Oct 142021
 

The earliest known English-language short story related to Lake Chapala is “The White Rebozo: A Vision of the Night on the Mystic Waters of Lake Chapala,” written by Gwendolen Overton and first published in The Argonaut in July 1900. The story was subsequently reprinted in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. In the following transcription, accents have been added and the letter ñ used where appropriate in order to facilitate reading.

The White Rebozo: A Vision of the Night on the Mystic Waters of Lake Chapala

“She is white, yes.” Nuñez spoke English with ease and a charming accent, and he never lost the opportunity of doing so. He was practising now on Lingard, as they stood together at the water’s edge.

Linguard continued to look after the woman who had just gone by them, toward the village. She wore the blue rebozo of the Indian woman, but underneath it you could see that she was fair – fair and of a less classic build than the women of the land.

“She is white, yes. It is because that she is an American, like yourself.”

“An American?” said Lingard, “in that dress?”

He doubted; but the Mexican nodded his head. “An American, yes. I do not know her name. They call her ‘La Gringa,’ only. She is your countrywoman, and she lives in the village there. She loved a man of the people, an Indio, many years ago – and it is like this now. She lives in a small house with two chambers, and she is very poor. She has one daughter who is a little mad. It is because that La Gringa tried to drown herself in this lake before the child was born.”

“And the man?” asked Lingard; “where is he?”

Nuñez shrugged his shoulders, which would have been a little sloping had it not been for the best English tailor of the capital. “Ah! The man. Who knows? He is gone. It is always like that.”

The woman had passed out of sight up the little street, and Lingard turned away, looking thoughtfully up to one of the mountain peaks that rose above the lake. “Am American,” he said, half to himself; “she must have led the life of the dammed. And her eyes were so child-like and blue.”

The Mexican laughed, the laugh of a breed which does not believe in woman except for purpose of poetry and patron saints. “Child-like and blue,” he echoed; “the eyes of women do not show the things which are under them. They are like this lake, I think. It is so blue and beautiful. You would never know that there is a city far down beneath the water, eh?”

Lingard forgot the woman. “A city – under this lake?”

The Mexican was delighted with his effect and the still further chance of more display of English. “You do not know the story of Lake Chapala, then?” Truly. Under it, so deep, deep under it – it is very profound – there is a city, an Aztec city, perhaps. The lake came, I think, maybe, by an earthquake. It was like Pompeii, but that it was buried by water and not by cinders. Some times, when there is a storm, after it you can find on the shore little things which the water bring up; carved stones, little gods, little spools, like for the embroidery and the sewing; little cups, always of stone, and always very small, so that they shall not be too heavy.”

They called to him from the balcony of the hotel and he went away, with a princely sweep of his begilt and besilver sombrero.

Lingard watched him absently for a moment, then he turned his back to the bright waters of the lake, and to fancying the city underneath, somewhere far down, down in the cool, deep blue. The sun of the south might rise over the encircling peaks in the west, and sink behind them in the west; the shadows of the mountains might quiver on the waters’ face, and the flowers of the garden-land wave and bend upon their very edge; but there would always be that ancient city down below, the same cold swing of shore-bound tide. And where butterflies and sweet-throated sanatitas [New World blackbirds] had been, there was now only the little white Lake Chapala fish. It took possession of him, the thought, and also the wise, to find for himself one of the relics of carved stone that the waves moved up from the depths. He wandered on and on along the shore, looking down at the pebbles and the sand.

It was dusk when he came back to the hotel. The señoritas, too modest to bathe in the dull light of day and the sight of man, were splashing about, vague, shapeless shapes at the shore’s edge. Lingard was only a gringo, and he did no know that the beach was sacred to the feminine just then, and that if one wished to watch one should do so from a hotel window with a pair of opera glasses. He did not care to watch, indeed. He considered these maidens who boasted Spanish blood inferior in every respect to the fine dark women of the lower class. And their figures looked execrable in the bathing suits! So he went by almost unheeding, and on into the hotel.

Nuñez was there, killing time in the cantina after the manner of his kind. He seized upon Lingard as a diversion.

“You have dreamed all day by the lake. The ghost of the lake will take you one time.”

“Is there a ghost?” asked Lingard; “I was looking for a stone.”

“One of the carved stones? I will buy one for you, if you will accept it, señor.” The Mexican rejoices to give. “I know where one is to be bought. But there is many that are not genuine – not good – which the Indios make to sell to the excursionists. The one I will give to you shall be genuine.”

Lingard did not want one that was bought, but he felt that he could hardly say so. He told Nuñez that he was very kind, and forthwith discouraged further talk about the lake. Nuñez was a Latin, and it was Lingard’s experience of his sort that there is a strain of deadly bathos in their conversation which grates on the Anglo-Saxon, who is more consistently poetical when he chooses to be a poet, as he is more thoroughly a trader when he elects to trade.

When the moon had begun to rise in a sky that was blowing over with heavy, white-edged clouds, he went out on the lake shore again. There was a whine of wind now, and the slap of the wavelets on the sand was sharper, and sometimes the moon would sail behind a cloud and leave the world in darkness.

Lingard walked on until he was too far from the hotel to hear the shrill chatter of Nuñez and his friends. Then he stood still and looked across the lake. He was thinking yet of the city below the gold-tipped ripples. And as he looked the gold vanished and left the waters black. The moon was behind a cloud. It stayed so for a while, and then came drifting forth, and Lingard, staring straight before him, with glassy eyes, felt the blood running cold in his heart. For there in front of him, not twenty feet away, a woman’s figure stood, slight and frail against the path of moonlight, at the edge of the shore – a figure white-shrouded from head to feet, indistinct against the shimmer, pale-faced and pale-eyed. It held a sheaf of the white flowers of the field clasped in transparent hands against the breast; but they dripped bright drops of water to the ground. “Qué quiere?” Lingard demanded and tried hard to make it firm.

“Tu alma, tu vida,” moaned a voice that whispered with the lapping of the waves and the whistle of the rising wind. “His soul, his life!”

He tried to reason back his fear. It was born of the fancies that he had dreamed over all day, of the tequila he had drunk with Nuñez before dinner, of the fever of the country perhaps. He might be getting the fever now. But the slight boldness that came to him was born of sheer terror, and he fell back on the harshness of his own tongue to break the spell. “Go to the dickens.” he said, crossly, and yet with awe, and took a step nearer to the vague thing.

“Come with me, come with me. The water is calling. The water is deep.” The English that answered was as sure as his own.

He was losing his mind, surely it was the fever. Did spirits speak in every tongue? “Who are you?”

She laughed sweetly, uncannily, and kept on. “There is no more sorrow in the lake, deep down in the lake. I can go to it now. We can go together. Come with me, come.”

“Who are you?” he insisted still. “Tell me who you are.”

