On the Plain of Snakes

  • By Paul Theroux
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 448 pp.

The legendary travel writer takes a harrowing trip deep into the mysteries and miseries of Spanish-speaking North America.

Recently, the New York Review of Books featured three new narratives, all translated from Spanish, that address the terror gripping Mexicans in a way that other brutal, horrific crimes — frequent as they may be — have not.

Five years ago, 43 students studying to be schoolteachers vanished, in what appears to be collaboration between drug traffickers and the government. This story of the “disappeared” is one that Paul Theroux returns to throughout his latest travelogue, a chronicle of his complex and extended trip through Mexico.

As ghastly as the scores of murders that Theroux recounts are, it is the levantón, the levitation into thin air of these young men, that has given many Mexicans something they can finally grab onto, something concrete for which they can demand justice.

But if there’s one take-away from Theroux’s sprawling, multi-layered On the Plain of Snakes, it’s that justice for the average Mexican is in precious short supply.

As we already know, the author is a gifted storyteller, an accessible, easygoing travel guide. But he offers up much to unpack here: His journey is split into five parts, each one taking us deeper into Mexico, and, it often feels, deeper into the past.

He drives from Cape Cod all the way down the Pacific Coast, determined to traverse the border. For those who appreciated Francisco Cantú’s perspective in The Line Becomes a River, part one of Snakes, “Borderlands,” offers the more nuanced counterpoint. Theroux repeatedly traverses the border at different crossings, spending time with people on both sides, pulling back the curtain to reveal what is hiding in plain sight:

“It was here for anyone to discover, and so simple. It was as illuminating to me as any foreign travel I had taken anywhere in the world. In some ways, being so near home and taking less effort, it seemed odder, freighted with greater significance, this wider world…just behind the fence.”

He reminds us that the border only truly started to harden into its current militarized state in the mid-1990s, cementing firmly in place after 9/11. NAFTA and the hardened border go hand-in-hand as villains in this narrative, causing Americans to stop visiting Mexico as casual tourists, and, in the other direction, having “the effect of turning the Mexican side of the border into a plantation, a stable supply of cheap labor, and the workers’ confinement behind the border fence was considered essential.”

A few hundred yards from the U.S. border in many Mexican cities are the U.S. companies — Oster, BFGoodrich, Honeywell, Gulfstream — employing that cheap labor, with starting salaries of four dollars an hour and no threat of pesky labor unions. Also on the Mexican side are crowds of dentists and pharmacies offering the retirees of Arizona their bridgework and prescriptions at bargain-basement prices.

Of course, the brutality of the drug trade is well documented, fueled in part by the flow of guns from the U.S. and, more substantially, the ravenous market for drugs that causes them to pour into America.

Mexico is far more than its northern border, described by Theroux as he travels deeply into the country. It is, for example, the large number of universities and institutes of technology, 16 in Mexico City alone, that produce highly educated graduates in software development and other IT and technical fields.

It is ancient spiritual customs and beliefs mixed in with more recent religion, the Christianity inflicted by conquerors who forced the natives to build churches over existing temples and to pay for them, too. It is the cult of La Santísima Muerte, the skeleton saint who forgives even the murdering cartel members, though they have no plans to reform.

It is crowds of protestors shutting down main roads or picketing government ministries demanding justice. It is isolated and impoverished communities where women walk miles to trade the hat they wove that morning so they can have their grain milled.

Theroux is keenly aware of his privileged status, experiencing “the melancholy of the voyeuristic traveler…You begin to understand how trapped people feel, how hopeless and beneath notice, how nothing will ever change for them, while you the traveler simply skip away.”

During his journey, he teaches a writing class in Mexico City and takes a Spanish class in Oaxaca, despite his hatred of being in a classroom. He talks — or attempts to talk — to everyone he meets. He has several frightening run-ins with police, who typically are simply seeking a bribe, but whose unpredictability makes them especially dangerous.

It is the hardened, pervasive corruption at all levels of government — national and local — that instills a sort of resigned weariness in the citizenry. For example, he says, “Mexicans spend very little time railing against the U.S. government, because in their experience, government by its very nature is corrupt, often criminal, and the poor are its victims.”

But every so often, an event lights them up in coordinated protest, as with the vanished student teachers. The students were traveling in a caravan of five buses, on their way to honor victims of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. Local police began by escorting the caravan, but later attacked it.

Many of the students in the buses were hurt, some were murdered outright, but only one bus disappeared entirely with the students in it. The prevailing theory is that the bus was specially outfitted to carry a large quantity of drugs being run by the local mayor/drug lord.

The one example of functional government that Theroux experiences during his journey is that of the Zapatistas, a revolutionary group of indigenous campesinos that sprang from the jungle in 1994. He describes what he observes and learns about the numerous strongholds of Zapatista government scattered throughout Chiapas in glowing, almost reverential terms.

But, coming as it does at the end of an arduous, often dangerous journey, the praise seems apt. When government is perpetually corrupt, when the police and army are as lawless and savage as the narcos — and are often one and the same — all that regular citizens have to depend on is each other.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2019.]

Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Jenny writes a bi-monthly column and reviews frequently for the Independent, and serves on its board of directors. She also writes a bimonthly column for Late Last Night Books. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny is a member of PEN/America and the National Book Critics’ Circle. Previously, she served as chair of the Washington Writers Conference and as president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.com.

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