Issue 54
Book Review: A Visit to Don Otavio and Viva Mexico

 book_a_visit.jpgA Visit to the Court of Don Otavio

Author: Sybille Bedford

Viva Mexico

Author: Charles Flandrau

Publisher: Eland

Reviewed by Stephen Keim

In issue 53 of this august journal, I published a review of Irfan Orga’s Portrait of a Turkish Family. In the process of writing that review of a book that had been first published in 1949, I discovered that Eland is a publishing house devoted to the curious but commendable purpose of keeping in print travel books that they regard as possessing classic qualities. Portrait of a Turkish Family had, and in my opinion, deservedly so, attained that status.

My friends at Eland, when I sent them the link to the relevant page of Hearsay, emailed me to express their delight at the review (and the fact that someone had published a review of a sixty-two year old book) and offered me other publications in their catalogue.

It so happened that our older son had expressed an intention to get married in Querétaro, a city, one hundred kilometres north-west of Mexico City, and my wife and I who are known for our chronic failure to travel overseas were planning a five week trip to Mexico, inter alia, for the wedding.

So, I wrote to Eland that, if they happened to have any books about Mexico, I would be happy to read and review them. In the mail, soon after, from London, two books arrived. The first book in order of publication was Viva Mexico, written by Charles Flandrau. Its publication date was 1908. The second book was Sybille Bedford’s A Visit to the Court of Don Otavio, a relative newcomer, having been let loose on the reading public in 1953, the year of my birth.

The latter months of 2011 were relatively busy for me, for a number of reasons, and my rigorous and extensive research and study for a trip for Mexico, although strongly intended and much desired, in the main, failed to eventuate. I had learned about three words of Spanish and I had no more than dipped into, certainly not completed, each of my travel books. The reading of each book was completed on the road, in small hotels, and waiting outside clothing and craft shops in various parts of Mexico.

Now that I have joined the ranks of barristers who have travelled, a most honourable group, I feel I should argue the case for reading travel books that were written in countries and social conditions that have, in substantial respects, been altered by the passage of time. I would first note that these are not just any travel book. They are travel books which are regarded as classics and have, themselves, endured notwithstanding the passage of time. A travel book will only endure if it has captured something important about the country to which it relates. In any society, there are social currents that are the product of their time. In the same society, there will be social phenomena that are derived from earlier generations and are perhaps more deeply embedded in that culture. By reading books written fifty and a hundred years ago, the reader gets snapshots of the country in which they are interested or are visiting. The visitor can compare their own observations against those of the earlier writers. By comparing the three sets of observations, the visitor may gain some idea of those aspects of the society which run deep and those which may derive from more transient influences.

Charles Flandrau was a Harvard graduate and three of his books provide an intimate and perhaps unseemly portrait of student life at that famous institution. He comes from a respectable (his father was a judge on the Minnesota Supreme Court and a colonel in the US army) and mildly famous family and the tone of his writing is patrician at times. Mr. Flandrau, however, displays much disillusionment with the attitudes and behaviour of his countrymen in Mexico and he displays both empathy and discernment in his observations of Mexico and its people including Indigenous Mexicans. His reflections on the latter group betray a degree of puzzlement that they do not take greater action to preserve both their physical comfort and their general well-being.

Mr. Flandrau’s reason for living in Mexico was to assist his brother’s management of a coffee plantation. He was not a tourist and his opinion of American tourists in Mexico is extremely negative. He also moved in expatriate society and had ample opportunity to observe his countrymen in that role as well although the remoteness of the coffee plantation from any sizable township also allowed him plenty of time away from such society to reflect upon what he had seen.

Mr. Flandrau is a keen and insightful observer. In an early chapter, he quotes a woman’s observations on the weather in answer to his question and applies it to life in Mexico. The woman’s reply to his question: “Does it rain much in this month, usually” was: “In Mexico, there are no fixed rules”. I quoted the phrase to my family, frequently, whenever the unexpected happened on our holiday.

Another observation of Mr. Flandrau is that much in Mexico is not as it seems. Newspapers, he found, underreported the seriousness of events of disorder and the expatriate community, although they had an idea of what was happening, often feigned both ignorance and lack of interest and were loath to discuss current events. The comment appears particularly significant looking back. Mr. Flandrau’s time in Mexico was in the dying days of the dictator, Porfirio Diaz, and his book was published two years before the revolution which wrested power from Diaz and his offsiders and which spawned conflict of various kinds which lasted several decades.

Mr. Flandrau’s observations of the similarity in overall design but important differences between Mexican towns and cities (including the size and layout of the ubiquitous main plaza or square); his description of Mexican houses; and his observation that people visit Mexico for a few months and, without any proper basis, go away claiming to understand it all stayed with me as we went from city to city and town to town and, more importantly, as I attempted to form tentative and definitive opinions about the country I was visiting for, in total, a mere five weeks.

Charles Flandrau’s most enduring observation, however, is found in his comments on the Mexican street. He goes to some effort to observe and record the events happening during a single half hour on a relatively quiet afternoon in a smallish Mexican town. Dog fights, a group of men carrying a piano; donkeys carrying the product of the local sugar factory; and children lingering after running messages for their parents were just a few of the events recorded. His observation was that this half hour’s events was illustrative of the more general fact that one could rely with confidence on unlimited entertainment whenever one sat on a balcony or went outside one’s front door in any Mexican city or town.

And, from the moment I stepped outside our first hotel, Mr. Flandrau’s comments rang true. There were dogs but few dog fights. Donkeys were unfortunately much rarer than in 1908. Nonetheless, there were always interesting things happening. Cars went past collecting unwanted furniture or selling blueberries; taco sellers on their Benotto three wheeler cycles were in abundance; I saw a man carrying at least sixty-five stacked plastic chairs on his back; workers stood around and discussed and planned how to lop trees or fix an electricity cable; and, on Tuesday mornings in Mexico City, a market appeared outside our hotel on the footpath as if by magic. There was always something of interest on the streets in Mexico.