One of the hand left her breast and waved toward the water behind her. The light was glowing faint again, and the voice came out of the darkness soon. “We can go in the water now.” And it shouted the words of the song, “Venga conmigo, adonde vivo you.” The shrill, unreal laugh once more, “Que sí señor, que sí señor!” Then it changed to a minor wail and the words of a language Lingard guessed to be that which the Indians of the far recesses of the country still sometimes speak – the language of those who had lived in the lake city, perhaps.

He was stiff, half helpless with fear. The clouds were thicker every minute, and the rifts were smaller and farther between. The song came breathing out of the blackness, sounding first close to him, and then far over upon the lake. He started forward with a sudden resolve to shake it into silence or bring it to a more earthly tone. But he touched something so cold and wet that his fingers were left empty and quite as cold. The waves licked around his feet.

Then the moon came out and he saw the thing, still standing in the path of its rays, but further out in the water that rose even to his knees. Her hands were outstretched in the sign of the cross, as the peons pray, and a white scarf floated over them from her head. The sheaf of flowers had fallen and was drifting softly to the shore. “Quién está?” he repeated helplessly. “Who are you?”

There was no reply; but the pale eyes were looking into his, and they seemed to draw him on.

“Venga conmigo adonde, vovo yo-o-o-o-o.” The sound kept on, drawn out until it was like the faint, far-away cry of a fog-horn at sea. “Come with me, where I live,” she sang, weirdly; and he went, following step by step, drawn on by fear and uncertainty, and the light unwavering eyes. The waters were at her waist now, and the scattered flowers floated against his own knees. The voice took up the wailing Indian song again, and it seemed to come from the waters, as they mounted up to her chin. The arms were still stretched out and the scarf lay on the waves. But the moon was hiding itself yet once more, and the wind was beginning to howl.

Then suddenly the chant stopped and Lingard heard a gasp, a cry, a horribly human cry, choked off in the midst. He was awake now, only too much awake. He remembered that he had been told how the bottom of the lake shelved abruptly, in places, to a great depth, and he remembered, too, that he could not swim. But just out there, beyond him, he could hear the beating and splashing of arms and the frantic struggle with a breathless death, and though there were no strange eyes to lead him now, he went on.

Te next day at morning, when the storm had raised, but the winds and the waves were not yet still, a group of peons were huddled upon the beach. And a woman on the outskirts was screaming as two mozos held her back. “Is it my child?” she cried, not in English, now in Spanish.

“No, it is not your child,” they told her; “It is the gringo. Come away.”

Nuñez left them and strolled over to a moza who stood hugging her arms with grief. “What is the matter with La Gringa?” he asked, “has she lost her child?”

The woman gulped down her sobs. “Yes, señor. The child was mad for many years – only a little mad, in one thing. She wished always to throw herself into the lake. She said that it called to her. It was because her mother was almost drowned once in there before la niña was born. Last night she went away, la niña, when the mother did not know. We searched for her all the night. And now she is dead, señor.”

“Dead?” said Nuñez . “But how do you know?”

She raised her head from her hands and nodded toward the group below. “She did not dress like us, señor, but always all in white; even her rebozo was white like the snow. And you have seen what the gringo holds in his hand, señor – a white rebozo?”

– – o – –

Source

  • Gwendolen Overton. 1900. “The White Rebozo.” The Argonaut (San Francisco), 23 July 1900, 4.

This article is reproduced here in the belief that it is no longer enjoys any copyright protection.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcome. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Oct 072021
 

The first English-language short story about Lake Chapala?

More by luck than judgment, I recently happened upon a short story titled “The White Rebozo,” which turned out to be set at Lake Chapala. The story was written by Gwendolen Overton and first published more than 120 years ago in 1900.

Gwendolen Overton, c 1903 [Ancestry]

Gwendolen Overton, c 1903 [Ancestry]

Research into the author’s life showed that she wrote this story when she was just 26 years old. Now forgotten, Overton was something of a literary prodigy, whose short stories had been accepted by major magazines from when she was a mere teenager.

The precise timing and circumstances of her visit to Chapala are unknown. But she certainly made good use of the local knowledge she acquired while there.

In Overton’s story, Nuñez, a Mexican man who likes to practice his English, is chatting with an American acquaintance Lingard about a woman and explains to him that,

… the eyes of women do not show the things which are under them. They are like this lake, I think. It is so blue and beautiful. You would never know that there is a city far down beneath the water, eh?”

Lingard forgot the woman. “A city – under this lake?”

“The Mexican was delighted with his effect and the still further chance of more display of English. “You do not know the story of Lake Chapala, then?” Truly. Under it, so deep, deep under it – it is very profound – there is a city, an Aztec city, perhaps. The lake came, I think, maybe, by an earthquake. It was like Pompeii, but that it was buried by water and not by cinders. Some times, when there is a storm, after it you can find on the shore little things which the water bring up; carved stones, little gods, little spools, like for the embroidery and the sewing; little cups, always of stone, and always very small, so that they shall not be too heavy.

They called to him [Lingard] from the balcony of the hotel and he went away, with a princely sweep of his begilt and besilver sombrero….”

This excerpt is interesting from a number of perspectives. At the end of the nineteenth century, rumors of a submerged city in Lake Chapala were taken sufficiently seriously by distinguished anthropologist Frederick Starr that he undertook a three-month visit to Guadalajara and Lake Chapala over the winter of 1895-1896 to investigate.

The rumors were presumably based in part on the large number of pottery fragments recovered from the lake bed every time the water level was low. Starr was unable to find any additional evidence. But the romantic idea of a lost city (and lost idols) was sufficiently attractive that it brought lots of attention to the lake.

In addition, the reference to a hotel balcony must refer to the Hotel Arzapalo, the only hotel that had a balcony in the region at the end of the nineteenth century. Built by Ignacio Arzapalo, it was the first purpose-built hotel in Chapala. Opened in 1898, and designed for foreign travelers, it was the catalyst that helped transform the village into an important international tourist destination.

Just who was Gwendolen Overton? Born in Kansas on 19 February 1874, Overton was the daughter of a retired US Army captain, Gilbert Edmond Overton (1845–1907), and his wife, Jane Dyson Watkins (1849–1905). Overton had a younger brother, Eugene Overton (1880–1970), with whom she was very close. As a child, she lived at a succession of army posts throughout Arizona and New Mexico; these experiences had a strong influence on her later writing. When Overton was a teenager, the family lived for several years in France. Even before her 21st birthday, Overton had been published regularly in The Argonaut and was described as having a “marvelous memory and industry,” who “rarely spends over an hour and a half on a story and never rewrites.”

Her first short stories about Mexico were published several years earlier than “The White Rebozo.” It is distinctly possible that an anonymous short story, published in 1894 and set in La Barca, with references to José Velarde (“The Golden Ass”), was also her work. The newspaper reprint of this story, which concerns superstition, religion and sacrifice, has no byline, and I have thus far failed to find the relevant issue of The Argonaut.

