Pete Hamill praises "Mexico," an extraordinary -- and out of print -- travel book by Erico Verissimo.

Published January 26, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Travel books about Mexico are a rarity these days. That was not always the case; my own collection contains more than 100 books from the 1930s and 1940s alone, ranging from bilious accounts by Graham Greene and Aldous Huxley to a sketchy watercolor of a book by D.H. Lawrence. Most of the rest are truly awful in a charming, innocent way; there was a virtual sub-genre written by lonely women who fled the United States to rediscover humanity under the Mexican sun, usually in the company of a boy named Paco.

To be sure, the bookstore shelves are thick with volumes about Mexico, particularly those guides for tourists that contain so many facts and so little truth. But the book by a traveler who digs more deeply into the spirit of a place, the character of its people, art, history and culture is written more often these days about Tuscany or Provence. Mexico is now the subject of anthropologists, historians and journalists preoccupied by NAFTA, the drug trade and immigration.

That is why I cherish Erico Verissimo's superb portrait (published in 1960 by the now defunct Orion Press) and wish it were back in print. To begin with, the narrative breaks the familiar patterns of the Anglo-Saxon writer attempting to make sense of the Latin American realities of Mexico. Verissimo (1905-1975) was a Brazilian novelist of great reputation in the years before the boom in Latin American literature brought Gabriel Garcma Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa (among many others) to the attention of a world audience. A Latino looking in wonder, astonishment or fear at other Latinos is itself a rare experience for the North American reader. In addition, Verissimo was, like so many other Latin American authors, a diplomat, serving in a variety of posts including a long passage in Washington. He brings to the encounter with a new country and its people the first-rate diplomat's sense of propriety and grace.

Early in the book, he establishes that he is looking back on a journey that has made a deep impact upon him.

"The taste of Mexico has not yet left my memory. Sweet? No. Bitter? Not that either. Rare, strange, different, a mixture of tortilla, straw cigarettes, chili and blood. A dry taste, sometimes with a certain harshness of desert land, not infrequently with unexpected and perishable sweetnesses of tropical fruit. If I were to assign it a color, I should say it is a grey taste. If I were asked to qualify it, I should venture: the taste of rustic tragedy."

This is the mid-1950s, a bright, hopeful time in Mexico that many middle-aged Mexicans now look back at with nostalgia and regret. But even as Verissimo moves through Mexico City, speaking to taxi drivers and intellectuals, painters and writers and musicians, he is acutely aware of the dark currents of anger, defeat and violence that move beneath the placid modern surface.

"I wonder why this city has so strong a personality. What is it that makes it so different from all others? Whence comes the aura of drama that envelops it? I believe the factors are various: many the tints that, combined, produce -- despite all the sunshine -- that dark ominous tone that gives us the sensation that something tragic is always about to occur -- a murder, an earthquake, a revolution."

He traces some of the factors, those tints that combine in such a dark tone: history ("this city was erected upon the corpse of the Tenochtitlan murdered by Cortes and his soldiers"); the brooding, man-dwarfing presence of the two immense volcanoes that look down upon the city (now seldom visible through the smog); the fact that the city is slowly sinking into the old lake bed upon which it was built; the thinness of air in the high mesa, 7,200 feet above sea level; and above all the sometimes uneasy mixture of separate cultures -- Indian, Spanish and the dominant combination of the two called mestizo. In the capital, and in the smaller towns he visits to the south and north, Verissimo is moved by the presence of the pure Indians, descendants of people who had built here great civilizations.

"I have the feeling that these Indians live in a world apart from ours, like fish in an aquarium watching us furtively out of their motionless eyes in a liquid, oblique silence. Hostility? No. Perhaps indifference. I don't think we can ever break the glass that separates us from that aquatic world. And all the tragedy of the mestizo lies in his dubious amphibious status."

The book is full of observations on Mexican language, humor, sexual codes, music and the stoic, fatalistic attitude toward death. But Verissimo avoids the bloodless observations of the sociologist. The tone is embracing; he clearly loves Mexico and its people and writes about them with humor and irony, along with a healthy dose of self-effacement. He is not there to teach but to learn. When appropriate, he makes analogies to Brazil; often, in dreams or when alone at twilight, the Brazil of his youth forces its way into his consciousness, and this too is the mark of a fine travel writer: Other countries and cultures force the traveler to examine his own.

