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Book Review: Mornings in Mexico Print E-mail

book_mornings_in_mexico.jpgAuthor: D.H. Lawrence

Publisher: Taurus Parke Paperbacks1

Reviewer: Stephen Keim

It was my younger brother, Laurie, a writer of fiction and voracious reader, himself, who responded to my wonderings as to what DH Lawrence’s thoughts about the Mexico of the 1920s might add to the feel of a modern reader for the country. Laurie chased and hassled bookshops and the slim little volume materialised, next time we coffeed in town.

I have been in and out of love with Lawrence, several times. I loved The Snake2 whenever it appeared in anthologies. Lady Chatterley turned out to be everything that years of banning had promised. But I think our love affair had palled by the middle of Women in Love.

Mornings in Mexico was to be our fresh start.

Mexico proves both sides of my perennial argument about travel. “You should go to Italy”, friends say. “You will love it.” I never doubt them. But that I doubt my ability to avoid conning myself is what troubles me. Three days in Wellington, New Zealand, and I thought I knew more about the kiwi than they did.

Five weeks in Mexico for a wedding at the beginning of 2012 and I have been smitten ever since. A glimpse of a Mexican street or just a building; a shrine to the Virgin; the memory of street food; a novel set in Tabasco: homesickness floods in for the idealised, romantic place where we shared such wonderful adventures. That kid on the street of a Yucatan village, where she has lived for most of her 11 years, would not recognise the Mexico I carry in my head. But who is she to presume.

Lawrence, unceasing, unremitting traveller, and coiner of the grand, sweeping, sociological phrase, himself, says something to very similar effect. He opens the opening essay with a self-deprecating description of himself, with pen in hand, on the shaded verandah of an adobe house. “Morning in Mexico”, he says, is one person looking at some sky and trees and then looking down at his exercise book. He generalises. When we think of books with grand titles, we should think of a thin or a fat person, in a chair or a bed, making marks on paper with a pen.   

This opening essay is named for a dog and some parrots: Corasmin and the Parrots. The parrots imitate a person calling a dog and a yapping dog, itself. Enough to make any self-respecting canine go crazy. But not Corasmin who wags his tail and looks at the author with understanding. And, somehow, by essay’s end, it has become about Rosalino, the Indigenous man servant or mozo of the house and the gaps which separate Old World and New World cultures.
Despite being just a man with a fountain pen and an exercise book, Lawrence retains the ability to launch speculations that leap tall mountains with a single bound.

But I think our friendship has been renewed.

Four of the essays are set in Oaxaca, a city away in the “South of the Republic”. Lawrence brings the land and the people to life and colour on the page that both informs and contrasts my experience of the same city and region in 2012. Walk to Huayapa brings a touch of slapstick to the picturesque as DH and Frieda and the mozo set out for a nearby village and make it but not to the one they had in mind. We are treated to an election meeting on the zocalo or square of the town.

In 1925, when Lawrence tarried in Oaxaca, the Mexican revolution, with all its twists and turns, its defeats and victories and betrayals and tragedy, had been continuing for 15 years. Madero and Villa and Zapata and Carranza had all come and gone in tragedy, by now. From 1920-24, Alvaro Obregon, having revolted against his former mentor, Carranza, won the ensuing election and gave Mexico its first four years of stable presidency since the revolution began. This included his returning to the battle field to crush rebellion by his finance minister, de la Huerta, in 1923. Thereafter, Obregon gave way to his hand-picked successor, Plutarco Elias Calles for the next term. In 1928, Obregon returned to the hustings and won re-election but was assassinated before he could take office.   

The history of Mexico is such that, if it hadn’t happened, no one would believe it.

Mornings in Mexico makes no attempt to recount the history. But he sees it spread out before him. The election meeting may appear comical and amateurish. But the reality of the times is reflected in the experience of Rosalino and his cousin, Aurelio, and others like them.
For them, the wash of power back and forth across the land appears through the medium of forced recruitment to whichever ragtag army has local sway. You either join and risk your life or try to escape and risk your life. Rosalino refused and was savagely beaten with rifle butts. His unconsciousness and the rush of the moment meant that he avoided recruitment but was left with injuries and anxiety, each of which was crippling.

Aurelio was taken and punished in proxy for the deeds of a cousin who had helped the losing side in the latest struggle. For many months he languished and suffered before his master could release him. Lawrence sees these stories repeated and multiplied in the men being escorted to the local lockup with an armed man on either side.

Market Day captures a different slice of the local reality: the sight and taste of travelling to an event. It captures the event, itself, with its commerce and exchange of a plethora of goods.

But, for Lawrence, it is also yet another study of the Indigenous Oaxacans: this time, the importance of social contact as an island in lives that are inherently solitary.

The last four essays are from 1922 when the Lawrences spent their time in Taos, New Mexico, in the country of the Hopi Indians. Lawrence contemplates the differing meaning of entertainment across cultures. He describes life lived in towns built upon mesas, the table top hills of New Mexico.

Lawrence describes white men and Afro-Americans coming across the deserts in cars for the dance.    

But, most of all, the stories are about Hopi Indians dancing with dangerous snakes and the conflicting fascination that watching others flirt with danger brings to us all. Lawrence’s description is mesmerising almost, one might think, as the dance, itself. And you can test your theory by watching old Library of Congress footage of dances performed, eleven years earlier, in the presence of Theodore Roosevelt.

Two love affairs renewed: DH Lawrence and Mexico.

I urge you to read Mornings in Mexico. The Lawrence prose flows with all its familiar force. The content is full of interest on a series of levels. You will not be disappointed.

But love affairs, too, have their hierarchy. Next time I see Laurie, I will be looking for more writing about Mexico rather than more Lawrence. Maybe, he has some Katherine Anne Porter on his bookshelves. 


1. TPP have a very interesting list of titles if you like travel writing.

2.  Written in Taormina, on the east coast of Sicily in 1923


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