According to her author biography in her novel The Golden Chain (1903):

… when Miss Overton was about twenty-one or twenty-two the family came to live in Los Angeles, California. Here Miss Overton lives when she is not on one of her long periodical trips to the East, to Mexico, to Canada, or elsewhere. She has picked up a good deal of Spanish, as well as an exceptionally fine and accurate knowledge of the French language, of French life, and of the best French literature….

Miss Overton is at her desk by 8.30 every morning, and works until luncheon. She spends her afternoons in recreation. In particular she likes sailing, and much of her playtime is spent on the water in company with her younger brother.”

In addition to her short stories in magazines such as The Argonaut and Harper’s, Gwendolyn Overton was the author of a number of popular novels, all published by MacMillan, including The Heritage Of Unrest (1901), The Golden Chain (1903), The Captain’s Daughter (1903), Anne Carmel (1903) and Captains of the World (1904).

Overton, who married Melville Wilkinson in Los Angeles on 10 February 1910, was an active speaker and campaigner for gender equality and women’s right to vote. Gwendolyn Overton died in Los Angeles on 15 October 1958.

Sources

    • Author bio in The Golden Chain (1903).
    • Gwendolyn Overton. 1900. “The White Rebozo.” The Argonaut, 23 July 1900, 4.
    • The Los Angeles Herald, 11 February 1910.
    • Anon. “Los Angeles’ Authoress.” The San Francisco Call, 10 July 1895, 3.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcome. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Mar 252021
 

Sandra Scofield’s first novel, Gringa, was based on the author’s extensive travels in Mexico in the 1960s. The novel is set in the violent turbulence of 1968 when, a few weeks before the opening of the Olympic Games in Mexico City, hundreds of students protesting in Tlatelolco Plaza were massacred by soldiers.

Scofield-cover-GringaThe “gringa” of the book’s title is Abilene “Abby” Painter, a 25-year-old Texan who is trapped in “an abusive, torrid relationship” with Antonio Velez, a famous Mexican bullfighter. In the words of Publishers Weekly, “her self-esteem is so paltry that she serves as a sexual doormat for her swaggering lover” whose “pride in his animal trophies points up the obvious analogy between his mistresses and these slain creatures.” The student protests and their aftermath finally open Abby’s eyes to what she really wants, but can she escape without losing her life? In addition to sex, violence and death, the book explores the full range of animal instincts and the dichotomy between chance and choice in individuals’ lives.

Several acclaimed novels later, Scofield’s A Chance to See Egypt is (despite its title) also set in Mexico, and was written following a trip to Lake Chapala in the early 1990s. Events in A Chance to See Egypt take place against a backdrop of two villages (Lago de Luz and Tecatitlán) on a fictionalized Lake Chapala. The novel, which won the Best Fiction award from the Texas Institute of Letters in 1996, will be considered in more detail in a separate post.

Though she spent most of her adult life in Oregon and Montana, Sandra Scofield was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1943. She attended Our Lady of Victory Academy in Fort Worth before graduating from Odessa High School in 1960. She then studied at Odessa Junior College and the University of Texas, where she completed a B.A. in Speech in 1964. She first visited Mexico shortly before graduation.

After studying theatre at Northern Illinois University (1967-68), Scofield had a one-year acting fellowship at Cornell University the following year. After divorcing her first husband in 1974, Scofield remarried and moved to Oregon, where she returned to academic life to gain a masters degree related to language education (1977)  and a doctorate (1979) from the University of Oregon.

Scofield taught in high schools and colleges before deciding to write full time in 1983. After establishing her writing career, she occasionally gave classes at writers festivals (such as the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in 1993) and as a visiting lecturer in MFA programs. Scofield later joined the faculty of the Solstice MFA low residency program at Pine Manor College in Maryland.

Her literary awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1991); the Texas Institute of Letters Fiction Award; the American Book Award; and nominations for a National Book Award (1991); the Oregon Book Award and the First Fiction Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters.

Scofield’s novels are Gringa (1989), Beyond Deserving (1991), Walking Dunes (1992), More Than Allies (1993), Opal on Dry Ground (1994), A Chance to See Egypt (1996) and Plain Seeing (1997).

More recently, Scofield published three long stories as Swim: Stories of the Sixties (2017). One of these stories, “An Easy Pass,” is set in Mexico and relates (in the author’s own words) to “an almost hysterical fascination with bullfighters (especially the young beginning ones).”

Scofield’s non-fiction works include Occasions of Sin: a Memoir (2004); The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer (2007); and The Last Draft: A Novelist’s Guide to Revision (2017). She has also written numerous book reviews for major regional publications such as the Dallas Morning News, Chicago Tribune, Newsday, and The Boston Globe.

An archive of papers related to Sandra Scofield and her work are held in the Special Collections Library of Texas Tech University.

Acknowledgment

I am grateful to J. Weston Marshall, Archival Associate of the Special Collections Library of Texas Tech University, for kindly supplying me with a copy of Sandra Scofield’s notes describing the genesis of A Chance to See Egypt.

Sources

  • Alan Cogan. 2001. “A Chance to See Egypt by Sandra Scofield” (review). MexConnect.
  • Sandra Scofield. 1996. A Chance to See Egypt. Cliff Street Books (Harper Collins).
  • Sandra Scofield. 2005. “A Chance to See Egypt; writing history explained by Scofield,” typescript, 2005, Item 53 in Sandra Scofield Papers, 1958-2005 and undated, Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcome. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Mar 092021
 

Despite its title, Sandra Scofield’s novel A Chance to See Egypt is set at Lake Chapala in Mexico. Scofield wrote the novel—awarded the Best Fiction award from the Texas Institute of Letters in 1996—following a trip to the lake area a few years earlier.

Scofield-cover-A-Chance-to-see-Egypt

That the setting for A Chance to See Egypt is a fictionalized Lake Chapala is evident within the first few pages of the novel:

“Lago de Luz, on the altiplano far from the sea, where it is neither hot nor cold, boasts no buildings higher than two stories, and no slick discos. It is rather a sleepy place, swollen on weekends when musicians and vendors make the plaza festive for the tourists in from the nearby city. Resident Americans and Canadians make their own social life in their suburban enclaves and trailer parks, their apartments and houses, halls and meeting rooms. The Lakeside Society is the hub of activity, the place where everyone crosses, but there are many diversions: Elk Clubs, Rotarians, Veterans Clubs, Red Cross and all the interest groups, for cards and dominoes and self-improvement.” [5-6]

Two paragraphs later:

“They went on to tell tales that went with the town and the hotel, in the manner of village pundits. As if there was wisdom in remembering the bandits of another era, the old sailing boats and canoes, the movie stars, the whitefish, splendid when the lake was clean.” [6]

There are also several references in the book to a “residential school for deaf children.” The only school in Mexico with a boarding program for deaf children was the Lakeside School for the Deaf in Jocotepec (which later joined the State Education system as the Centro de Atención Multiple Gallaudet).

