For years it was one of those intriguing asterisk marks in many a great writer’s career–a book that might have been but wasn’t. In 1966, at the age of 74 and not long after finishing work on her fifth novel, Dame Rebecca West left her country house in Buckinghamshire and traveled to Mexico City on assignment for The New Yorker. She was on the trail of Leon Trotsky, who had spent his last few years in incongruously picturesque exile there, amid cacti and fragrant flowers, devotedly raising rabbits, until an assassin took an ice pick to his head in 1940. West planned to interview Trotsky’s grandson, Seva, who still owned the revolutionary’s failed safehouse. (In 1990, he reopened the house as a melancholy museum.) But soon into the writing of the New Yorker piece she felt called to undertake a much bigger project: a sweeping book on Mexico itself, which had inspired her beyond expectation.
The book would be a feat of imagination. Not that West would make things up; rather, she would try to intuit patterns in Mexico’s fraught history and then weave those patterns into the history of all civilizations. She would revisit the story of the conquest, evoking the gentle yet brutal Aztecs and the clever treachery of Hernán Cortés. She would pay tribute to modern Mexicans, whom she admired for their ingenuity in dealing with everything from racial divisions to traffic from hell. Ever idiosyncratic, West even figured she could shine light on Mexico by way of her own family tree. When her father was young he had been tutored by a French anarchist. As it happened, the tutor ran in the same circle as an enigmatic Mexican intellectual of the early twentieth century. This strange genius, with the unforgettable name of Dr. Atl, helped launch the muralist movement that eventually produced Diego Rivera, and taught Mexico’s artists to study and respect their pre-Colombian roots.
The book West planned had the chance to be a kind of sequel to her masterpiece of the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. That was the grand hope, anyway. For a while, she made serious progress, revising certain sections as many as ten times, leaving others in early draft form or simply incomplete. And then, because her husband of nearly four decades died during the writing, or simply because she was in her mid-70s and a realist, she quit. After reading an enthusiastic description of the manuscript in Carl Rollyson’s biography of West, Bernard Schweizer, an assistant professor of English at Long Island University, got an idea. Why not weave together the scraps West left behind? In his introduction, Schweizer describes how he sorted through her Mexico papers at the University of Tulsa, recording every topic she so much as mentioned on a poster board to see exactly where the fragments overlapped. Rather alarmingly, he compares his process to “assembling a jigsaw puzzle.” But compared with other recent posthumous releases (of some of Hemingway’s mediocre, depressive late works, for example), Schweizer’s project does not seem like a terrible violation. There are no real skeletons in this closet. The carefully annotated result reads smoothly enough for stretches at a time, advancing profound (if often bizarrely off-topic) arguments as only West could have framed them. Scattered throughout are sentences as vigorous and rhythmically original as any she ever wrote.