“At the age of nineteen I saw my first bullfight, and it provided everything I was looking for. Courage, drama, spectacle.” (p.416)
I have visited Mexico twice, each time in years of comparable peace and safety. The Juarez of 1996 boasted fewer drug rings, fewer beheadings than the Juarez of today, and I imagine even James Michener could not have predicted how horrible things have turned for the whole region in recent years. My experiences in that country were short-lived, but I do feel like I earned a sense of belonging in Mexico, much like what is represented in Mexico the book. One village I visited two hours from Chihuahua City was as back-woods as one could imagine, and it was beautiful. I never visited Toledo, and I never saw a bull-fight, but as I worked through Michener’s novel, I kept placing myself back there with those people of Chihuahua, people so lovely, so content with what little they had. And I am glad to have had at least this simple reference point available as I read through this book.
Since my experience with James Michener is highly limited, yet still wrought with good memories, I do not have much to which I can compare Mexico. Perhaps because I expected a more chronological history than the book actually provides, I was taken aback a little by the constant returns to the narrator’s present-day experiences midst the lively Ixmiq bullfights of 1961 Toledo. Norman Clay, a magazine correspondent on assignment to his boyhood town of Toledo, Mexico, is a strange, fascinating mix of Mexican-Indian, Spanish-Mexican, and Virginian. As Clay researches the life-threatening bull-fights of Juan Gomez the Indian and Victoriano the Spaniard, he recounts his family histories as they reach back centuries and into his his distinct bloodlines through his distinctive ancestors. Lady Grey Eyes, the Palafox brothers, the Jubals–all of these colorful characters and many more add such life to this fictitious history of Mexico that one is actually quite hard-pressed to remember them all. Or, for that matter, to forget them.
With Michener’s writing, I find that he does not mind mixing his tales from one book to another. For example, I recall the same General Gurza tales of the Mexican Civil War leading one Mexican character in Centennial to flee the country for safer work up north, eventually landing in Centennial, CO. Similarly, I found that Michener’s pessimism towards formal religion has not changed from his earlier books to this, published in 1992. Just as my missions textbooks often mention the distortion Michener pushed over on his readers in his book Hawaii by describing the evils the missionaries played upon the poor, innocent Hawaiian natives, I found the Palafox priest in Mexico to be a shady, lewd character himself, leading me to believe that Michener might not hold Christians (or rather Catholics specifically) in the highest regards. This antagonism aside, James Michener can certainly write a captivating tale, and even his pessimism adds to the realism of his works.
I have gotten caught up in James Michener’s over-active imagination once again, an imagination that does not deal in mere fantasy, but rather weaves into an intensely readable tale biographies so realistic that you would be shocked not to find his characters inside your kid’s history book from school. Mexico offers something more than his other historical fiction fares, by the way, for I was as excited to read each detailed installment of the Ixmiq bullfights as I was to learn about Norman Clay’s ancestry. Pick up this book if you have the time and if southern North America interests you at all. I do not think Michener will let you down.