The New York Times called A Chance to See Egypt “A stirring and evocative new novel in which a middle-aged man discovers a world of possibilities” and “an absorbing story that allows us to delight in Tom Riley’s elation.”

The novel is centered on events in the town of Lago de Luz and the smaller nearby lakeshore village of Tecatitlán. The central character is recently widowed Thomas Riley, a pet store owner from Chicago in his mid-forties. Riley and his late wife, Eva, a tour guide, had honeymooned in Lago de Luz about eight years earlier. Eva loved traveling and the couple had planned to visit Egypt for their tenth anniversary, but never did. After losing Eva, Riley decides to revisit the lake where they had been so happy and work out what he should do next.

Riley’s return visit brings back lots of memories as he reflects on the past while pondering his future. Seeking to assuage his loss, he immerses himself in local life, quickly coming to realize that, even though Eva is no longer with him, he still loves the lake area.

Seeking activities to keep himself occupied, Riley joins a writing class at the Lakeside Society Library being given by Charlotte Amory (the narrator in A Chance to See Egypt). After publishing a novel, Amory, originally from Texas, left her husband and child three years ago to live in Mexico and write travel articles about places off the beaten track. Having previously studied art in Philadelphia, Amory has also started to paint again and has persuaded the memorably named Divina Arispe, a beautiful young girl who works at the Posada Celestial, the town’s main hotel, to sit as her model. Divina’s mother, Consolata, who also has a central role in the novel, is the owner of a small restaurant.

Amory and Riley soon strike up a friendship and Amory helps Riley wind his way through his doubts and uncertainties towards a new and different life. She tells him that if he wants to start over he must ‘change the plot’ of his life and ‘introduce new characters’.

Seemingly inevitably, Riley becomes a regular at Consolata’s restaurant and falls in love with Divina. But he needs ample time, and the help of others, to come to terms with his loss of Eva while navigating the uncharted waters of a cross-cultural relationship.

Shortly after arriving in Lago de Luz, Riley purchased a guidebook to the region in the Posada Celestial:

“In the lobby, a long table has been set up in preparation for the tour buses. At one end, a woman tidies a pile of flyers: SHOULD YOU LIVE IN LAGO? FACTS ABOUT REAL ESTATE. At the other end, a man Riley recognizes from the Lakeside Society Library is selling a guidebook to the region. A Traveler’s Treasury, it is called. Riley looks one over, then buys it.”
“Canadian fellow wrote it,” the man tells him. “He knows his stuff. He’s lived here nearly twenty years.”
“Great,” Riley says. Just flipping the pages, he can tell the book is full of information about places he’d never have heard about. “I’d like to see some villages.” He thinks of them as mysterious places, with secrets he will never know.” [52]

Not long afterwards when Riley is relaxing by a thermal pool, he thumbs through the book and reads how, in one village, “The arches support an ancient aqueduct. A few steps away is the hacienda chapel, in good condition… Near here, the scenery changes, giving way to fertile fields…”

Lake Chapala map; all rights reserved

Lake Chapala map; all rights reserved

To familiarize himself with the area, Riley “traces the highways with his finger“ on a “foldout map of the lake region.” [55] This close study of the map allows him to comment a few days later—when Divina’s mother, Consolata, tells him that she hails from a village called Saint Mary of Tears near the town of Tapalpa— that:

“I did see that on the map.” He taps the place. “Here is the village. Here is the town. The book says there is a small museum there, with rock carvings, and an old sail-canoe. Do you know the town?”
“I was in the church a few times as a girl. I saw the earthquake paintings. Sometimes we went in for market. I was born in the village, I grew up there. I have been here a long time now.” [57]

(Note that the real Tapalpa is a mountain settlement many kilometers west of Lake Chapala; the descriptions of this fictional Tapalpa match the town of Ocotlán, near the eastern end of Lake Chapala.)

Having learned about Consolata’s home village, Riley decides to see it for himself. After taking a bus to Tapalpa, he reads up about the town while waiting for a local bus to nearby Saint Mary of Tears:

“There had been an earthquake 150 years earlier. The chapel was spared damage, and the next day, as the townspeople celebrated in the plaza, a cloud appeared in the sky a vision of Christ on the cross. All of this was captured in paintings on the walls of the newer church next door.”

Riley’s trip to Tapalpa and Saint Mary of Tears is a pivotal part of the novel, causing Riley to think back to his life with Eva and ponder what she would have thought about the local miracle.

“He found a shaded bench in the square and sat down to rest.
He could not help addressing Eva; it was a habit he had never really abandoned. He leaned back against the bench and closed his eyes. “I liked the paintings. They are very fine. Do you believe there was a real vision in the sky? Or was it all an accident of condensation? You would know such a thing where you are. So tell me, Eva, do you believe in miracles now?” [65]

The miracle in this story is the miracle of love.

The basic plot of A Chance to See Egypt is quite straightforward, to some extent even predictable, but Scofield tells the story well, with keenly-observed descriptions of village life and with dialogue that flows naturally.

According to the author, “I wrote this fanciful tale of love at a time when I needed to believe that there was light at the end of the dark night. So I used that very metaphor to construct a story of a good man who thinks he is too timid to make a new life after his wife’s death. I wove spirituality, passion, affection for village life into a story in which, like a folk tale, everyone plays out fate and finds happiness.” [Quote from Amazon]

I concur with the review in Publisher’s Weekly that “Scofield draws her romantic principals together with a graceful, wry sense of humor, converting Riley’s indecision into a warm, wise exploration of the mysteries of love, and she turns an ending that could have been cliched into a genuinely profound revelation,” which only makes it all the more surprising that A Chance to See Egypt has never been optioned for an upbeat Hallmark movie.

One of the interesting aspects of A Chance to See Egypt is that it delves deeper into the cultural differences and resulting tensions between the local Mexican townsfolk and their American visitors than almost any other twentieth century novel set at Lake Chapala. The depictions of the lives and characters of local villagers and foreigners in A Chance to See Egypt are far more balanced than those in Eileen Bassing’s Where’s Annie? or Willard Marsh’s Week with No Friday, both published in the mid-1960s, which focus far more on the expat community to the near-exclusion of their Mexican hosts.

Note

Scofield acknowledges that her writing was helped by two “wonderful books,” both published in 1945: Mexican Village, by Josephina Niggli, and Village in the Sun, by Dane Chandos. She was clearly also influenced by my Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury. In A Chance to See Egypt, there are several thinly veiled but complimentary references to me and my guidebook to the region, first published in 1993 and now in its 4th edition. In the novel, the book inspired Riley to explore the local villages and the descriptions of Tapalpa in the novel lean heavily on my chapter about Ocotlán. Naturally I am sincerely flattered that Scofield sees my book in such a favorable light!

