The Sudden View
A Mexican Journey
Sybille Bedford
(Harper & Brothers)
"One could bathe, from our beach, only before sunrise and at brief dusk, that exquisite ten minutes when the waves stand almost black and fifty pelicans swoop plumply by one's side teaching their young to fish."

Sometime in the early 1950s, Sybille Bedford and her companion (a lady named here merely as "E") went from New York City to Mexico ... first to Mexico City, and from there to Pazcuaro, Urapan, Guanajato, Oaxaca and various other stops in between.

They spent most of their time near Guadalajara, in the finca San Pedro, owned by eccentric Don Octavio and his eccentric family.

For those of us in love with Mexico of the later part of the 20th Century onwards, The Sudden View makes us sigh with relief that we waited before going. Getting about to the west and south of the capital was mostly a matter of buses and trains; rarely cars --- the roads were dusty, pitted, lumpy, mostly a fantasy of a road rather than road. Bedford's tale of getting to Matzalán via Tepíc, for example, is one of astonishing stoicism on the part of her and her companion and several dozen anonymous indios ("the kind of people Don Jaime described as not having worn shoes long") --- all trapped in a hot and dusty train running seventeen hours late, seemingly lost in the jungle, the rails flooded, bridges washed out, the only cooling being an hour, no more, of blocks of ice laid on the roofs of the passenger cars.

The miserable journey lends itself to an aside on the geography of the country. "On the map, Mexico looks like the headless part of a large fish, hacked across the middle."

    The surface of this singular tableland is slit by gorges, gashed by ravines, rent by chasms, blocked by volcanoes and crossed by expanse beyond expanse of lateral ranges. If progress North to South is thus impeded, access from West or East is hardly possible at all as the long sides of the plateau are the two stupendous Sierras dropping perpendicularly into the sea and, across these, the coasts can only be reached at a few hair-raising points.

It is at this point, after this almost poetic aside that the train begins to back up: "I was woken by voices. Cannot get through, I heard. Line's washed away; we'll have to go back." It's The Nightmare Journey, the one that you and I have had several times before, a trip that begins with such great expectations --- We're going to the undiscovered beach! We're going to the mountains! To the pyramids! To learn about another land, another people!

But then we end up being stuck somewhere east (or west) of nowhere, in a bus-station (or on a bus) or in a train-station (or on a train), where we find ourselves at six a.m., "sticky and dirty with only a tepid trickle to wash under in the stinking lavatory."

You and I, at this moment, may want to lay our heads down an cry. For Bedford it is a time to give us another snip of history, on the town of Ruiz, where they find themselves: "We are now across the Sierra Madre, and Ruiz would be in Nayarít, the territory of the Nayarítos, the only aborigines who managed to dawdle over their conversion to the Catholic faith from the Conquest well into the Eighteenth Century."

Having recalled that, the author then pulls us back to the horror the horror that is visiting her (and the reader) at Ruiz, which lay on the coastal plain and "therefore in the hot zone," with heat, "as hot a day as many of us had ever feared to live through." There were mosquitoes and cuches, "A number of pigs now assembled around the train, and presently boarded it, looking and begging for food. They were dripping with liquid yellow mud." Then the rumors began, as they will at such times:

    Information as to the length of our sojourn at Ruiz was not unanimous. Some said six hours, some ten; some said we would leave at midday, some at nightfall. Some said next morning, others in three days. The last train from the North had been four days late. There was also the hypothesis that we would be returned to Guadalajara. None of this was improbable.

Then begins a rich entreact concerning what it is like for us "to sit on a train that does not move."

    All the time he will be aware that something is missing, that something is wrong. It will jab and nibble at his nerves, scatter his concentration, tumble his equilibrium. If only the damn thing would move: the heat, the dirt, the boredom, all would be tolerable. Oh, if only it would move!

§     §     §

We've said before, and we will say again: the only travel books that win our hearts are those written by one who --- we are quite sure --- we would want to be traveling with. We would want the train to move, please move, but if we are stuck at Ruiz, in the heat and glaze and stink, we would want more than ever to be there with Sybille Bedford.

It makes no difference that this one is skewed, truly, a very small part of Mexico visited, in smelly trains, heart-robbing buses launched along mountain roads with, apparently, no brakes, at midnight (dim lights, goats and pigs and sheep and --- in one case --- the front end of a turkey perched in her lap).

With all its long ambling dialogues, and the many detours to strange haciendas with a quite mad family; or to rotting hotels on the unbearable coast of the hot Pacific; or with impossibly awful (or wonderful) breakfasts in Querétaro ("ham-and-eggs or eggs-and-chilli, followed by beefsteak with sliced tomatoes, followed by black beans; tortillas, rolls, buns, sweet bread and cake; jam, honey and stewed fruit; papayas, muskmelon, bananas and prickly pears; coffee or chocolate;" ditto for lunch; ditto for supper); or to nascent volcanoes in Uruapan; or to Oaxaca, "the home of the tarantula and the widow-spider, the rivers are full of crocodiles, and the woods of pumas and tapirs, and there is an earthquake every spring."

An earthquake every spring! If we had to travel in such a muddle, god let us go with Bedford! Her ten-page aside on the origins and battles and heart and works of Benito Juaréz is, all by itself, well worth the journey.

    In the morning I walked into the town to send a telegram to Anthony care of American Express, Mexico City, telling him not to join us at Lake Pazcuaro. Now, there are two kinds of countries, the countries in which sending a wire is nothing --- you hand in a shilling or a quarter, and a form, and walk out again --- and the countries in which it is hell. They're out of forms, they're out of ink, the pen scratches, you've been waiting at the wrong guichet, your destination does not exist, the post-mistress pretends she cannot read. The worse the postal service, the better the climate, wine and food. Without such compensations, Pazcuaro beats any telegraph office between the Bosphorus and the Mexique Bay.
--- Carlos Amantea

Note: Our copy of The Sudden View was printed in 1953. We had assumed there were other, later editions. But our consultation with revealed that the most recent is from 1963, and comes from Atheneum. We apologize. However, Powell's and Abebooks both have inexpensive used editions.

Don't ask for ours. We've scribbled so many notes on the pages and turned down the corners on so many --- a mark of our love --- that we assume that no-one could possibly want it for their own.

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