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A restless intelligence

Survivors in Mexico: Rebecca West, Yale University Press: 264 pp., $26.95

May 18, 2003|Merle Rubin | Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Had she lived in classical Greece at the court of Pericles, she might have been the philosophically-inclined courtesan, Aspasia, the one woman admitted to an all-male circle of intellectually inquiring minds. In the Dark Ages, she might have been the audacious, heretical mathematician Hypatia. There was something innately English about her as well, a touch of majestic aplomb reminiscent of, say, Elizabeth Tudor. In the 18th century, one can see her as a female Dr. Johnson, with her wide-ranging mind, strongly expressed opinions, scintillating conversation and masterly prose style.

But Rebecca West (1892-1983) spent most of her life in the 20th century, alive to its contradictory crosscurrents of hope and horror, liberation and tyranny. Novelist, journalist, cultural critic, she was a fiercely witty feminist, a staunch anti-Communist and anti-Fascist. In her masterpiece "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" (a searching meditation on the Balkans), she raised journalism to the level of great literature.

Yet when I was lucky enough to meet her in 1977, I had not read any of her books. In a characteristic outburst of hospitality, she had invited my husband and me to lunch at her London home on the strength of the fact that she and he had corresponded some years earlier on a biography he was writing of Sarah Gertrude Millin, a South African writer whom West had known quite well. Despite an awkward start, the three of us got on like a house on fire. Even my ignorance of her written work was no impediment: She had so much to say about everything -- and, what is rarer among famous public figures, she was also so intensely curious, so full of questions about everything -- that the afternoon simply flew by.

West had a genuinely original mind: playful, serious, capacious, penetrating. She was as keen to hear the latest piece of gossip as to consider a new take on Proust or ponder the mysteries of human nature. She possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of history and literature, coupled with an amazing ability to draw connections between seemingly disparate phenomena. And she was never more playful than when she was serious. Many of her books capture the vivacity and profundity of her conversation. But among those that do it best is "Survivors in Mexico," a nonfiction account of her impressions of that country that she began writing when in her 70s but left unfinished at the time of her death.

The book got its start in 1966, when West accepted a commission from the New Yorker to write an article about Leon Trotsky's grandson, Seva, who was living in Mexico City, where his grandfather had fled from Stalin, only to be assassinated by one of Stalin's henchmen. Although the article never materialized, the impressions and ideas generated by West's visit to Mexico -- and her return there in 1969 -- became incorporated into this never-ending project. "Survivors in Mexico" was intended to be a full-scale analysis of Mexican society and culture, which would do for Mexico what "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" (1941) had done for the Balkans. But the project languished. The editor of "Survivors in Mexico," Bernard Schweizer, reasonably speculates that West may have been daunted at the prospect of having to write a book that would measure up to the earlier work.

Having sifted through the various drafts and versions that West left behind, Schweizer has boldly -- and, for the most part, successfully -- stitched them together into an enthrallingly readable book. Some sections, it is true, are incomplete, as when she sets out to retell the story of Cortes and Montezuma (she writes as if she is at least a little in love with both of them) but never gets around to the ending. But insofar as the historical facts are available from other sources, these gaps do not detract very much from the book's true strengths.

"Survivors in Mexico" ranges over a wide variety of topics, from the splendors and intricacies of Aztec civilization to the reasons behind colonizers' thirst for gold; from Leon Trotsky (who interests West a lot more than his grandson) to the colonial bishop Juan de Zumaraga, who exposed the unconscionable mistreatment of the Indians. Very few writers have managed to be more knowledgeable and profound in their thinking while avoiding pomposity and stuffiness as well as West did. Consider her account of the long conflict between Mexican nationalists and international petroleum interests:

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