Acknowledgment

I am grateful to J. Weston Marshall, Archival Associate of the Special Collections Library of Texas Tech University, for kindly supplying me with a copy of Sandra Scofield’s notes describing the genesis of A Chance to See Egypt.

Sources

  • Publisher’s Weekly. 1996. “A Chance to See Egypt” (review).
  • Alan Cogan. 2001. “A Chance to See Egypt by Sandra Scofield” (review). MexConnect
  • Laurel Graeber. 1997. “New & Noteworthy Paperbacks.” New York Times, 21 September 1997. Section 7, p 40.
  • Sandra Scofield. 1996. A Chance to See Egypt. Cliff Street Books (Harper Collins).
  • Sandra Scofield. 2005. “A Chance to See Egypt; writing history explained by Scofield,” typescript, 2005, Item 53 in Sandra Scofield Papers, 1958-2005 and undated, Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas.

Other English-language novels set at Lake Chapala

English-language novels set largely or entirely at Lake Chapala include:

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcome. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Sep 172020
 

José López Portillo y Rojas (1850-1923) was born in Guadalajara. He graduated as a lawyer in Guadalajara in 1871, before spending three years traveling in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East. On his return, he published his first book: Egypt and Palestine. Notes from a trip (1874).

portillo-y-rojas-jose-lopezHe began an illustrious political career as deputy for Jalisco to the national Congress from 1875-1877. Shortly after that first experience of national politics, he returned to Guadalajara and became a journalist, teacher of law, and member of that city’s literary circle.

The group included other young Jalisco writers such as Antonio Zaragoza and Manuel Álvarez del Castillo, one of whose relatives, Jesús, would later start the El Informador newspaper in Guadalajara, which remains one of the city’s most important dailies.

In 1880, López Portillo y Rojas returned to Mexico City as a deputy. In 1882, he became a state senator. In 1886, he joined with Manuel Álvarez del Castillo and Esther Tapia de Castellanos to start a new publication in Guadalajara. La República Literaria, a magazine of science, art and literature quickly became nationally famous, but only lasted until 1890.

In 1891, López Portillo published the first transcription, albeit partial, of Father Antonio Tello’s invaluable 17th century account relating to Lake Chapala. In 1892, he published his only book of verse Transitory harmonies. By 1902, López Portillo was living in Mexico City and had joined the Partido Científico (Scientific Party). After the fall of Díaz, he held various federal government posts before becoming Governor of the State of Jalisco (1912-1914). For a brief period in 1914, he was appointed as Foreign Relations Secretary in the government of Victoriano Huerta, during the time when the U.S. invaded the port of Veracruz.

He left politics shortly afterwards and dedicated himself to teaching and writing. He left a vast body of work, ranging from travel accounts, poems, and literary criticism to historical and legal essays, short stories and novels. His best known collection of short stories is Stories, tales and short stories (1918). His best known novel, The parcel (1898), relates the fight between two hacienda owners for a worthless parcel of land.

At the time of his death in Mexico City on 22 of May, 1923, he was director of the Academia Mexicana de la Lengua (Mexican Academy of Language). One of López Portillo’s grandsons, José López Portillo y Pacheco (1920-2004), served as President of Mexico between 1976 and 1982. In Guadalajara, the Casa-Museo López Portillo, a museum and exhibition space honoring the family, can be visited at Calle Liceo #177.

A short story about Lake Chapala, entitled “José la garza morena” (“José the Great Blue Heron”) was published in Cosmos (a monthly magazine published in Mexico City) in June 1912. It is a tale about someone finding a heron that has been shot and wounded, and trying in vain to cure it.

The story starts by remembering the times before Lake Chapala’s shores has been altered by civilization:

When I visited the lakeside hamlet of Chapala for the first time, now many years ago, I found everything in an almost primitive state, better than now from some points of view, but worse from others.

The author compares the Chapala of earlier times with the situation during the Porfiriato (when he was active in politics as a supporter of President Díaz):

Not a sign back then of the picturesque villas that today adorn and decorate these shores from the town to El Manglar, which is the house where Don Porfirio Díaz used to stay during the time, happy for him, of his all-embracing command; but everywhere was thick scrub, cheerful orchards with severe rocky places, which were in harmony with that rustic and unspoiled landscape.

The scene is set; the action begins with an evening trip in a rowboat on the lake. The beauty of the lake, as depicted by the author, creates an impression of decadence and morbidity, because there are no signs of life out on the water:

But that scene of glorification seemed dead and desolate, without any bird to make it cheerful; not a stork, nor a crane, nor a duck stained the burnished horizon with its graceful silhouette.

Further on, the author continues:

The lake appeared magnificent and solitary under that divine show, as if it were another asphalt lake, a new Dead Sea. But it was not always thus; and the recollections of better times engraved in my memory transformed this most unhappy spectacle because, before the rising tide of civilization invaded these places with platoons of armed hunters with shining rifles, flocks of ducks would rise suddenly into the air from the marshes as the boat approached.

The second part of the short story is about someone finding a heron that has been shot and wounded, and trying in vain to cure it.

Note: The translations included above are by the author of this post, which was first published 18 June 2014.

Credit and reference:

My sincere thanks to Dr. Wolfgang Vogt of the University of Guadalajara for bringing this short story (and his analysis of it) to my attention.

Vogt, Wolfgang (1989) “El lago de Chapala en la literatura” in Estudios sociales: revista cuatrimestral del Instituto de Estudios Sociales. Universidad de Guadalajara: Year 2, Number 5: 1989, 37-47. Republished in 1994 as pp 163-176 of Vogt (1994) La cultura jalisciense desde la colonia hasta la Revolución (Guadalajara: H. Ayuntamiento).

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Aug 202020
 

Author, poet and diplomat José Rubén Romero (1890-1952) was born in Cotija de la Paz, Michoacán. Cotija de la Paz is about thirty kilometers from the village of La Palma on Lake Chapala’s south-eastern corner.

Romero’s father, an outspoken liberal, had been forced to leave the very conservative village of Cotija de la Paz, and the family home, and travel to Mexico City. Six months later, he sent for his wife and two children, Rubén (then aged seven) and his younger sister. Their journey, by horseback, steamer and train, is described in Romero’s Apuntes de un lugareño (trans: Notes of a Villager), published in 1932, by which time Romero was the Mexican Consul in Barcelona, Spain. He was later served as Mexican ambassador to Brazil (1937-1939) and Cuba (1939-1944).

romero-ruben-coverBesides his diplomatic career, Romero worked in a variety of fields, including journalism and as a university dean. He is best remembered, though, as a writer whose vivid depictions of the people and customs of his native state make him an outstanding exponent of the modern costumbrista novel. The costumbrista genre focuses on regional life, customs and manners.