Sybille Bedford was born in Germany in 1911. Her mother was a German woman with a Jewish heritage. Her parents split up. She stayed with her father who died when she was 14. She then lived in Italy but studied in England. With the rise of Fascism in Italy, she moved to France. Later, the combination of publishing an article critical of the Nazis and the discovery of her Jewish heritage led to her German bank accounts being frozen and her German passport cancelled.

Ms Bedford was a friend of Aldous Huxley who lived in the same French village as her. She later wrote a definitive biography of Huxley. When the passport troubles arose, Huxley’s wife, Maria, suggested a marriage of convenience to a gay man who was a friend of the Huxleys. The marriage allowed Ms Bedford to obtain an English passport and, although the marriage lasted but a short time, she retained her husband’s surname, “Bedford”, in both her personal and professional lives.

Don Otavio is a genuine travel book in that it starts with a short dissertation on New York society as it deals with new arrivals and those who are departing and then moves to a long train trip from New York to Mexico City. Ms Bedford’s travel partner is simply referred to as “E”. Although it is not at all alluded to in the text, there is a strong suggestion in the literature that E is Evelyn Gendel, an American writer who left her husband for a relationship with Ms Bedford and became a successful writer as well.

Though set less than sixty years ago, Don Otavio promised much excitement on any trip to Mexico: roads that were more precipice than road; buses that contained pigs, chickens and a fish pressed into one’s face and bandits, apparently in cahoots with the bus company, that went through one’s luggage and stole one’s manuscripts in a civilised manner. Mexico disappointed on these counts: the main roads were multi-lane modern roads. The buses were extremely comfortable with personal video screens and no domestic animals. And the only shot guns witnessed were in the hands of the granite faced security guards at the service station on the high pass on the road from Mexico City to Cuernavaca.

Ms Bedford was as well connected as Mr. Flandrau had been, fifty years earlier. In the city of Guadalajara, she gained an invitation to stay at the property of a family that had been a wealthy, land owning family in the past; that had been “ruined” by the conflict that occurred the decades that followed the revolution; but that still managed to carry the trappings of a middle class existence which included a hacienda property on Lake Chapala; private motor vehicles and boats; members of the family in the professions; an aunt with both money and a private confessor; and a full panoply of servants.

The property on Lake Chapala is where the visit to Don Otavio referred to in the title occurs. Ms Bedford and E and E’s nephew, Anthony, spend nearly a year in two separate episodes at the old hacienda which Don Otavio looks after on behalf of his brothers and extended family. It is a pleasant and civilised experience. Don Otavio is a charming host. And so the travel book, for many of its pages, becomes a book about life in an old hacienda on Lake Chapala.

The extended stay with Don Otavio does not diminish the book. It provides the means by which both the author and the reader gain their insight into an important element of Mexican society. Ms Bedford calls on neighbours and a cast of eccentric characters introduce themselves. A mad and overbearing Englishman tends his garden; serves tea; makes derogatory comments upon everyone else in the neighbourhood including Don Otavio; but turns out to be a man of great practical sense. His advice on a plethora of subjects, from treatment of medical ailments to maintenance of cars, saves the day when followed and leads to disaster when ignored. An old widow tells stories of how she drove the marauding bands from various armed factions during the post-revolutionary troubles away with her own well-maintained rifle. Another neighbour has not forgotten either of the last two wars and terrorises her German born son in law whenever he and his wife come down from the city for a visit. And Don Otavio’s family come down to visit; engage in disputes over the future of the hacienda and the aunt’s money that will make such a future possible; and resolve their dispute with the assistance of Anthony’s ability to suggest a compromise.

The servants who, as on the Flandrau coffee plantation, are all Indigenous form an integral part of the narrative. The wife of one servant turns her attention to another man who has a reputation of settling disputes with a knife. An incident occurs but only a flesh wound results. The wielder of the knife has to go away for a while. This is inconvenient. “Who will tend the garden?” There is no question of law enforcement intervening even had the result of the attack been closer to what the attacker had intended. “Good servants are so hard to get, these days.”

Mexico’s history weighs heavily on the country: in 1908; 1953; and still in 2012. The country does not have that middle class element that does not seek power but acts as a moral restraining force on those in power, says Ms Bedford. This means that opposition to government comes in the form of armed rebellion. It also means that, even when the rebellion is successful, the problems of governing still have to be solved. I suspect that, in 2012, Mexico has a statistical middle class but that it is both disillusioned with and alienated from politics such that the restraining influences are still not as strong as might be desired.

Both Mr. Flandrau and Ms Bedford provide the reader with a feel for Mexico’s political history. They both deal with that great melodramatic sideshow of the 1860s when a French army, at the behest of disenchanted Mexican conservatives and British bond holders, made an Austrian Hapsburg emperor of Mexico. The emperor, Maximilian, tried to be friends with everyone; ended up with no friends; and was executed in Querétaro at the behest of the one Indigenous and, perhaps, the most honourable and decent President that Mexico ever had, Benito Juarez.

I spent five weeks in Mexico. Mr. Flandrau is probably correct. I am kidding myself thinking that my time spent outside craft shops waiting for others to make purchase decisions taught me anything about a country of whose language I could speak not more than a dozen words. If I did learn anything, however, I was assisted by the reflections I made upon these two beautifully written and insightful books. Certainly, my time in Mexico was made more enjoyable both by those reflections and the time spent reading Viva Mexico and A Visit to Don Otavio.

I recommend both books to you. Eland is but a Google search away.

Stephen Keim


25 February 2012