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The gringo’s progress

4 September 2004

12:00 AM

4 September 2004

12:00 AM

The Zigzag Way Anita Desai

Chatto, pp.192, 12.99

In his History of the Conquest of Mexico, Prescott described the bafflement of the Spanish arriving in a country where savagery and sweetness, blood sacrifice and delicate manners co-existed unsettlingly. In Mexico nothing was straightforward.

Anita Desai is known, and acclaimed, for her novels about India. The sub- continent is her birthplace and literary territory. Setting her latest novel in Mexico, she writes with a visitor’s eye about a visitor, Eric, a nice, unmotivated post-graduate student at a loose end, who stumbles into a quest for his roots. For the quiet Bostonian, the shock of Mexico is visceral, overwhelming.

Long-buried family links emerge: a Cornish grandfather who sought his fortune in the Mexican gold-mines when the Cornish tin business died, and Betty, who followed him across the Atlantic to become his bride in a handed-down wedding dress of blue tulle with a hem of pink roses, and died tragically. The past and present jostle one another, moving in and out of focus.

Hitching a ride, the truck rattling over cobblestones ‘the shape and size of human skulls’, Eric arrives in the ghost town once home to a gold-mining community. In the valley, the no longer grand hacienda is now a study centre run by a haughty old monster, Do

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