Méx­ico lindo A nov­el­ist’s travel jour­nal

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Sy­bille Bed­ford,

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

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