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

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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The clash of cultures in Bedford's A Visit to Don Otavio

Part II of Sybille Bedford's great travelogue on her "Mexican Journey" (1953) is the eponymous Visit to Don Otavio, in which S, her partner (E), and a male friend, Anthony, pay a visit to Otavio at his remote lakeside estate not too far from Guadalajara. The visit begins with a bonecrushing ride in a cart pulled by a mule, yet after this inauspicious beginning, which shows us how remote the estate is, as well as the insouciance of these travelers, they are greeted by O and put up in a beautiful hacienda, for what seems to be an unlimited stay; the generosity of all the Mexicans she meets is amazing, and gives a real sense of the culture: relaxed, open, friendly, moving always at its own pace. Over the next few chapters we learn of O's life - a member of a once wealthy, titled Mexican family that lost a lot in one of the revolutions; now he's the obviously unsuccessful youngest son, given the task of turning this family property into a hotel - a hopeless proposition it would seem. The (still) wealthy siblings visit for a family meeting about the hotel plans and O's role therein, which leads to a long and hilarious chapter, mostly in dialogue, that could well be a scene from a play, or could stand alone for that matter. Over the course of their stay, Bedford et al. encounter a few other European expats living in this isolated but idyllic region; each of these is obnoxious, suspicious, and eccentric - though each in a different way - but the overall sense is that those foreigners who've settled in Mexico have no appreciation for the culture, whereas the intrepid travelers are open to new experiences and to new people. Throughout, Bedford's writing is excellent, an incredible eye for detail and great power of selection, and a real sense of humor and sharp wit. Learned from Wikipedia that she was a German-born, English-language writer and that Visit to Don Otavio (originally called The Sudden View, a much worse title) was her first book - followed by several novels, collections of essays, and the authorized bio of Huxley, who was a friend. She'd also crossed paths with Thomas Mann and other well-known German writers before the war; though she lived in Italy she was in danger of deportation to Germany, because she was (half? 1/4th?) Jewish - she married British homosexual out of convenience (she was a Lesbian) to get safe passage - one of several writers, maybe many, who took this route to safety.

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