México lindo A novelist’s travel journal
is not uncommon in Santa Fe to run into someone who spends part of the year in Mexico or has at least traveled to that country. So to read about Mexico through the eyes of a Germanborn, albeit cosmopolitan, woman who traveled there not long after World War II may seem to be a quaint exercise. Not so, in the case of Sybille Bedford’s 1953 A Visit to Don Otavio:
A Mexican Journey, reprinted by the New York Review Books last summer. The travelogue begins with Bedford and her friend E. living in New York, where they find the social scene to be less than genuine. They dream of journeying somewhere. At first they consider Peru, but they cannot afford to fly there. They decide spontaneously on Mexico, because a travel agency offers them “train reservations to Mexico City for the end of the week.”
Bedford takes her first walk in Mexico City like Alice in Wonderland. The stores are full of goodies, and she mostly picks up whatever food and drinks appeal to her — she actually doesn’t even have to walk into a store. “I do not buy the two puppies from the man who came rushing out of the church, but I buy a pineapple, a heap of papayas, a straw hat, some plums,” she writes. When a child runs after her because it won’t do for Bedford to carry her own parcels on the street, and when that child accrues a group of little assistants, Bedford doesn’t so much as blink, but she does make sure to tip the children with fruit drops and pennies when they arrive at her hotel. All this frivolous, if well-observed, activity does not in the least prepare us for the solid history lessons the author intends to give us.
At first, Bedford maintains a stance of modesty with regard to what she knows about Mexico. By the end of the book, however, she has woven an astonishing amount of history into her narrative. Most noteworthy is her poignant account of the hapless Maximilian of Habsburg, who got drawn into romanticized notions of the “Crown of Montezuma,” accepted Napoleon III’s offer to rule Mexico, and sailed to that country in 1864, duty-bound to be its emperor. To put these events into context, it is worthwhile to consider that while the Civil War was taking place in the United States, France was in the process of establishing a monarchy in Mexico. Three years later, Emperor Maximilian’s situation predictably grew precarious, and while his wife rushed back to Europe to drum up help, the former Mexican president Benito Juárez handily deposed Maximilian and sentenced him to death by court martial, despite requests for clemency from several European monarchs.
The subtitle of the book (A Mexican Journey )is apt, because rather than simply gawking at its sights, Bedford observes the country’s culture as she travels by train, bus, car, and boat. The trains depart habitually late and, more infuriatingly, a train might take three days longer than expected to arrive at its destination, during which time Bedford and E. broil silently in their compartment, books in hand. Sightseeing is not necessarily more comfortable, and Bedford sounds most like an outsider when she describes that obligatory activity. During a visit to the Secret Convent of Santa Monica in Puebla, tourists and villagers alike “are made to proceed on hands and knees through doublebottomed sideboards and factitious bookcases into a kind of catacombs where they blub or giggle over immured skeletons and a conjuror’s altar.” The ordeal prompts E. to say to Bedford, “The sights are worse than the journeys.”
Bedford characterized her work as “a travel book written by a novelist.” A travel book can elevate into a memorable narrative when its writer gets a chance to interact with locals over time. Bedford walks into just this kind of fortuitous situation. Mid-journey, Sybil and E. are joined by cousin Anthony, whose friendship with some local youths leads their party to the lakeside hacienda of the unforgettable Don Otavio. The consummate host, Don Otavio knows exactly when to appear and when to disappear, which he does with his signature phrase, “¿Con su permiso?”
They spend glorious weeks lounging in Don Otavio’s villa, and they savor the goings-on when his relatives descend on the compound to discuss its imminent transformation into a hotel. How many rooms will remain reserved for family members becomes a thorny point of contention. Matters get so complicated with family politics, an alcoholic cook, and a stabbing in the servant quarters that Bedford finds herself cooking for the entire party.
As tourists, we can get so caught up in sights — and being photographed next to those sights — that we forget that one of the richest treasures we can take away from travel is some understanding of the peoples and cultures we visit. During her Mexican journey, Bedford grasps that elusive prize: She and her companion have singular experiences with locals, and Bedford reflects upon those interactions, though not tediously so. A reader takes away more that is of lasting value from a book like this than from travelogues crammed with journalistic and factual accounts. The secret of this book’s success may lie in the fact that Bedford was a novelist. She does not simply describe what she encounters but also divines its essence.
Bedford takes a similar approach when she dives into a historical account. She does not try to summarize history for us, a trapdoor through which travel writers can fall into a bog. Instead, Bedford animates her accounts with illuminating episodes — she gives us an intriguing, though brief, description of a conversation that über-conquistador Hernán Cortés reportedly had with the Aztec ruler Montezuma — and observations: “The letters and diaries of the Conquistadores (to whom ironically we owe the description of the lyrical beauty of the city they destroyed) make us sup of the horrors of the Aztec religion and stress Aztec prowess in matters of philosophy and science, the data of which they, the Spaniards, were at such pains to burn and generally obliterate.”
An intriguing portrait of Montezuma by Antonio Rodriguez hangs in the Museo degli Argenti in Florence. It is reproduced in the recent book New England/New Spain: Portraiture in the Colonial Americas, 1492-1850. In the painting, the Aztec ruler stands upright holding a feathery shield in one hand. He considers the viewer with an assessing gaze. His sandals — in an accompanying essay, Michael J. Schreffler points out that Cortés had noted that Montezuma wore sandals — are rimmed with gold. A significantly less majestic portrait of Cortés by German engraver Christoph Weiditz is also included in
New England/New Spain, and Schreffler engagingly brings out what we know of the interactions between Cortés and Montezuma: “He and Moctezuma sat on richly adorned platforms in a palace in Tenochtitlan engaging in conversation when the Aztec ruler lifted his clothing” to show his body. Montezuma then reportedly said, “See here that I am flesh and bone like you and like everyone, and I am mortal and palpable.” Touching his body, he added, “See how they have lied to you.”
Part of the intrigue of a country like Mexico is, of course, its observable culture. But it is also a nexus of multiple cultures, and fragments of its complex history are still there for us to see in its ruins and in the faces of its peoples. Bedford may have been an outsider, but she took in the country with open and knowing eyes. And in telling us what she had seen, she did not lie to us.
“A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Journey” by Sybille Bedford is published by New York Review Books.
Inset, author Sibylle Bedford as a young and old woman; top right, Jean-Paul Laurens: Last Moments of Emperor Maximilian I of México, 1882
Chapultepec Castle; above left, Antonio Rodriguez: Portrait of Montezuma II Tenochtitlan, 1680-1697; right, Christoph Weiditz: Hernán Cortés, 1529