional, especially because we can relate, in 2020, to the plight of our friend Cristobal from Magdalena Aldama whose civil rights are at risk because he is a Zapatista leader. I understand the difficulty of dealing with/reading dense and difficult material. This was not a breezy read. I had to put it down for days at a time and pick it back up again. Force myself to get through parts of it that didn’t so much capture my interest. I love Paul Theroux’s humanity, his willingness to take up the struggle of the underdog and explain it for us, and his fervent ability to take up the cause of human rights and social justice. So, this book is more political and sociological than it is a travelog. I now have even deeper admiration for him. I would encourage you to pick up the book and read the last chapter about Chiapas. I think you will find it uplifting and hopeful. Love, Norma

  6. Wow Norma, an insightful review. I will take a look at the book! Thank you, and stay well, — Elizabeth P.

  7. Hola Norma,
    I had many of the same reactions to ON THE PLAIN OF SNAKES which I think is a good title for this book. For most of us, snakes, conjure up something negative. However, at least before the arrival of the Spanish, the snake was not only a positive but also a sacred creature. Theroux definitely explores both positive and negative aspects of Mexico and for this I feel it is a balanced picture of Mexico in these times.
    Before he started this adventure he asked what I thought about his idea of traveling alone through the back country of Mexico. I responded like most people I knew would by saying it sounded like a very risky thing to do. However, since he survived, I’m really glad he did the trip as I would only be comfortable knowing about some of those places vicariously.
    I particularly enjoyed reading about his experience in Chiapas and actually being embraced by Comandante Marcos. No one else I know has had such a experience.
    I know it’s not a light read but I recommend it for it’s balanced perspective.
    Linda Hanna
    Casa Linda B&B in Oaxaca, Mexico

    • Hi, Linda, thanks for adding your wisdom and recommendation. I enjoyed reading that he mentioned you in the book, and that you recommended that he spend some time in Yatareni and Huayapam, where you live and operate your B&B. And, yes, I agree with you, his reporting is fair and balanced, and he gives the reader a realistic picture if one dares explore beyond the tourist centers. One cannot begin to “know” Mexico until one sees/understands the full picture, and he rounds out what others fail to do. Be well and safe, Norma

  8. Thank you for this excellent review. I am two thirds of the way through this book and am loving it! I worked five years on the border in El Paso/Cd. Juarez and so really liked his border travels in the first half. I had just finished reading Jeanine Cummins book, American Dirt, which is really a hard read but necessary for any understanding and compassion for those fleeing the violence in Mexico. So I was prepared for Paul Theroux’s tough words in the first half of the book and I think anyone living in Oaxaca and anywhere in Mexico needs to read his book and Jeanine Cummins book as well as Kathy and Phil Dahl-Bredine’s newest book, The Insurrection of the Common Good. I think all these books are important to understand how the insane drug culture and the disastrous war on drugs and exploitation of the natural resources of Mexico have impacted the folks we love and live with in this most friendly and lovely of places.

  9. Great review, thank you so much.

  10. I read this book last month and loved it. I love Mexico and especially Oaxaca and have travelled to many of the places Theroux writes about. I also grew up on the border near Tijuana. Mexico is so much more than beaches and Margaritas and Theroux gets to some of the more authentic parts of this complex place. As I read this, I kept returning to the gutsiness of the author to be driving alone at age 76 through the unknown. To me it was both a bit foolish, but also an intention to get the real experience and not just the tourist gloss. I totally recommend this book for the person who wants to broaden their understanding of this magical country.

    • Dear Marla, you know of what you speak! Your testimony as a person who grew up near the border gives us validation that what Paul Theroux writes about is accurate. You have seen it!

      Mostly, in retrospect and overall, I feel as you do, that Theroux does justice to the parts of Mexico that tourists rarely come in contact with — the workers and makers in small villages dotted throughout the country. He takes up the causes that are unpopular and helps us understand their roots. I’m in awe of his language and his assessments. Someone on a Facebook post commented that she doesn’t read him because he is a misogynist. I don’t get that at all. I find him to be fair, humane and totally for upholding indigenous rights for all, women and men.

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

  11. I loved it because it is gritty and real about the “other” Mexico that most don’t see. It’s about the people, not so much about places. Difficult to read but absolutely worth it if you want to know the REAL Mexico and her people.

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