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Book Review

An American Meditation on What It Means to Be Mexican

ON MEXICAN TIME, A New Life in San Miguel, By Tony Cohan, Broadway Books

294 pages, $25

March 16, 2000|THOMAS CURWEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What is Mexican? The question lies just beneath the surface of Tony Cohan's 15-year immersion in the life and culture of San Miguel de Allende, a trendy little hillside getaway north of the capital where the people are friendly and the dollars go far. It is a question, skillfully considered, that redeems what is otherwise a simple, albeit pleasant, memoir about a picturesque life in a picturesque town of red-tile roofs, cobblestone streets and 100 pealing church bells.

In 1985, when Cohan and his wife, Masako Takahashi, discovered the town's charms and decided to flee their world in Los Angeles, San Miguel was a forgotten city, ciudad olvidado, a destination of choice for students and retirees, harried artists and writers. Falling into that last category, Cohan and Takahashi needed this getaway: Married for 10 years, they had found their lives hopelessly tangled in responsibilities that no longer made sense, and Los Angeles, their home, was melting down, riddled with violence and random crime.

The literature of escape is by now a crowded genre. Ever since Peter Mayle took us to Provence for a year, and Frances Mayes opened the doors to her villa in Tuscany, travel writers have happily conjured sensual evocations of dusty retreats for armchair travelers, palliatives for those of us not in a position to dodge the everyday pace of modern life.

"On Mexican Time" might be compared with these titles--and the comparisons are apt--but it is different in one crucial way: This is Mexico, and the relationships between Mexicans and Americans are more complicated than those between Americans and Europeans.

The point is not lost on Cohan. But he has to drop the role of First World refugee, shell-shocked by the ravages of life in Los Angeles. "Nobody on the streets," he writes upon one visit home. "Answering machine voices. Staring straight ahead at stoplights." Then he has to let go of the sentimental romance: "I slip into the jeans, sandals, light cotton shirt and huaraches I'd worn last visit and have since kept in my suitcase like holy vestments. I close the door softly, tiptoe downstairs and pad through the hotel precincts. Dewdrops quiver on the spiky tips of barrel cacti in the glimmering dawn."

Author of the novels "Canary" and "Opium," Cohan is a gifted writer, and Mexico soon reveals itself to him, "as if a match had been struck on a moonless night to reveal an unsuspected region, fecund and teeming, directly in your path." He balances lyrical descriptions of the land and of the characters of the village--reminiscent of Harriet Doerr--with other musings that add grist to the easy poetry. "Into what separate chamber of the soul does this place reside?" he asks after describing the Sunday night promenade through the jardin. "Have I tumbled out of reality or into it?"

In time, Cohan and Takahashi buy a home in San Miguel and start fixing it up, and America slowly becomes the more alien land, a place where they have truncated their "continuity with land and memory of what went before, imprisoning ourselves in a fretful, unreadable present."

So what is Mexican? It is, among many things, a merchant's refusal to stock salsa-flavored tuna because it sells out so quickly, creating more problems than it's worth; it is workmen's pride that keeps them from spreading a dropcloth when they plaster or paint; it is an atheist's insistence that no matter how godless he may be, he will always be Catholic.

It is also expressions such as ojala ("God willing") and ni modo ("it can't be helped"), which mean neither acceptance nor resignation but the knowledge that fate is larger than human will. It is a way of seeing the world in which--and here Cohan quotes Mexican writer Gabriel Zaid--"a coin tossed into the air, the petals plucked from a daisy, or the open pages of a fallen book are not read as statistical noise, but as signs, messages, a dialogue with eternity."

And as the world changes around him--Zapatistas begin their rebellion in Chiapas; global warming enters the conversation; a narcotraficante is found nearby encased in a bathtub of cement; San Miguel gets an espresso bar and a cash machine--Cohan broadens the question. What is American for that matter? In these post-NAFTA, post-Proposition 187 times, when the line between countries eases and hardens, it is well worth asking, and although Cohan may not tell the entire story in "On Mexican Time," we hope he will continue his exploration and his meditation on his newfound land, this "dialogue with eternity."

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