Survivors in Mexicoby Rebecca West, Bernard Schweizer
"The publication of Rebecca West's Survivors in Mexico marks an important literary event: the rescue from oblivion of a daring and important work by an major twentieth-century writer. This book is West's exploration of Mexican history, religion, and culture - a work the author clearly conceived as a companion and sequel to her masterpiece about the Balkans, Black Lamb… See more details below
"The publication of Rebecca West's Survivors in Mexico marks an important literary event: the rescue from oblivion of a daring and important work by an major twentieth-century writer. This book is West's exploration of Mexican history, religion, and culture - a work the author clearly conceived as a companion and sequel to her masterpiece about the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941). Although West never brought Survivors to completion, she left behind a series of extensive drafts and revisions that Bernard Schweizer has meticulously assembled and edited. The result is a welcome addition to the Rebecca West canon - a compelling travel memoir/history comparable to her best work, and one certain to gain readers and critical acclaim." West's narrative takes on Mexican history - the conquest by Spain, the Mexican Revolution, and the muralist movement - and explores the inner lives of such figures as Cortes, Montezuma, the Reclus brothers, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Dr. Atl, and Leon Trotsky. The author's concern is to distill meaning from the complex and often incoherent mass of data that characterizes the process of history. She draws fascinating connections between consciousness and material life, between subjective desire and social agency, and between art and politics. She sheds light on the revolutionary impulse and outlines a philosophy of history that acknowledges darkness yet documents the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.
"An enthrallingly readable book. . . . Very few writers have managed to be more knowledgeable and profound in their thinking. . . . Survivors in Mexico is an astonishingly fertile book, full of sharp impressions and stimulating insights, whether West is pondering the question of why miners have been among the most mistreated of all laborers or speculating about the social and political effects of the Aztecs' lack of domesticated animals. . . . West's deeply personal take on Mexico is ultimately a meditation on the meaning of life itself."—Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times Book Review
- Yale University Press
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Survivors in Mexico
By Rebecca West
Yale University PressCopyright © 2003 The Literary Estate of Rebecca West
All right reserved.
Mexico City I
Thirty years ago, in the Macedonian province of Yugoslavia, I knew one of the last pashas who were stranded there after the Turkish Empire had been driven out of the Balkans. Such Turks were in sad straits. Five hundred years before, their ancestors had been settled there by the sultans to colonise the territories their armies had conquered, and now the Christians had turned on them, and they were amazed, as exploiters always are when the exploited turn and bite the hand which has not fed them. There was nowhere for these obsolete pro-consuls to retreat from this revenge, for they were strict Moslems, the women wore the veil and the men the fez, and they knew that if they went back to Turkey they would find that by order of the Atat�rk the Turkish females' faces were naked and Turkish males had adopted infidel bowlers.
Therefore the old pasha, like several of his kind, lingered on in Macedonia, living in the crumbling villa-palace of his ancestors, with only the few acres round it that he had been allowed to keep when the rest was cut up into peasant holdings under the land reforms of King Alexander. The one place in his home where his poverty did not show, where there were no cracked tiles on the floor and no plaster dust fallen from the wedding-cake vaults above, was a second-storey balcony, which the old lilac trees in the garden had long overtopped. Sitting there, one could stretch out an arm into the branches and stir up the purple flowers and set the scent rising in clouds. There we used to pass the summer evenings, up among the lilacs, drinking a mixture of coffee and chocolate, not thick Turkish coffee, but the thin Western brew, laced with sweet chocolate beaten to a foam. "This," the pasha told me every time we drank it, "is how they serve coffee in Mexico." That was the only thing about Mexico I was sure I knew when I went there.
It is in line with life as I know it that when I got to Mexico nobody had ever heard of mixing coffee and chocolate. But my misapprehension worked out well, for Mexican waiters always took an interest in my husband and myself after we had ordered this bizarre beverage, saying, "Chk, chk, do they drink that in England?" and when we said, to save ourselves trouble, "Yes, all the time, all the time," they nodded tolerantly, feeling that as foreigners we had to be wrong about something, and this was error in an innocent field. So they bore with us every afternoon, round about six, when we went up to the bar on the top floor, though that was the hour they liked to doze; and while they stretched themselves on the plush benches round the walls, we sat undisturbed by the huge west window and watched the sunset make a cavalry charge on the sky and beat the daylights out of it and then itself get beaten by the night.
