In the past few decades, as India has become the jewel in the literary crown of the former British Empire, Anita Desai has earned her share of the credit for this growing...
In the past few decades, as India has become the jewel in the literary crown of the former British Empire, Anita Desai has earned her share of the credit for this growing reputation. More quietly than Salman Rushdie, the 67-year-old writer has created a large body of intelligent fiction in which she considers the factors familial, ethnic, geographic and occupational that shape the sense of who we are.
In her latest book, “The Zigzag Way,” Desai once again provides a story that feels as exquisite as a piece of fine crystal. What’s different this time around is how much the story resembles a fairy tale. Although the book’s setting is Mexico, sometimes it seems more like the land of enchantment.
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Eric Rowse, a young and untethered graduate student from Boston, tags along with his scientist girlfriend, Em, when she and her fellow lab rats head south to do field work. Eric has been spending months trying to expand his thesis on immigration into a book. He’ll take any excuse to get out of the library.
Once in Mexico City, however, Eric realizes that his poetic sensibility and rudderless itinerary don’t work with Em’s purposeful crowd. A certain serendipity takes him to a lecture about the peyote-loving Huichol Indians who live to the north, in the Sierra Madre. Listening to the fiery speaker, Doña Vera, he suddenly remembers how his Cornish grandfather had gone to work in the silver mines in that region nearly a century before.
Slouching past the imperious old woman after the talk, Eric is intrigued. With a feline disdain for her keepers, Doña Vera looks like nothing more than “an aged and very spoiled cat.” Yet, on a whim, he heads north to pay call at her mountainside hacienda. In the process, he takes himself and the reader on a journey that, in its zigzag way, will bring his tired, dry story of the immigration experience to life.
Desai lived for a while in Mexico. That, and her wonderful way with words, explains the truth and beauty with which she describes the country’s folk culture and its desert terrain. But this is background material.
Front and center is the younger Doña Vera, a “blond butterfly” whose porcelain beauty allowed her to charm her way out of wartime Europe and find a new life although not the one her rescuer expected. Also central to the story is the young miner who years later, in an English cottage by the sea, shared his memories of Mexico with his grandson Eric.
Although Em doesn’t return to the stage, her presence haunts the book. This is a device Desai has used before: a shrewd woman serving as the foil for a self-doubting man. Yet, in “The Zigzag Way,” this model has a way of flipping back on itself to show how sometimes life is richer when it isn’t lived in a straight line.