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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, August 7, 2017

A Mexican travelogue that reads like a novel: A visit to Don Otavio

I rarely read travel books, in fact rarely read books other than literary fiction, but lifelong friend DC, who has never steered me wrong going back to his recommendation that I read a little chapbook called Howl, suggested I read Sybille Bedford's A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Journey, which DC says captures the essence of Mexico better than anything he's ever read. Though I know little about Mexico, have only visited for a week or so many years back (DC traveled there extensively in the 70s and I believe has visited multiple times since then), this travelogue is a great piece of writing, seems entirely believable and authentic, reads like a novel, actually, and I can pay it no higher compliment. It's from 1953, and you'd expect many things have changed since then, though part of the ethos of this work is that things in Mexico tend to endure for centuries, throughout decades of subjection to foreign conquerors, oppressive dictatorships, political crime and corruption - the spirit of the people endures and the terrifying beauty of the country endures. Bedford wrote the book in 1953 (I believe the great NY Review Books has republished it recently), so some elements of her travel feel quaint and remote - in particular the travel by train and sleeping coach - but others feel contemporary. First of all, she conveys the sense of travel through a difficult country so that we experience Mexico vicariously; she's neither a "tourist" (this is by no means a guide book, though she has amusing things to say about several of those) nor an adventure traveler - though she is unafraid to go to out of the way places by public transport. In fact, she's fearless (she travels w/ a female companion; not clear whether there is a relationship between them, but it doesn't matter either way), and that shows the one major difference between Mexico then and today: She has no fear in the 1950s regarding drug cartels and robbery. The dangers she faces are mainly the hardships of travel, though these are prodigious, and quite funny in her telling. She gives us plenty of detail about scary bus rides, crowded trains, dicey hotels and restaurants, but also the beauty of the landscape, the generosity of strangers, the plentiful meals, and most of all some really sweet and amusing passages about communication, or miscommunication, with the Mexicans, such as the day her hotelier suggested they stay inside, the day of a "small election": Is it safe to go outside? Yes, very safe. Safe as sage. But you should stay in side. The next day: Only a few people shot. It was a small election. Terrific scenes, strong opinions - she's not afraid to say when a museum is dull or crappy - and even some capsule history of the land, told in a smart, brisk, manner - totally engaging.

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