The conflict might go this way: above Mexico City the November skies were pearl grey, not luminous as might be expected at the height of seven thousand feet, not trembling brightly as they do over Johannesburg and Saint Moritz, for the reason that here they are thickened and sobered by industrial pollution contained within the walls of the wide basin in which the city spreads. These pearl-grey skies became a honeycoloured vagueness, a primrose glow, an amber fire, orange flames, and it is no use objecting that this process happens everywhere at that hour. Only here does it seem that the skies go on fire as solid objects do, as if their ashes might rain down on the spectators. Then the mountains were black against crimson, and the crimson marched on and on until it was overhead, and then purple clouds rushed from horizon to horizon, fusing with the crimson and dissolving to rose veils floating on a mulberry firmament, which then was bleached, but brightly, into a greenish crystal arch traversed by white phantoms of mist through which shone stars larger than they had been last week in New York. Lights twinkled up at them from the city below, and it was full night. The operation had taken twenty-five minutes.
The lights that twinkle back from Mexico City are sparse. Over Washington and New York and other urban complexes in the States there stand in the night other shining, immaterial cities, created by profligate use of electricity: a lovely form of waste. But Mexico is huge and poor and profligate only in fields indicated by its political soul, which acts (like even the best of governments) half out of a genuine desire to promote the happiness of the people and half to catch votes. The Federal District of Mexico contains 6 million people who have to be kept happy, not including the half-million provincials camping in the dust-flats outside the city limits, waiting for jobs they have imagined-which is not so hopeless a state as might appear. Mexicans have a creative imagination. They might imagine prosperity into being. They have imagined themselves into the present United States of Mexico against all probability; they have imagined the huge solidity stretching for miles below the glass window where we sat, a solidity which at that hour was dense not only where there were houses, but in between. A seventh of the national population lives within the Federal District; to take a larger unit, nearly half that population is to be found in the 14 percent of the national territory contained in the wide basin of the Valley of Mexico. As my husband and I sat looking at the sunset, most of that half were trying to get home. Below us was a traffic congestion startling even to those who know New York and London and Paris.
There has only just been built the beginnings of a subway in Mexico City, and the reason for this-like the reason for everything that happens in these parts-is historical. In 1521 the Spanish conqueror Cort�s destroyed the Aztec capital, Tenochtitl�n, which was another Venice, poised on silt in a lake, and he built Mexico City on the ravaged site. In the process he rashly drained channels which should have been left alone, and the water table shifted and has never been quite itself again, so solid earth round here is not so solid. Many old buildings have a heavy list, often with ironic effect. Surely the offices of the Congregation for the Propagation of Faith ought not, with its influential connections, to be sinking into the ground at an angle of twenty degrees. So it happens that no engineer was eager to build a subway anywhere near Mexico City, and till now there has been no public transport except buses and two kinds of taxis, one the kind for hire by a single passenger or acquainted group of passengers, the others who take a mixed bag and drop them in turn. The drivers of this latter sort show what they are by putting one hand out of the window when they have room for another passenger, and it becomes a folk gesture peculiarly appropriate to the town.
They are Mexican hands, more often beautiful than not. (It is only we Europeans who have ugly hands, with thick fingers, broad palms, heavy wrists, and an alarming liability to go uglier still in age. No wonder we have had to excuse ourselves by technological activity.) Mexican taxi drivers' hands, like everything else Mexican, are involved in history. By day they are asking for more passengers, and avidly, for there is poverty here, but they are also pointing out the scenes on which their national drama has played itself. Listen to one of the drivers who can speak a foreign language and ferries tourists to whom that language is native: he will not be difficult to hear, he will be giving forth that openmouthed shout which in all countries is the voice of nationalism: "That marble colonnade is a memorial to OUR GREAT STATESMAN JU�REZ-he was NOT A SPANIARD-he was an INDIAN-an INDIAN-a PURE INDIAN-A ZAPOTEC INDIAN-he came from OAXACA-are you listening, Ma'am? THE PARK BEHIND IS ONE OF OUR MANY BEAUTIFUL PARTS-it is called the Alameda-the Poplar Park. HERE THE AZTECS HAD A GREAT MARKET-where they sold everything, Neiman-Marcus nothing-THEY SOLD GOLD AND JADE AND CLOTH MADE OF FEATHERS-and CHOCOLATE and VANILLA-but when the Spaniards came they STOLE it all-and the merchants they KILLED-and when the Dominicans came they turned it into the CREMATORIUM Square-there they BURNED ALL THE VICTIMS OF THE INQUISITION-human sacrifices they said the Indians made-but human sacrifices they were few, they were nearly nothing-BUT THE INQUISITION IT BURNED AND BURNED AND BURNED." The substance of the polemic is slightly surprising to the foreigner, because the speaker is unlikely to be a pure Indian. Of the 40 million Mexicans alive today only 29 percent are Indian, and most of them live in the country. Of the remainder 15 percent are white, 1 percent negro, and no less than 55 percent mestizos, of mixed blood. The man is not denouncing some monstrous invader of his people's lands, as Poles might denounce the Nazi Germans; he is denouncing some of his ancestors for maltreating other of his ancestors, which, as he is both, must lead to schizophrenia. Yet he glows with health. He is a strong swimmer swimming with the tide which is gathering momentum. Never did the Indians, during their centuries of subjection to the Spanish, lose their pride of race; but probably these taxi drivers' grandfathers could not have delivered these crowded and coherent impromptu lectures, for lack of substance. That was delivered to their sons and grandsons in superbly assimilable form by, they think, just one person. "But you will read ALL OUR GLORIOUS HISTORY in the murals of DIEGO RIVERA. You have seen them? IN OUR NATIONAL PALACE. IN CUERNAVACA. IN THE MINISTRY OF EDUCATION. He was OUR GREAT MAN, Diego RIVERA." There is an enchanting paradox here. Because Rivera was a member of the Internationalist Communist Party he became the most persuasive nationalist propagandist ever known. If Hitler had had such a painter on his side I and millions of others would not be alive today.