Romero’s lasting legacy of fine works includes Desbandada (1936), El pueblo inocente (1934), Mi caballo, mi perro y mi rifle (1936), Viaje a Mazatlán (1946) and Rosenda (1946). But by far his best known book is the picaresque tale of a lovable rascal: La vida inútil de Pito Pérez (The Futile Life of Pito Pérez), first published in 1938. A best-seller in innumerable editions, this book was turned into a movie starring Ignacio López Tarso in the early 1970s. One of Mexico’s best-loved writers ever, Romero died on July 4, 1952, in Mexico City.

In his autobiographical novel Apuntes de un lugareño Romero describes Lake Chapala on two occasions. The first time he encounters the lake is in about 1897, on his way to Mexico City with his mother and sister at the age of seven. It includes Romero’s impressions of the steamer trip from La Palma to Ocotlán, a regular route at the time. Romero’s second encounter with Lake Chapala comes later, when he was living in Sahuayo between about 1907 and 1910.

The following extract from Apuntes de un lugareño, describing Romero’s impressions in 1897, is an excerpt of the much longer extract given, with commentary, in chapter 41 of my Lake Chapala Through the Ages, an Anthology of Travelers’ Tales:

At eight in the morning we got on the steamboat that would take us to Ocotlán.

I began to run around the boat without paying attention to the excessive cautions of my mother, who cried out for fear I would fall in the water.

The steamboat was large, with two decks and some cabins that on our voyage were occupied by the relatives of the owner, Don Diego Moreno, and some three or four nuns in black habits with white hoods.

During the crossing, the nuns never stopped praying and I twisted myself into every position to see if I could see their legs because I doubted that they had them like ordinary people.

Just past the halfway point in the lake a ruined tower appeared that was said to have been a prison in the old days. I straightened myself to see and began to pester all those within my reach with questions which when all was said and done, no one could answer.”

Translations of Romero’s works in English include:

  • Notes of a Villager: A Mexican Poet’s Youth and Revolution (Kaneohe, Hawaii: Plover Press, 1988) is a fine translation by John Mitchell and Ruth Mitchell de Aguilar of Apuntes de un lugareño.
  • The Futile Life of Pito Perez (Prentice-Hall, 1966), translation by William O. Cord.
  • A Translation of Jose Ruben Romero’s Mi Caballo, Mi Perro, Y Mi Rifle with a Study of His Life, Style and Works, by Carl Edgar Niles (University of Tennessee, 1947)

Note: This is an updated version of a post first published 21 May 2014.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

May 142020
 

Thomas Philip Terry (1864-1945) was born in Georgetown, Kentucky. Terry first visited Mexico in his early twenties and spent 5 years working for The Mexican Financier, a Mexico City weekly, while writing a series of short stories and news reports for U.S. newspapers and completing a popular Spanish-English phrase book. Terry then lived briefly in New York before moving to Japan for a decade.

He had a flair for languages and this inveterate traveler and reporter witnessed first-hand the China-Japanese War, the Boxer outbreak, the Russo-Japanese war, and the Spanish-American war in the Philippines. He returned to Mexico, with his wife and their two young sons, in 1905 as manager (administrator) of the Sonora News Company, a position he held until 1910.

The Sonora News Company was a prominent publishing house, founded in Nogales, Arizona, in about 1884 by W. F. Layer. Layer established the company in order to control the news business along the Sonora railroad which ran from Guaymas to Nogales. In 1888, not long after the company opened a Mexico City office, it won the contract for supplying periodicals and other items on the Mexican National Railway (linking Mexico City to Nuevo Laredo), and for running news agents on its trains. As more and more railroad lines were built, the company continued to expand; by 1891 it had contracts with the Sonora, Central, International, National, Monterrey, and Mexican Gulf railroads.

In addition to its regular news gathering and disseminating activities, the Sonora News Company published two seminal guide books about Mexico. The first was Campbell’s new revised complete guide and descriptive book of Mexico, by Reau Campbell, published in 1899, and the second was Terry’s Mexico handbook for travellers, first published in 1909. This encyclopedic guide, thoroughly good reading, covers lots of ground that was, and still is, hard to find elsewhere.

Terry-map-Chapala

This map in Terry’s handbook, which helped persuade D. H. Lawrence to visit Chapala, shows the lake larger than it really was in 1909—the eastern swamps had been drained and reclaimed as farmland by that time.

Terry’s Mexico handbook was so well-received by President Díaz and his cabinet members that they ordered copies to be sent to every Mexican embassy, legation and trade office across the world. The guide quickly became the travel bible for Thomas Cook and Sons and other travel agencies and tourist organizations, and remained the tourist “bible” for decades.

Its description of Chapala is credited with convincing the English novelist D. H. Lawrence that he simply had to see the town and its eponymous lake for himself. During his residence at Lake Chapala, Lawrence wrote the first draft of The Plumed Serpent, using local settings and characters for inspiration.

Terry’s research was meticulous and his informative guide delves into the details of everything from history to hotels, and from shopping to excursions. It was expanded in numerous subsequent editions as Terry’s Guide to Mexico, with later editions revised by James Norman.

In 1914, Terry produced a second book on Mexico: Mexico: an outline sketch of the country, its people and their history from the earliest times to the present.

Thomas Philip Terry died in Hingham, Massachusetts in 1945.

In a curious twist of fate, Terry also has a much more recent connection to Lake Chapala in that Robert C. Terry (his grandson) retired with his wife, Judith, to Ajijic in 2007.

For more about Terry and his description of Lake Chapala, see chapter 53 of my Lake Chapala Through the Ages, an anthology of travelers’ tales.

Sources include

  • Reau Campbell. 1899. Campbell’s new revised complete guide and descriptive book of Mexico. Mexico City: Sonora News Company, 1899.
  • The Jalisco Times, 22 August 1908.
  • The Mexican Herald, 31 March 1910, 3.
  • The Rock Island Argus (Rock Island, Illinois), 26 Mar 1910, 4.
  • Thomas Philip Terry. 1909. Terry’s Mexico Handbook for Travellers. México City: Sonora News Company and Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
  • James Tipton. 2011. “Peace Corps couple retire to their Mexico paradise.” Article on MexConnect.com
  • The Two Republics, 2 Sep 1888, 4; 2 Nov 1888, 4.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcome. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Apr 302020
 

Given its underlying theme, it seems eerily appropriate—given the current Covid-19 lockdown at Lake Chapala—to take a quick look at William S. Stone’s short story entitled “La Soñadora” (“The Dreamer), published in Mexican Life in 1947.

Stone-story

The illustration is by Valentín Vidaurreta, better known as one of the greatest silver designers in 20th century Mexico

The protagonist is a young doctor who has arrived with a group of American miners looking for gold in the hills behind the village:

It was in the year 1918 that a group of Americans came to the Mexican village of Ajijic to mine gold in the mountains a bare two kilometers away. A truly white face had rarely before been seen and now, all at once, there was a score of them. It came nearer to stirring the village from its apathy than any other event of the last half century. But, after a brief period of mutely staring inspection, the foreigners would have been forgotten, would have aroused no more interest that the lizards which swarmed the adobe walls or the porkers wandering the muddy lanes, had it not been for the young doctor who came with them.

