Mexico has inspired some of the greatest writers in both the Spanish and English languages. From D.H. Lawrence to Laura Esquivel, from Graham Greene to our own C.M. Mayo-- jumping in amongst them while I was travelling around Mexico researching Sliced Iguana was a daunting but thrilling experience. Here are my desert island favourites:
# 1. Sibyl Bedford's A Visit to Don Otavio
A journey taken in the 1950s but rediscovered by Eland Press in the 1980s, this book encapsulates, for me, the essence of good travel writing. Never one to shy away from describing the frustrations and discomforts of travel, Sibyl Bedford is nonetheless quick as a hummingbird to suck the sweetness from every experience. Typically, she confesses she chose Mexico because she wanted "to be in a country with a long nasty history in the past, and as little present history as possible" but it's her idyllic stay with Don Otavio, a bankrupt squire living in a colonial mansion in a forgotten backwater with seventeen servants, that becomes the highlight of her travels. Her hilarious, pithy dialogues are pure genius. Not your average tourist experience but a wonderful insight into Mexico's colonial past and how to travel in style.
# 2. Octavio Paz's Labyrinth of Solitude
By the master himself, this rich, deep, dark searching into the very psyche of Mexico gets closer, I think, to the heart of 'Mexicanidad' than anything else. This is by no means a comfortable read -- "We are alone", he says, "Solitude, the source of anxiety, begins on the day we are deprived of maternal protection and fall into a strange and hostile world..."-- but Paz's passionate, tortured honesty winds an illuminating path around Mexico's painful and bloody past, shedding light on what it really means to be born a Mexican.
# 3. Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano
A cult novel of self-destruction that hooked me long before I was seduced by my first taste of mescal.
# 4. Bernal Diaz's Conquest of New Spain
Written by the last of Cortes' conquistadors fifty years after the event, and therefore to be taken with the necessary pinch of salt, this swashbuckling account of the Spaniards' first steps in the New World and their encounters and battles with the Aztecs and other 'Indians' nevertheless has all the adrenaline-rush of history in the making and reads-- in the masterfully edited Penguin Classics version-- like an Homeric epic.
# 5. Carlos Fuentes' A New Time for Mexico
A brilliant collection of essays exploring Mexico's present and its future in a delightfully frank and accessible way. It's a wise and beautifully written collection, of course, as captivating as any of Carlos Fuentes' novels, but these essays are also-- refreshingly-- full of hope.
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--->Up next Wednesday: novelist Leslie Pietrzyk