Where's the action?
Jeremy Stangroom has enough of haçiendas
Some authors fail to write in a way which makes us care about their characters. Virginia Woolf is a case in point. Sure, little James Ramsay wants to visit a lighthouse, and admittedly half his family expire before he gets his wish, but you'd have to be peculiarly sentimental to give more than a hoot about it. And it's the same with Thomas Hardy and Tess the Über Whiner; a few hours in the company of that pity-fest, and even the most sympathetic reader will be hoping that a freak earthquake soon devastates the Wessex region. The characters in Anita Desai's The ZigZag Way are not as irritating as those customarily drawn by Woolf and Hardy, but this is mainly because they do and say so very little. Possibly their inactivity and reticence is meant to indicate thoughtfulness and contemplation; but people who spend a lot of their time thinking and contemplating ideas, tend not to be very interesting whilst going about them. The ZigZag Way tells the story of a young fellow called Eric, who follows his somewhat overbearing girlfriend to Mexico, and then embarks on a mission to find evidence of the lives of his grandparents in a 'ghost' mining town in the Mexican hills. Happily, this is not just some strange whim, as his grandparents had been part of a group of Cornish miners who had lived in the town one hundred years previously. In the course of his quest, Eric meets a succession of local characters, he engages with them, and not much happens; at least, not until the very last section of the book, where a festival of the dead – Dia de los Muertos – provides the setting for the various strands of the novel to come together.
Given that there isn't much going on with respect to plot or character, one wonders what Desai is up to in the writing of the book. It is a difficult question to answer. Probably part of the intention is to paint an impressionistic picture of certain kinds of Mexican living. For example, one of the people we meet along the way is Doña Vera, the Queen of the Sierra, a widow of a mining baron, and a woman with a questionable European past. Flawed, yet insightful, she is a three-dimensional character, treated with real sophistication; but the trouble is that she does absolutely nothing for the duration of the novel, except give a lecture, eat dinner and go for a ride on a horse. Admittedly, we do learn how she had come to her present situation, but because she does so little, we have no emotional investment in her history, which means that probably we're not going to care too much.
It is also likely that it is Desai's intention to bring to life some of the sights, sounds and colours of Mexico. Indeed, the book is replete with descriptive detail. But there is a problem here. Most people will be familiar with the feeling that once one has seen one Roman ruin one might as well have seen the lot. Well, it's the same with descriptions of sun-baked haçiendas. One really is enough. In fact, it is arguable whether laying down endless pages of description is properly writing at all. It is more akin to painting with words. Undoubtedly, it involves a lot of technical skill – and Anita Desai is highly accomplished in this regard – but technical skill on its own just doesn't cut it as art.
There is an issue here about what we want from our modern novelists. One hundred years ago, it would have been easy to make the case that novels about faraway places are not harmed by leaning heavily on description. Few people would have visited such countries, television had yet to be invented, and photography and cinematography were not yet mass participation art forms. But this just isn't the case today. If you want to know what Mexico looks like, you can browse the pictures in a travel brochure. If you want to know what it looks and sounds like, you can watch a Mexican film. Sure, it is possible to describe these things in words, but language lacks the immediacy and visceral impact of the more visual art forms.
The ZigZag Way is not a terrible novel, but it is an unnecessary novel. Like jazz music, it is primarily an exercise in a kind of technically skilled superfluity. If you like jazz, you might get along with it. But otherwise, stay clear. If you really want to know what Mexico is like, go visit it.
The ZigZag Wayis available from Amazon (UK)