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.
It’s also true, though, that Survivors in Mexico is guided by an overconfidence that today we might call hubris. If any other writer had begun and abandoned a book in the late 1960s, we would examine it for signs of the tumultuous times. What did West think of the rift between generations? Of the new fashion for Third World intellectuals? West never cared for this kind of current-events commentary. She was a generalist of the old school, offering a service to the culture that has since been split up and delegated to narrower minds. Travel writer, historian, pundit, theologian, political scientist, keeper of a personal journal: She could write in any of these modes, but only on her own terms.
For better and worse, Survivors in Mexico puts West’s method under the microscope. Early chapters, which one senses she didn’t get to work over thoroughly, are mostly travelogue. She is astonished by the vast spectacle of Mexico City, bordered by twin volcanoes, its skies mellowed by pollution to “a honey-coloured vagueness, a primrose glow, an amber fire.” In passages that might rankle the PC police but mean no harm, she admires the slender physique of Mexicans. She slightly overstates the influence of Diego Rivera, but she is two decades ahead of her time in shrewdly grasping the “Ophelianish” appeal of Frida Kahlo, whose international cult had yet to blossom. She contrasts Mexican nationalism with its European counterparts. When a taxi driver recounts centuries-old abuses by Spaniards during the Inquisition, she remarks that “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.”
All this is interesting enough, if pretty standard intro-to-Mexico stuff. Still, there is a striking lack of intimacy in these early observations. West is curious, and her eye keenly registers visual details. But it is not clear that she has come to know any Mexican particularly well, or even talked to anyone at great length. Instead, we sense her isolation. Rather like an auteur film director late in his career, she imposes on Mexico themes that she had famously pursued for decades. She had long been a fascinated student of big state bureaucracies, for instance. In a sketchy analysis one wishes she could have filled in, she notes the paternalism of Mexico’s ruling party, cloaked in an appealing rhetoric of “social justice.” West is off-target in her immediate analysis of how well Mexico’s government was satisfying the needs of the people, failing to see signs of conflict that would soon culminate in the 1968 massacre of students at Tlatelolco. But in the long term, she is prescient: Despite unrest, few Mexicans could even imagine an alternative to the Institutional Revolutionary Party until they saw the government bungle the 1985 earthquake, when more than 10,000 Mexico City residents perished. As West had predicted, the people finally would not stand for callousness and incompetence on this large a scale.
Another of West’s great themes, in both her writing and her private life, was theatricality. She had always viewed history as an unfolding drama, composed of an infinite number of scenes. The dramatic tension came from a perennial quandary: Even after all this time, human beings have no idea why we were put here on earth. Frustrated and terribly curious, we make efforts to understand. This is how we end up with science and religion and (West’s chosen remedy for ignorance) art. But even with these disciplines to help us, we jump to faulty conclusions–we explain ourselves badly, and don’t listen well to others. Given her view of history as a series of communication failures, there has rarely been a subject more promisingly matched to a writer than the fateful encounter of Spaniard and Aztec is to Rebecca West. The middle, historical sections of Survivors in Mexico sparkle with casual brilliance. I have no doubt that in her eagerness to paint a vivid picture, West is, shall we say, “creative” with a few facts. But if other writers have dryly explained that the Aztecs followed three distinct calendars, West makes us feel the metaphysical panic (“if a man wanted to settle a day for his daughter’s wedding, he had to consider the four magical significances of the day, and these would be considered in connection with the eight magical significances of the bride and the groom”) and the absurdist humor (“The situation recalls the harassment of our own Western world by our complicated tax structures”). Her description of Montezuma and Cortés meeting face to face calls to mind a tragic Verdi duet as staged by Preston Sturges. And here she is, wry and modern-sounding, on the economics of conquest:
The theory of the European invaders of the New World (insofar as they had a theory) was that they were conferring benefits on the native populations by inviting them to participate in international trade, and there they might have claimed to be genuine economic benefactors. But unfortunately they also felt compelled to confiscate both the accumulated wealth of the native populations and their natural resources, so far as these were mineral. This is not altogether the plain peculation that it appears, for they had an ingenuous belief that, as the native populations had no monetary system, these were wasted on them, and they were doing the only sensible thing if they took the minerals away and put them to useful purposes. It has to be remarked that these predators were actually conferring a huge benefit on another part of the Old World, by relieving its currency famine. This is not a moral universe.
Such passages inevitably make one wonder how West would view America’s recent adventure in Iraq, with oil at stake instead of minerals. It’s a tough call. From her days in Yugoslavia, she still nursed a suspicion of the Turks that extended at times to Islam itself. But she would have deplored the Bush Administration’s reckless duplicity in mounting its case.
At any rate, if these middle sections stand tallest, like the tip of a pyramid, subsequent ones quickly climb back down to earth. West’s riff on the link between her father and the mysterious Dr. Atl is interesting enough as Westiana, but tangential as far as Mexican history goes. Sentence by sentence her prose still tracks, but structurally we start to miss her revisions. The text drifts, then abruptly stops. Schweizer has kept West’s working title, which links her interest in the stoic perseverance of Mexico’s natives with her own advancing age. The book itself stands as a kind of ruin–a lovely, kooky, half-finished monument in a cultural style that was already close to extinction. There are many reasons to welcome the abandonment of this style. An English-speaking writer venturing to Mexico today would be required to read Spanish-language sources as well as the lively but dated old English translations West relied on. And a writer following West’s quixotic method of–what to call it, historical telepathy?–might seem more than a little mad.
But before we dismiss West as impossibly old-fashioned, consider this: According to her age, she should be classed with English writers like D.H. Lawrence or Graham Greene, who went hunting for material in Mexico and found a refuge from European neurosis or a spellbinding nightmare. But she doesn’t belong with them. If she is sometimes presumptuously wrong, she is not condescending. There is no opaque “Other” in her writing. On the contrary: West took it as her duty to make cultures intelligible to each other, by way of the imagination. All of us are forced to construct meaning where there is none, she believed; all of us are in this mess together. She grieved. Then she resolved to keep going out in the world, armed with curiosity and egalitarian respect. You could do a lot worse.