in rural Paris, Iowa, and Wordpress

Rebecca and Mexico

Survivors in MexicoSurvivors in Mexico by Rebecca West

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

HEADLINE: The first non-fiction work that I have completed since I swore off novels was a dandy.

Forgive the long quotation, but I wish to make a point about the incredibly brilliant Rebecca West. This from her on the Mexican Revolution of 1910:

Why did the Mexicans, children of two great peoples, produce for themselves the 10 years of bloodshed and chaos described by Ronald Atkin in his vivid and informative work, Revolution: Mexica 1910-1920?

Well, it was partly the superb climate, which is capable of producing such natural catastrophes as hurricanes which drop 10 thousand million tons of water “upon the place beneath,” as Shakespeare said regarding another mood of Providence, but usually sends one perfect day after another in the dry season and in the wet season warms its rains and times them with convenient regularity.

When the leaders said to the masses, “Take up your guns in the course of liberty, and follow me into the hills,” they were calling them to face hardship and death, but this cry, ideological as it might be in its origins, was affeced by the weather. The proof of that is the rarity with which Esquimaux extend such invitations to each other. Selling the concept of guerrilla warfare from igloo to igloo, that would be a test of salesmanship.

The Mexicans made the revolution not so much because they were ferocious and in love with chaos, but because they had guns, as people must who live where homesteads are far apart and there are wild beasts, and there was this good weather they could ride out into, feeling they had a good day for it, whatever that it might be, a fiesta or a battle.

That is from Rebecca West’s review of Revolution: Mexica 1910-1920. The review is included in the Appendix to Survivors in Mexico, her unfinished work about that country. It is a nice example of the kind of simple insight of which she was capable–the premise that the wonderful weather in Mexico formed a good venue for revolution. She was also capable of very complex insights. A brilliant person.

One can get a glimpse of where Rebecca West intended to go with this book by taking a look at her completed masterpiece on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. She simply did not, because of age and other factors, have the opportunity to tie this one all up. She did leave us with some wonderfully entertaining reading concerning Mexico, however. It is a subject with which I am fascinated now that I live there. This is an informative and an unexpectedly entertaining read.

The book proper devotes only a brief chapter to the Revolution. Her review of Robert Atkin’s book supplements it wonderfully therefore. The book does contain chapters on Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, and the sights and sounds and institutions of Mexico City. Her great chapters on Hernán Cortés, Montezuma and his capitol, and the Aztecs generally, brings those characters and that place alive in a way they certainly were not during my semester of Latin American history at university long ago.

It is her chapters on the forgotten Mexican artist Dr. Atl and the two brothers on the left, Elie and Elisée Reclus with whom she was acquainted in her youth, that really shine though. Men fascinated with volcanoes. The revolution in Mexican art was so central to the Revolution of 1910 and its aftermath. She clearly and vividly explains the how and the why of that.

As I have assured you all in my review of 2666, I am done with novels. I mean it. Don’t laugh. This first non-fiction book that I have completed since that resolution was a perfect transition for me out of the morass of big time fiction.

–March 2010

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9 Responses to “Rebecca and Mexico”

  1. StephenBrassawe

    I think the explanation is that some of these pages have a lot of words in them. Now that I know that someone is reading, I have gone back and looked at them myself. I keep finding typographical errors.

    I freely admit that the idea of a writer composing something that was inspired by my photos is fascinating to me. I look forward to reading this piece that you have written, Jamie.

    As far as the article in Salon is concerned, you certainly called that one. I loved it. As a matter of fact, just yesterday I purchased a used copy of “Mill on the Floss” having previously read George Eliot’s more famous one twice. Jonathan Frantzen wrote an extended essay that was much discussed and that in part addressed a related subject. It appeared in Harper’s magazine in the spring of 1998, I think it was, and was written while he was in the throes of his own writerly crisis. He discussed readers of literary fiction and why they are comfortable with unhappy endings and even more importantly ambiguous endings while the vast majority—the thundering herd—are not.

    And I detest film versions of all classic novels and never watch them. When someone says something like, “I have never read ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles,’ but I did see the PBS film version of it”, my skin crawls and I have trouble holding my tongue. I can be a cranky old man, and I must watch myself in these things. I can too easily start to feel myself so superior to others when in fact I most certainly am not.

  2. Jamie Dedes

    “Cranky” will ensure that you live long. Take it from me. I have outlived my medically predicted expiration date by twelve years. Meanwhile …

    Been blogging for four years now. Have found that long pieces do not work well when it comes to traffic, but that’s not the point of the exercise unless you are building a “platform” to sell a book proposal.
    Wanted to reblog your feature “The Reading Curse” – very fine, thank you – on:
    Your permission please?

    Wow! I just had the worst time getting this to post. Fifth times the charm, I hope … Here goes …

    • StephenBrassawe

      Certainly, you have my permission. I do not reserve my rights in any of this stuff. Anyone is free to use anything in this blog however they chose. I am flattered by your request though.

      Tell you what I am going to do. I am going to that one and proofread it one more time. It seems like every time– on those rare occasions–when I revisit one of these pages, I find another typographical error. I will do that right now. By the time you see this reply, it will be done.

  3. StephenBrassawe

    My calendar is filling up here. First Friday. Now Thursday. It has been a long time since I have looked at anything except a totally empty calendar. Luckily, I myself am not required actually to DO anything on those days. Consequently, I can deal with all this quite nicely, I think.


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