In her long career in fiction, Anita Desai has won well-deserved praise for her elegant, evocative prose and for the keen intelligence with which she explores culture and character. In her fourteenth novel, the half-Bengali, half-German Desai, who has often focused on India and on Indians living elsewhere, turns to another land: Mexico. In The Zigzag Way, she illuminates that country’s vistas and history, and the intertwined lives of three very different foreigners who venture there, with characteristic grace, skill, and insight.
We first meet Eric, an aimless American graduate student struggling to expand his thesis on immigration into a book. He follows his more disciplined and competent scientist girlfriend on a research trip to Mexico. Eric fortuitously becomes aware that his Cornish grandfather once worked in the mines of Mexico and sets out to learn more.
His quest takes him to the estate of the elderly, imperious and eccentric Doña Vera, who fled Austria during World War II—possibly because of Nazi connections—and married a Mexican man whose family fortune was made in mining. She now lives as “Queen of the Sierra” and self-appointed protector of the Huichol Indians. An egocentric, autocratic woman suffering secret torments, she resents Eric’s inquiries about the mines. Doña Vera’s library, however, teaches him about the miners’ labors. Learning that porters carried heavy bags up thousands of stairs in a zigzag direction to take advantage of air currents that helped them breathe, Eric ruminates on his own zigzag journey, his effort to enter the past.
That journey brings him to a near-deserted mining town, just before the Day of the Dead. We are then returned to the past, where we meet Eric’s grandmother, Betty Jennings, a plucky, appealing young woman who travels to Mexico in 1910 to marry a Cornish miner. Soon Betty’s intriguing life in Mexico is thrown into turmoil by the outbreak of revolution and ends abruptly in childbirth.
The book’s magical, haunting final section follows Eric on the Day of the Dead as he seeks Betty’s grave and encounters both past and present.
Desai shines when describing Mexico, bringing city and country, past and present, vividly to life. Her slim novel brims with these descriptions, and with fascinating historical fact and detail. While one might wish to know a bit more about the inner lives of the book’s characters, its journey through Mexico’s landscape and history is well worth taking.
Reviewed by Cynthia Dorfman