Obviously, after 40 years, there are parts of the book that are dated. For a reader familiar with Mexico, there are omissions and elisions (the Verissimo who was a diplomat deals with the monolithic Mexican government in an oblique way and is gentle about the problems of corruption). But for the reader with an interest in Mexico, this remains one of the indispensable books. For the general reader, it is a model of the genre and a delightful journey in the company of a generous, intelligent human being. Some paperback publisher should rescue this fine narrative from the dusty limbo of the second-hand bookshops and allow a new generation to share that journey.

e x c e r p t

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F R O M__" M E X I C O"

By Erico Verissimo
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Translated from the Portuguese by Linton Barrett
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Published by Orion Press, 1960

We are in the Zscalo. In this plaza of monumental dimensions that was in times past the heart of Tenochtitlan and later of the Spanish colonial city, is found the great cathedral the Conquistadores built with the very stones of the Great Temple of the Aztecs. In its fagade are combined varied architectural elements, and even a layman like me can see in it vestiges of the Corinthian, the Ionic and the Doric. The result of this mixture is something that could be called neo-classic. This great cathedral has a sombre, imposing quality, as if it had retained in its stones not only the mark of age and weather but also the accumulated memory and matured patina of all the suffering and violence it has witnessed. At its side rises the Metropolitan Sagrario, a beautiful example of the Churrigueresque, which an earth tremor shook out of plumb, adding to its aspect, already severe in itself, one more element of drama. Constructed in the form of a Greek cross, it consists of two naves crossing each other, with a cupola in the centre.

Other historic piles surround the great square, such as the Palacio Nacional, erected on the site where originally stood the residence of Montezuma and later the house of Cortis, which a fire destroyed; the Ayuntamiento or Palace of the City Hall on the south side of the Zscalo, and the Palacio de Justicia, of much more recent construction, on the south-east corner.

All these buildings have a massive look, a broad, low solidity, but they cannot be denied a certain respectable grandiosity. Many of them were made of tezontle, a pink stone of volcanic origin, taken also from the demolished Aztec monuments.

We stroll under the arcaded galleries covering the sidewalk on the west side of the Zscalo. As was the case in the days of Cortis, these portales shelter a series of tiny shops, or stalls.

It is strange to think that under our feet, a few yards beneath the asphalt, the Aztec metropolis lies buried. If I am not mistaken it was in this vicinity that they dug up the great Calendar Stone, which is now in the National Museum of Anthropology. It is said that early in this century the workers who were demolishing a business building on the corner of Guatemala and Seminario streets uncovered the foundations of an edifice believed to have been part of the Great Pyramid of the God of War.

We have, then, in this square -- which continues to be the historic centre, at least, if no longer the social and commercial, of Mexico -- vestiges of two civilizations, the Aztec and the Spanish colonial. But to what extent is the colonial purely Spanish? I have the impression -- and so think many who know the subject better -- that at the very moment the Conquistadores were putting up their houses and palaces in the image and likeness of those they had left in their fatherland across the sea, they were already beginning to undergo the influence of the people they had subjugated. It was not merely the fact that they were using the material and to some extent the construction technique of the natives. It was more than that, mysteriously and imponderably more than that.

We see also in the Zscalo something that is neither Indian nor Spanish. It is the automobiles circulating or standing parked here. And the billboards and posters advertising commercial products "made in U.S.A." One who contemplates part of the ruins of the Great Temple, visible only a few steps from the cathedral, then looks at the Catholic temple and then at the advertisements of Pepsi-Cola, may actually feel dizzy. The leaps in time are too vertiginous. And when I say "time" I am not thinking just of the chronological but also of the psychological.

If a great earthquake should some day knock down this church and these palaces, turning up the ground, possibly we should see emerging from the womb of the earth the corpse of Tenochtitlan, with which would be mingled the remains of colonial Mexico and those of the twentieth-century metropolis with its skyscrapers, cinemas, night clubs and soda fountains. And our eyes would witness frightful scenes, as for example the head of an Aztec idol -- Tezcatlipoca or Quetzalcoatl -- crowned with one of those red Coca-Cola discs we can see sacrilegiously nailed to the faces of these old arcades.

By Pete Hamill

Pete Hamill's novel "Snow in August" was a national bestseller last year. He has published seven other novels, along with the bestselling memoir "A Drinking Life." He has written for newspapers since 1960 and served as editor in chief of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News. He first read Erico Verissimo's book while attending Mexico City College in 1956-57 on the GI Bill.

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