Wednesday, September 07, 2022

On the Plain of Snakes by Paul Theroux

Theroux's previous travel book, 2015's Deep South, saw him shift his mode of operations from trains to his own car and from foreign lands to his own USA, to reinvigorate his travel writing in his seventh decade and after the near-disaster of his last Africa book, The Last Train to Zona Verde.

2019's On the Plain of Snakes mixed up those two changes, with Theroux still using his own car, but heading even further south to once again get out of America and into foreign countries. This time, it was Mexico, where he'd spent some time during The Old Patagonian Express trip several decades earlier. But this time was a more specific trip - not the old "take the railroads as far as they go" trips of his younger years, but a deeper exploration of the whole land, starting with the border.

Plain of Snakes covers roughly a year of travel, 2017-2018, and Theroux presents it as continuous. There do seem to be some lacuna in his time, though, so I suspect his old "lives half the year on Cape Cod and half in Hawaii" popped up, with trips presumably to Hawaii, particularly for the last month or two of 2017. But it's pretty clear he drove his car south to the border, then the whole length of the border, and then on a number of trips deeper and deeper into Mexico, following the initial border section with a long stay in Mexico City and more journeys further south to Oaxaca and Juchitan, devastated by the recent Puebla earthquake. And then he drove that car back - the car made the trip the whole way, and never went anywhere else in the middle, even as Theroux made side trips by bus and plane and (perhaps, as I'm guessing) returned to the States here and there for other things.

Plain of Snakes is a book about ordinary life in the shadow of larger threats, mostly of violence: from the bizarre kabuki of the border, where everything real is entirely different from the rhetoric (this was 2017, remember: high season for "they're not sending their best")  to the lurking threat of the narco gangs everywhere in the country and their corrupt enablers in the police and military. Theroux came across a few mildly corrupt officials and cops - he doesn't make the point strongly, but I get the impression it was nothing unusual for someone who had traveled as widely as he has, just a few bribes here and there.

The book starts with that border, and the relationship with the USA permeates the book: how could it not, written by an American sojourning in Mexico? Theroux talks with dozens of people who lived and worked for a while in the USA - all of them, I think, illegally, probably all of them doing jobs locals wouldn't take, at wages equally illegal - and investigates how first NAFTA and then 9/11 completely transformed the border from a pleasant though mostly porous place where people travelled both directions and had strong connections into a militarized zone devoted only to commerce and where money flowed only to the criminals and the big businesses.

The first thing to know is that, though gringos seldom cross to any of the border cities and towns, tens of thousands of Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals cross every day, in both directions. They have visas and passports, or an ID that allows them access. Renting or buying a house on the US side is prohibitive for many, so a whole cross-border culture has developed in which American citizens of Mexican descent live in a house or an apartment - or a simple shack - in a Mexican border city, such as Juarez or Nuevo Laredo, and commute to work in El Paso or Laredo.

It is a fairly simple matter to walk to Mexico at any point, but there is always a crush of people - all of them with documents - waiting to enter the US to work, go to school, or shop. As the man told me in Tijuana, clothes and electronics are much cheaper in the US. A busy, bilingual Walmart can be found on the American side of most border crossings.


The Mexican side is also crowded, in those same border cities, with factories that sprung up after NAFTA, making goods mostly for the US market, mostly by people making a few dollars a day. Theroux is describing what he sees rather than critiquing capitalism, but the reader can very easily fill in the gaps.

The narco threat is more amorphous, the background of all life in Mexico, everywhere in that large, complex nation. The gangs fight with each other, sometimes fight with government forces - or seem to do so, the cynical might say - and massacre civilians in what seems a random fashion, a bus-load here, a group of protestors there.

Because in Mexico Mundo, life on the plain of snakes was so uncertain, every venture out of the security of the home could become dramatic and precarious. One of the more bizarre cruelties of the country, found in both its political and criminal culture - and of course the two often overlap - were sudden disappearances. As I found out from the humanitarian organization Caminos Oaxaca: Acompanamiento a Migrantes, hundreds of migrants disappeared en route to the border; the feistier journalists disappeared; the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa disappeared; virtually every day people went missing in Mexico, kidnapped, abducted, lifted, deleted, never to be heard from again.


This is an oddly happy, positive book, for all of the upheavals and danger in the background: the border, the gangs, the earthquake that forms the background of much of the last hundred pages, even the Zapatista rebels Theroux spends time with near the very end. Mexico's people are strong and resilient, with a rich, deep vibrant culture, and Theroux presents them as rejuvenating him at a time in his life (mid-seventies, if I'm counting correctly) when he was feeling old and worn-out and useless. It is deep and rich and full of  interesting details, yet another masterful book of travel by a man who has been doing this well for forty years. I'm thrilled to see he's still going; if Paul Theroux can still head off to strange places and come out of them whole and with another thoughtful book, there is hope for all of us.

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