Dr Mason had a way of going into their hovels where he could not be entirely ignored. For that was the year of the plague. Dog-tired after ministering to those who were sick among his own party at the mine, he would stumble down the trail to the village. There, without being told, he seemed to know in which houses were the stricken and without a word he would stalk almost as though sleep-walking to the mat-side, with his medicine case in hand.

During the early days of the epidemic, before fatigue had dulled his faculties, he had been surprised and curious at the reception that his visit met. The circle of silent watchers about the afflicted one would part reluctantly. Eyes which had been fixed in sodden helplessness on the victim would turn upon him, burning dully with hostility. And, so he thought, with fear.”

As the epidemic rages around him, Mason continues trying to help the local people but becomes more and more pulled in to the villagers’ world of intrigue, sorcery, and witchcraft. Mason repeatedly overhears them repeating three names in particular:

Carlota, the bruja, the ancient village witch and healer. María, the young cantinera, the operator of a small saloon—she who was literate, her head raised nearly free above the others, but her feet still enmeshed in rank weeds of superstition. Finally Juan, the medico, the outsider who had laughed at witches’ spells and cured with white man’s magic.”

Before long, Mason is drawn back into events that happened eighteen years earlier, in 1900, and his imagination works overtime as the present becomes blurred with the past.

William Standish Stone was born to Captain Arthur W. Stone, a US naval officer, and his wife in Santa Barbara, California, in 1905 and died in Hawaii on 13 January 1970.

While completing a liberal arts degree at Harvard, Stone became very familiar with Mexico, making numerous trips into the interior during vacations before living and traveling there for several years, learning Spanish and “nursing an ambition to write.” When he returned to the US, Stone settled in Tucson and completed a law degree at the University of Arizona. He continued his writing career alongside learning to fly and running a legal practice in Tucson for many years. Stone married Virginia Moss Haydon (1909-1972) in May 1931.

Stone had an enviable talent with words and wrote dozens of short stories and, in a lengthy career, several books, mostly set in Hawaii. These include Teri Taro from Bora Bora (1940); Thunder island (1942); Pépé was the saddest bird (1944); The ship of flame, a saga of the South seas (1945); Tahiti landfall (1948); Two came by sea (1953); Castles in the sand (1955); The coral tower (1959) and Idylls of the South Seas (1970). Most of these books were illustrated by Russian-born American artist Nicolas Mordvinoff (1911-1973).

[Mordvinoff was a close friend of “9-fingered” violinist John Langley, who lived in Ajijic for many years after the second world war.  Mordvinoff, who won the Caldecott Medal for book illustration in 1952, was godfather to Langley’s daughter Nicole, born in Tahiti in 1938. It seems quite likely that Stone would also have known Langley, and may have been visiting him in Ajijic when he wrote this short story. ]

If you know more about William Standish Stone’s time in Mexico, please get in touch!

I’m sure that Dr. Mason’s dreamy spirit lives on in Ajijic and fully expect to see him sitting on his bench in the plaza next time I visit…

Sources

  • Arizona Daily Star, 24 Dec 1935.
  • Honolulu Advertiser, 16 Jan 1970, 49.
  • William S. Stone. “La Soñadora,” Mexican Life, March 1947, p 13-14, 74-84.
  • Vanity Fair, January 1936.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcome. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Aug 292019
 

James Patterson, whose books have sold more than 300,000,000 copies worldwide, incorporated a mention of Lake Chapala into his very first novel, The Thomas Berryman Affair, published in 1976, when he was 29 years of age.

James Brendan Patterson was born in Newburgh, New York, on 22 March 1947. He graduated with a B.A. in English from Manhattan College and an M.A. in English from Vanderbilt University. He was studying for a Ph.D. at Vanderbilt when he took a job in advertising. He became an advertising executive at J. Walter Thompson (and the firm’s North American CEO from 1988) and combined this career with writing until 1996 when he finally retired from advertising to focus all his energies on writing and the promotion of reading. As an ardent philanthropist, Patterson has given away millions of books to schools and the military and funded dozens of reading programs, university grants and scholarships.

The multi-award winning author has written more than 140 books, ranging from thrillers, comedy, mystery and romance to young adult fiction. Among his noteworthy series are Alex Cross, Women’s Murder Club, Maximum Ride, Daniel X, NYPD Red, Michael Bennett, Witch and Wizard, Middle School, and I Funny. Patterson has the enviable record of having written 114 novels that have appeared on the New York Times bestselling list and 67 that made it to the #1 spot. Many of his more recent books have co-authors.

The Thomas Berryman Affair, his first novel, was released in 1976 when Patterson was working for the J Walter Thompson advertising agency. It was rejected by 31 publishers before finally being accepted. In later releases, the book was renamed The Thomas Berryman Number.

Thomas Berryman is a Texan-born contract killer hiding out in Mexico. Berryman accepts an invitation to stay for a few days at an hacienda 90 miles west of Mexico City belonging to Sr. Jorge Amado Marquez. The hacienda “was situated on a deep blue lake like Italy’s Como, looking straight up at a small volcano.”

Berryman had several days of leisure:

“He’d slept in a third-floor suite equipped with a wraparound terrace some seventy-five feet over the lake. The front windows looked over at the volcano. A large back window looked out on bush country: brazil-wood and palms, streaming with parrots.

In the early morning, dark-haired thirteen- and fourteen-year-old girls would be out on his terrace from sometime before sunrise. They were pretty little girls with dusty brown legs. They played silent barefoot games until Berryman came to the door leading out onto the terrace. Then, giggling, blushing, curtsying like the maids in American novels, the pubescent señoritas would bring him bananas, papaya, mangos, bacon, whitefish from Lake Chapala.

His afternoons could be peaceful sailing out and around the volcano, swimming in lake water clear enough to see bottom whenever it hadn’t rained; hunting deer with or without Marquez, who was gentleman enough to give Berryman his choice.”

As travel writer Sydney Clark wrote in the 1940s, whitefish was notoriously difficult to transport:

“A popular story relates that President Díaz once sent a tankful of live pescados blancos to King Edward VII and Edward liked them so very much, and said so, that the Mexican dictator felt obliged to send him a fresh tankful each year. It was so extraordinarily difficult to achieve this with success that it caused something like an annual crisis in Mexican foreign policy, but perhaps it did at least offer a practical and interesting problem to the dictator’s Científicos. I did not blame King Edward when I sampled this fish….”

Whitefish may have been readily available to the wealthy elite in the 1970s, when Patterson was writing The Thomas Berryman Affair, but is now rarely encountered by Lake Chapala fishermen.

