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On The Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey – Paul Theroux

Roam Chronicles

Just across the street, Mexico began.  We looked with wonder.  To our amazement, it looked exactly like Mexico.

Jack Kerouac

Paul Theroux’s On the Plain of Snakes, is a commentary on life along the US-Mexico border as well as the struggles of the immigrant throughout the country.

It also happens to be a literary guide to the history of written word on and in Mexico.

I don’t claim this to be complete or well organized, but if you are looking to tap into the enigma that is Mexico, my hope is that this list might give you a launch pad to a near-inexhaustible and current topic.

Plus, it will save you from having to keep a pen and paper handy while you lug around this book like I did.

Paul Theroux On the Plain of Snakes

I have not found a traveler or commentator, foreign or Mexican, who has been able to sum up Mexico.

Paul Theroux

Juan Villoro

While Juan Villoro isn’ the first writer mentioned in Plain of Snakes, he is the first one that I wish to explore further. His Wikipedia page provides more complete list of works, these are just some Theroux mentions in the book.

Wikipedia: Juan Villoro (born 24 September 1956, in Mexico City) is a Mexican writer and journalist and the son of philosopher Luis Villoro. He has been well known among intellectual circles in Mexico, Latin America and Spain for years, but his success among a wider readership has grown since receiving the Herralde Prize for his novel El testigo.

Paul Theroux comment (summary): Mexican writer, one of Mexico’s most recognized, writer, journalist, essayist; weekly column in Reforma; monthly column in Madrid’s El Pais.

Why so prolific?

To make a living, we have to keep writing.

Juan Villoro

Books / Novels

(See all available on Amazon)

El Testigo (The Witness) – novel, Herralde Prize

The Guilty – collection of short stories

The Reef – novel

The Massacre



El País:

Other Books

I was able to get The Wild Book by Juan Villoro on my library app. It is a wonderful tale of a boy who goes to live with his uncle in a magical library where the books move and the text changes depending on how good the reader is.

Others mentioned in this chapter:

Luis Villoro (father/philosopher) – The Major Moments of Indigenism in Mexico

Rudi Roth  – mentioned as friend, search more…

John Gibler – Mexico Unconquered, To Die in Mexico, I Couldn’t Even Imagine That They Would Kill Us

El Taller, The Workshop

In this section of the book, Theroux hosts a writer’s workshop in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. As he mentions, the workshop was attended by some accomplished writers.

Guillermo Osorno (Twitter) – writer, director of Centro Horizontal

Adan Ramirez Serret (Twitter) – journalist

Valarie Miranda

Diego Olavarria (Twitter)– cronista, chronicler

Hector Orestes Aguilar (Elem.mxTwitter)– The Gringa

Guadalupe Nettel (Amazon) – widely published and known in Mex and US – The Body Where I Was Born; After the Winter; Natural Histories; El Cuartito

Michael Sledge – The More I Owe You, Mother and Son (excellent books, good reviews)

Theroux Quizzes Workshop:

Mexico City Blues

Under the Volcano

DH Lawrence Mexico Novel

Waugh – Robbery Under Law

Graham Green

Aldous Huxley

B Traven – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

LP Hartley – The Go Between

Others mentioned in this section:

Che Guevara – The Congo Diary

Julieta garcia Gonzalez

Claudia Muzzi

Luisa Reyas Retana – Juana Lao

Adan Ramirez Serret

Jorge Cuesta – hosted Aldous Huxley, Octavio Paz. started mag, went mad

Jose Donoso – Chilean writer; Pilar Donoso daughter finds diaries – Correr el Tupido Velo

Abril Castillo – Masks

Toledo, El Maestro

In this section of the book, Theroux is able to spend time with the reclusive Francisco Toledo, ‘Mexico’s greatest artist’. These books and artists are mentioned and need further research:

Francisco Toledo – Oaxaca, activist, organizer, motivator, recluse, camerones

Rufino Tamayo – artist

John Kenneth Turner – Mexico Barbaro – look up, sounds like a fascinating person, included in portrait The Revolution Against the Profirian Dictatorship (Book about him???)

-Writen at same time as Flandrau’s Viva Mexico!

