“It’s a mistake to disclose that you’re passionate about going anywhere,” veteran travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux writes early in his new book, “because everyone will give you 10 reasons for not going – they want you to stay home and eat meatloaf and play with a computer, which is what they’re doing.” On the Plain of Snakes finds Theroux, 78, bucking such warnings, zig-zagging around the United States’ southern border in a second-hand car and driving deep into Mexico. Theroux’s latest travelogue is, quite be design, rather timely. As he writes, “Under the current presidential administration, Mexico and Mexicans had been reduced to stereotypes.” Theroux set out to destroy those stereotypes.
On the Plain of Snakes is crammed with history, literary criticism, first-hand testimonials and the discernment and grumpy humour readers have come to expect from the author of The Great Railway Bazaar and Deep South. In its ranginess, insight and depth of reportage, Theroux grapples with modern Mexico in all its complexities and contradictions. The Globe and Mail spoke with him about his travels in Mexico, the virtue of humility and the potential perils of being a total ratbag.
Was this your first trip to Mexico?
I’ve been a number of times, but never in the extensive way that I did this trip. And of course, people were telling me not to do it, it’s dangerous. I had to remind them I’m a travel writer, among other things. Occasionally we do things that are a little risky.
Plenty of travel writers and top-shelf novelists have spent time in Mexico. But in a lot of this writing, in Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh, it seems like they go there to be contemptuous of it. Is that something you wanted to push back against?
Exactly right. Graham Greene was there for less than six weeks. And he hated it. He wrote a good novel about it, The Power and the Glory. But his travel book is ridiculous. Evelyn Waugh? Same thing. That’s a whole area of travel writing: You write to amuse, to mock the natives. I was very much trying to destroy that stereotype. The longer I’ve travelled, I’ve realized how small I am, how big the world is and how unimportant I am. A travel book has to be about other people and their stories. My stories don’t matter.
You write that what people want from travel is not what they want from a travel narrative. What effect do you hope your books have on a reader, or traveller?
I would like to introduce the reader to the culture of Mexico, the human side of Mexico, the literature of Mexico, the languages and whatnot. I would also like the reader to understand that when Donald Trump, for example, talks about Mexicans, he’s simplifying in an extremely stupid way. There isn’t a Mexican. There’s a lot of Mexicans. The culture is extremely subtle. The reader ought to see that Mexico is big, complicated and has a lot of human faces that are not represented by the American government. You find these things out by going to a place, living there, travelling around and seeing what the situation is on the ground.
You have an almost supernatural capacity for making friends wherever you go. That’s a piece of advice travellers are given: Make friends with the locals, lose yourself in the culture. In my experience it’s often easier said than done. Practically, how does one immerse themselves in this way?
Be humble. Be useful. Do your best. A lot of people think I’m not humble. They think I’m a cantankerous traveller. I’m not like that at all. As a writer, I’m unsparing. In terms of travelling, you can’t be a cantankerous traveller. You need the co-operation of people. You can’t be a difficult person. If you’re difficult, you’ll find yourself in dire straits. You need people to help you on your way. You’re depending on the kindness of strangers. You can’t be ratbag.
You refer to yourself towards the end of the book as “the fortunate traveller.” To what do you attribute this fortune?
Good fortune depends on preparation. I’m not too interested in the warnings of Americans who go to Mexico. But when a Mexican says, it’s a good idea to do, this, that and the other, I listen carefully. You don’t want to do something in a country that the people in a country don’t dare to do. They know best.
You spend a large portion of the book in Oaxaca. What drew you there?
A lot of people trying to cross the border come from Oaxaca. Oaxaca is a very poor state. Culturally very rich, but in terms of income, the per capita income is the same as Kenya or Bangladesh. You can’t really raise a family on that kind of money. So people go to the States, to work.
You have an experience there that you describe as an epiphany, where you see all this chaos but find in it a kind of harmony. Did this define your whole experience in Mexico?
You look at a place and say, “God, what a mess!” and they move on. A lot of people experience that. They’re looking out the window of a tour bus. “Look Bill!” “What Doris?” “Look out the window, isn’t that awful?” And the bus moves along. But I was there, at a bereavement ceremony and it occurred to me that everything I was looking at had a place. Even though it looked junky or disorderly, I could see that everything had a function. The whole thing was like a well-oiled machine. Everything seemed to fit in.
The travel writer and tour guide Rick Steves has a book called Travel as a Political Act. Does this idea of being “political” inform your approach to travel writing or this book specifically?
I think it’s an aspect of travel writing. Some travel is autobiography, some is geography, some is history, some is politics, some is about cooking, some is about having a good time, some about the bad time. There’s a lot of travel writing that’s just about having an ordeal. It isn’t one thing. It’s a maddening form. I admire Rick Steves. I think he’s a wonderful resource for travel journeys. He’s been everywhere and he’s very observant. But I think he probably understands, too, that travel isn’t just one thing. It’s many things.
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