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo
Nobody ever worked harder than Diego Rivera to give the Mexican people a seed bed for their pride by reconstituting the Indian past, and he succeeded because his patriotism was a real passion. All his life he collected works of art produced by the pre-Columbian peoples of Mexico, and he set a large part of his personal fortune aside to found a museum in which these could be exhibited after his death. To this museum we were taken by our driver one Sunday morning, and it was for him a religious experience. "Did you ever hear," he asked me, "that President de Gaulle is the Joan of Arc of today?" I did not wish to discuss the comparison, which always reminds me of how much I dislike female impersonators, but I admitted that I had heard it made. "Well," said the driver, "that is wrong. The French have no right to say that President de Gaulle is like Joan of Arc. But we have a right to call Diego Rivera our Joan of Arc. De Gaulle is a tyrant, but Joan of Arc was a great revolutionary who loved her country, and Diego Rivera was a great revolutionary who loved Mexico." These remarks betrayed no ignorance at all. Our driver had been well taught at school and he was widely read. He was simply using the word "revolutionary" in its Mexican sense, which denotes any person who initiates against opposition any action or course of actions beneficial to his people. It must be added to this definition that the initiation must be performed with a certain fervour. A revolutionary must have overthrown the stoney idols of the heart.
Certainly, Rivera's museum was the work of a sincere revolutionary. He sought to restore in it the Mexican's pride in his Indian past, as he had restored it in his murals. But it is built to a plan that has no real relationship with the Aztec Empire. To the eye of a Londoner it suggests a section cut out of Wandsworth Jail, and a New Yorker would see it as the offspring of Grant's Tomb and one of the Arsenals. Grey blocks of stone have been piled up by an architect who had the Aztec pyramids in mind, but not as they were in the days of what was probably the most highly coloured (to use the word in its literal sense) civilisation the world has ever seen, but as they are in their ruined state, after having been stripped of the gorgeousness they were designed to display by the Spaniards and rough-housed by four hundred and fifty years of neglect and weather and a century of archaeological research. Around this bleak edifice is a garden laid out with an austere air of serving a high purpose which need not necessarily be enjoyable, and it was the one public place where we saw no balloon-sellers and no hawkers of "pig's crackling." As we approached it, there issued from its funerary portals a party of people whose faces were stiff with a sense that the visit was not yet over, but only slightly stiff, for it was nearly over. They were members of a provincial branch of the Communist Party, who had come by bus which was even then starting up its engine to take them on to places where the sellers of balloons and pig's crackling were of good heart, and they could enjoy the Indian heritage of laughter and colour that had given Rivera his joy and his genius, but which was strangely absent from his museum.
For within were grey stone steps and corridors which certainly reproduced the interior of the pyramids, but those which would have been visited by Aztec plumbers and engineers, rather than by their priests or artists, for they led to no painted shrine. Against this monotone background the beautiful sculptures and pottery, which were also grey and black, went for nothing because they had been designed to stand in bright light or against bright colours; and since the intention of many of them was comic, they were as disconcerting as Rowlandson drawings would be hanging in a crematorium. Only in the centre was a room, free of melancholy, large and light; and the most conspicuous object was Rivera's last picture, an unfinished portrait of a pretty Mexican woman of an insipidity not at all distressing, because it showed such good will, it simply put forward the proposition that it would have been agreeable if women were roses, people precious objects, the world a candy. Its insensibility was balanced by another sort of sensibility, which recalled the statue of the Prince of the Flowers in the museum, smiling indifferently but urgently up at the sun, or it might have been the rain. From hooks high up on the wall dangled two giants made of stuffed basketwork, the figures of Judases as are burned at the fiesta of Gloria every year; and it came home to one that the huge, rip-roaring man who was responsible for all these murals, for this exquisite collection of sculptures, the massive and generous error of this museum, was now nowhere, not as much of him was left as these two straw men. An Aztec poem quoted by Soustelle had something to say about that:
Does one take flowers along to the land of the dead? Flowers are only lent to us, the truth is that we go.
Excerpted from Survivors in Mexico by Rebecca West Copyright © 2003 by The Literary Estate of Rebecca West
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