Enrique Krauze

Carlos Fuentes – 36 works – The Crystal Frontier (‘fanciful and unrealized’);  Diana (‘mawkish and confused’); Death of Artemio Cruz (‘supposed masterpiece, dense overwritten version of Citizen Kane’);  Terra Nostra (‘unreadable’);  Aura

Jorge Ibarguengoitia, 10 works

Martin Luis Guzman – 16

Ignacio Solares – Delirium Tremens; Yankee Invasion; Lost in the City; Serafin

Elena Garro – Recollections of Things to Come

Laura Esquivel – Like Water for Chocolate – romantic novel, chatty, recipes;  Swift as Desire

Oscar Martinez – The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (migrant route and human trafficking)

B Traven – six jungle novels – The Rebellion of the Hanged;  The General from the Jungle; The White Rose (Mexican Indian vs corporate interests)

Ilan Stavans – The Hispanic Condition

Juan Ruflo

Pedro Paramo is mentioned throughout the book as one of Mexico’s best known novels. Although it isn’t highly praised I feel compelled to check it out.

Rulfo’s Paseo del Norte is also mentioned, and more highly suggested.

Write the story of a contemporary cured of his heartbreaks solely by long contemplations of a landscape.

Camus – Notebooks

Beginning of Book – Older Writing on Mexico

Job Hortop – The rare travales of an Englishman who was not heard of in three-and-twenty years’ space (1591) – [Included in Hakluyt – Voyages]

Thomas Gage (1648)

Fanny Erskine Inglis, writing under Mrquise Frances Calderon de la Barca – Life in Mexico (1843) ; “as the Scottish wife of the Spanish ambassador, she had access everywhere and was habitually indiscreet.”

Charles Macomb Flandreau – Viva Mexico!

The Contemptuous Foreign Writers…

Graham Greene – Lawless Roads (1938) ;  “short trip… did not speak Spanish at all… lauded by some critics… a joyless, overdramatized, and blaming book, contemptuous of Mexico”

Graham Greene – The Power and the Glory ; “Yet the novel that was inspired by his Mexican travel is one of his best”

Sommerset Maugham (1924) – magazine articles – downbeat

Evelyn Waugh – Robbery Under Law: The Mexican Object Lesson

Aldous Huxley – Beyond the Mexique Bay

Modern references:

Don’t Go There. It’s Not Safe. You’ll Die, and Other More Rational Advice for Overlanding in Mexico and Central America (2012)

Carlos Fuentes – “the best-known Mexican writer to non-Mexicans”

The Sorrows of Mexico: An Indictment of Their Country’s Failings by Seven Exceptional Writers

Octavio Paz – The Labyrinth of Solitude ; “one of the most insightful books I have read on Mexican attitudes and beliefs, (no, says a Mexican friend whose views I respect, ‘it’s a tissue of stereotypes’)

Rebecca West – Survivors in Mexico (posthumous) ; “illuminating and at times spirited and insightful”

Luis Alberto Urrea – The Devil’s Highway ; “one of the best accounts of border crossing, migrant tribulations and frontier culture and criminality”

Alice Driver – More or Less Dead

Yuri Herrera – Signs Preceding the End of the World – highly praised critically

Charles Portis – The Dog of the South

RG Collingwood – The New Leviathan (1942)

Manuel Jose Othon – Potosi’s best known poet – Una Estepa del Nazas

Samuel Beckett – Waiting for Godot – Not about mexico, but he translated Othon poems – Anthology of Mexican Poetry

Claudio Lomnitz – historian, anthropologist

Paul Bowles – Pastor Dowe at Tecate – one of PT favorite short stories

Daniel Reveles – Big Caca’s Revenge – set in Tecate

Francisco Cantu – The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border – disenchanted border patrol officer

Alena Semuels – The Atlantic – Upheavals in Factories of Juarez

Yuri Herrera – Signs Preceding the End of the World

Sam Quinones – True Tales from Another Mexico

Okon – artist – Freedom Fries ; Oracle, a Border Town in Arizona

Malcom Lowry – “plumed with emerald snow and drenched with brilliance”

Thomas Janvier (1887) – Mexican Guilde, In the Sargasso Sea

DH Lawrence – The Plumed Serpent, Mornings in Mexico

Carlos Fuentes – This I Believe

Guillermo Sheridan – novelist, critic

Muriel Spark – Memento Mori – Remember you must die – not a reference to Mex

Charles Portis – Gringos


Prof. Rafael Guillen entered jungle in 1984, emerged as Subcomandante Marcos

The Fire and the Word – history of the Zapatista movement by Gloria Munoz Ramirez

The Zapatista Reader – edited by Tom Hayden

Cristina Rivera Garza – No One Will See Me Cry

Groups of writers – Boom, Crack Manifesto, La Onda, McOnda, naturalistic novelists

Old men ought to be explorers

TS Eliot – East Coker

Random vocabulary:

Tocayo – namesake

cronista, chronicler

Inundacion – flash flood

Avalanche de lodo – mudslide

Lodoso – muddy

Una tormenta – thunderstorm

Una tormenta electrica

Paul Theroux Proust Questionnaire – learn more about what Theroux likes including artists, writers, etc.

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