Looking at Mexico sideways

The Zigzag Way

Anita Desai

Chatto & Windus, 12.99

IN THE Mexican silver mines, in the days before Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata led their uprisings, the native miners hauled their loads up and down thousands of steps in a winding pattern. They found that zigzagging their climb was the best way to breathe the thin mountain air coming in from above, taking in only enough to keep them going as they slogged to the top.

Regular Booker Prize nominee Anita Desai takes their oblique path as a metaphor for her new novel, which takes a similarly sideways approach to a slight story of history and memory in modern Mexico. And like the miners, it is as if she does not want too much fresh air to fall on her tale, told rather distantly, as if seen from afar.

It’s a story of various cultures, all coming together in the mountains, beginning with American student Eric who travels to a remote town in vague search of a thesis topic. Realising that his aimless traipsing after his more successful girlfriend, working elsewhere in Mexico, is going nowhere, he decides on a whim to track down some family history.

Eric’s grandparents, Davey and Betty, were Cornish, part of the mining communities drawn from their villages to a faraway land, complete with transplanted Methodist chapels, pasties baked with cactus juice and picnics to mark the Duke of Cornwall’s birthday held under mesquite trees. Betty’s story, uncovered (or possibly dreamed) by Eric, is full of fascinating detail about these attempts to recreate the culture of home in an unsuitable terrain - attempts that end when the revolutionaries attack.

On his way, Eric visits a strange research centre devoted to preserving the culture of the Huichol Indians - or perhaps its real purpose is to glorify its ostentatious patron, Dona Vera, dubbed the Queen of the Sierra. Dona Vera’s rants about the exploitation of the Indians conceal the truth that in reality she knows them only superficially and is herself hiding from a dubious European past.

These three strands of the book cohere about as well as the local church on the hillside where the Spanish priest’s Virgin Mary statue is only grudgingly accepted alongside the Indians’ pagan god dess. An uneasy structure lurches between Eric’s point of view to Dona Vera’s to Betty’s, zigzagging through their loosely related experiences. Perhaps Desai means to make the point that only by approaching things at an angle can we really understand a foreign place or time. But it leads to some paragraphs that read like an information download, as the history of each is dispensed in unsubtle summary.

In describing the sights and sounds of Mexico, however, Desai’s prose is wonderfully evocative. One astonishing sentence, 40 lines long, piles suggestive details in a heap of colourful vignettes, breathlessly conveying Eric’s dizzying first impressions of the country.

Though the book as a whole represents only a tourist’s-eye view of the country, glimpsed while passing through, it does have some beautiful postcard images.

Main Theatre, Thursday, 11.30am