The Zigzag Way
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004
159 pp., 23.00
Reviewed by Rachel DiCarlo
In the early 19th century, the Huichol miners, who climbed a thousand feet by ladders every day in the silver mines of Mexico's Sierra Madre Mountains, found a way to save energy: They made the ascent in a zigzag motion. This way of proceeding gives a method of organization as well as a title to Anita Desai's new novel, in which she knits together the experiences of both living and dead protagonists, shifting back and forth between the past and the present.
In this book, as in previous novels such as Baumgartner's Bombay and Fasting, Feasting, Desai once again takes up the themes of foreignness and displacement. The Zigzag Way follows Eric, a world–weary recent Harvard graduate and aspiring writer who has just finished his dissertation on immigration patterns in early 20th–century Boston. A bit of a dreamer, he can't muster the enthusiasm to expand his work into a book, so when his live–in girlfriend, Em, is offered a sabbatical in Mexico, he wants to go. Em has misgivings—"You're an Americanist," she tells him—but he isn't dissuaded.
As soon as he steps off the plane, Eric is enchanted by Mexico, "distracted by everything. … the booths displaying textiles bright with rainbow stripes and rainbow flowers, tequila bottles shaped like cacti, sweets made out of cacti and fruit. … more people with black hair and brown skin than he had ever encountered."
But after the two settle in, Em takes off for the forests of Yucatán with her colleagues to conduct field research; Eric is left alone and without a sense of purpose. He remembers that his grandfather worked in the mines of the Sierra Madre and determines to connect with his ancestry by visiting the town where his grandparents lived—where his grandmother died giving birth to his father just as Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution came through.
Eric's journey is interwoven with those of two others. His first stop is at the hacienda of Dona Vera, "Queen of the Sierra," whose existence Eric learns of when he attends her lecture on the mystical Huichol trinity of deer, maize, and peyote. An eccentric and formidable Viennese woman with a mysterious past, Dona Vera has dedicated her fortune to preserving the culture of the Huichol. She has made her "Hacienda de Soledad" a Mecca of art, artifacts, and history books on the Huichol.
Unfortunately, Dona Vera is an arrogant woman —a terror to both her visitors and servants. "Dona Vera was too angry to speak for awhile. When she did, she sputtered, 'What? What? We are not a mu–se–um of min–er–ology, are we? Did you tell [Eric] that he has made a mistake? I will tell him so.' " She doesn't know the Huichol language, and can't understand that that the greatest desire of the Huichol people she knows is to escape the Sierra Madre to make a living in the city.
Still, it is in Dona Vera's hacienda that Eric begins to uncover traces of his past. The magnificent centerpiece, the book's gem, is the story of another European é;migré;, Eric's grandmother Betty Jennings. Desai flashes back to Betty's youth, when she leaves her native Cornwall for Mexico to be with her fiancé;, Davey Rouse, a mine worker.
Only one of the book's four short sections is devoted to her, but it is Betty's story that produces the book's real momentum. Like both Dona Vera and her grandson many decades later, she is entranced by the spirit of Mexico. Betty's story of adjustment to her new life in this strange land is so full of innocence, wonder, discovery, and eventually drama and sadness that it could have been a much longer novel in itself.
At every turn, the vitality of Mexican life is contrasted with the more subdued ways of the Cornish. " 'We have moved into our own home,' " Betty writes to a friend. " 'They are not so unlike the ones we have at home in Cornwall, except they have red–tiled roofs and the walls are as colored as a rainbow—bright blue next to yellow and pink or orange next to green.' "
When the pale, weak Betty dies during childbirth, her motherless son is cared for by a Mexican woman "with two brown eyes below painted eyebrows" and a "head of black ringlets" who recently delivered a stillborn baby. And all the strands of the story come together on the Mexican holiday el dia de los muertos, the Day of the Dead, when Eric meets a woman on a hillside who appears to be the ghost of his grandmother, waiting for her husband and son.
Desai is at her best when she is describing the landscape of a country she portrays as steeped in God, life, death, magic, and legend. At times, the book reads like a travelogue—she carefully fleshes out the texture of her subjects, thoroughly unpacking every detail and writing as if photography had never been invented—but her characters are pilgrims who cross into places not found on any map.
Rachel DiCarlo is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.
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