Sources

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Aug 012019
 

The novel El gran Chapa, by Juan Pablo Guzmán Alemán, was awarded the first ever Premio Jalisco for literature in 1950 and was published the following year. The distinguished jury that selected El Gran Chapa was comprised of Mariano Azuela, Enrique González Martínez, Agustín Yáñez, José Cornejo Franco, José R. Benítez and José Ruiz Medrano.

The only reviews in the U.S. of El Gran Chapa were by Winston Allin Reynolds, a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who subsequently wrote the introduction to the author’s second novel, Llaga viva.

In his short review of El gran Chapa for Books Abroad, Reynolds wrote that the 290-page “prize-winning novel departs from the traditional pattern in many respects.” The emphasis lay “on deep psychological probing into the emotional drives of the Mexican.” Reynolds argued that it was well constructed artistically and imprisoned “the reader in the characters’ awful little world of violence and ‘love-hatred.'”

Cover-El-Gran-Chapo

In a lengthier and more analytical review in Spanish for Revista Iberoamericana, Reynolds explained that the book was a significant work of provincial fiction because its “talented author” had resisted the allure of moving to the capital city, preferring “the quiet and anonymous life of his native region,” where he could live and work “away from ambition.”

As Reynolds pointed out, provincial fiction is too-often regarded as somehow inherently inferior to the works produced in a country’s capital city. Capital cities were thought to offer a “propitious and stimulating environment for artistic creation” and far more “pecuniary and professional opportunities”.

However, Reynolds argued that El gran Chapa was not a traditional regionalist novel, where the emphasis was on a solid plot and realistic depiction of life, but was more modernist. The book was an artistic creation whose “pages that vibrate with emotive power” sought to capture the “spiritual and sensitive depth” of the Mexican.

Reynolds summarized the plot:
– “A young Indian seminarist returns to his people in the Chapala Lake region, which groans under the most brutal caciquismo. This deep-rooted social disease is the heritage of the despotic pre-Cortesian chieftain Chapa, ruler of the ancient kingdom called Chapalac. The seminarist is gradually and painfully drawn back into the environment, and after a series of emotional crises his mystical character finds an outlet in a wild dream of liberating his race from themselves and uniting them in a movement of great brotherly love. The drama is climaxed by his inevitable destruction at the hands of his own people, still incapable of throwing off their inherent barbarism.”

The book opens with about a dozen people on horseback, including the seminarian, riding down from the hills towards Chapala:

Now the views rolled down the slopes until they bounced off the bottom of the ravines divided into geometric cultivated plots. The beasts trampled their hooves in the stony path that widened with premeditated plan to allow for the wheels of carts and cars. This road was a novelty that contrasted with the old anonymous tracks that the muleteers had made and it was like the door that Chapala opened to the world so that tourists and merchants began to plague its beach, its streets, its indigenous heart. A rough route, but many automobiles (small Fords) had already begun a flow of traffic that covered the distance at incredible speeds (from twenty to thirty kilometers an hour) to bring the bourgeois and foreigners who misused the near-virginity of the region.” [9-10]

This adept paragraph not only provides a setting for the action but sets up one of the central conflicts of the novel, the differences between old ways and new. It more than hints at class differences, environmental changes and the adverse impacts of tourism.

In terms of plot, the seminarian eventually “begins to fall under the mysterious influence of the great gods that inhabit the lake” and decides that the only way forward from his “tremendous spiritual chaos” is to concoct a plan to free his people. In Reynolds’ words, “[He] believes himself called by divine inspiration to unite the fishermen in a great movement of brotherly love. He will be their redeemer and will save them, despite their own resistance.” Unfortunately, his plan has an air of doomed inevitability about it. When it fails, “the seminarian, raptured by violent psychological currents in a state of perpetual crisis, ends up being cruelly destroyed by his own people.”

Reynolds felt that the novel “affords a valuable insight into the Mexican’s enigmatic reaction to life, subjectively interpreted by the author’s own intensity of feeling and artistic skill” and that El gran Chapa was “a novel that although it is unlikely to acquire great renown, will remain as an interesting effort, of great literary quality. Its pages are a magnificent example of what an author from the provinces can achieve.”

I would go significantly further than Reynolds in applauding the genius of this book, which is remarkable for its psychological insights into the mixed feelings of Lake Chapala’s indigenous residents as they responded to the massive influx of outsiders, tourists and foreigners during the 20th century.

It is both ironic and tragic that this beautifully-crafted novel, El gran Chapa, with its perceptive examination of how the area’s indigenous people perceived outsiders and foreigners, is no longer in print and no longer readily available.

Source

  • Juan Pablo Guzmán Alemán. 1951. El gran Chapa. Guadalajara: Gobierno del Estado de Jalisco. (Translations by TB; all rights reserved)
  • Winston A. Reynolds. 1951. “Juan Pablo Guzmán Alemán. El Gran Chapa” (review), in Revista Iberoamericana, Vol. XVII, Núm. 33, Julio 1951, 121-124. (Translations by TB)
  • Winston A. Reynolds. 1952. “Juan Pablo Guzmán Alemán. El Gran Chapa” (review), Books Abroad, v 26, #2 (Spring 1952), 161.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Jun 202019
 

Martín Casillas de Alba, whose published works range from journalism and non-fiction to Shakespearean analysis, has published several Spanish language books related to Chapala, including two outstanding full-length novels. His family has lengthy and important connections to Chapala.

His grandfather was the architect Guillermo de Alba (1874-1935). Between 1895 and 1920, de Alba designed numerous fine buildings in Chapala, including the Hotel Palmera (part of which is now the Presidencia Municipal) in 1907, several private residences, and the iconic Chapala Railroad Station (now the Instituto Cultural González Gallo), completed in 1920. He also completed numerous commissions in Guadalajara, including the city’s first high-rise hotel, the Hotel Fenix (1912), and several fine homes for the city’s elite.

In 1900, Guillermo de Alba married Maclovia (“Cova”) Cañedo y González Hermosillo. The couple’s only daughter, Guillermina (“Mina”) de Alba y Cañedo (Martín Casillas’ mother), was born in Guadalajara on 9 January 1902. She married José Luis Casillas y Cruz in Chapala in 1933. Their civil ceremony was held aboard a boat, Bremen, in the middle of the lake.

Mina and José Luis had three children, including architect Andrés Casillas de Alba (who clearly inherited his grandfather’s genes and won the Premio Jalisco Arquitectura, 2017) and author and publisher Martín Luis Casillas de Alba, who was born in Mexico City in 1941.

Martín Casillas de Alba. Credit: El Informador.

Martín Casillas completed his high school education in Colegio Cervantes Costa Rica (despite its name, a Marist school in Guadalajara) and then studied chemical engineering at ITESO, the Jesuit university in Guadalajara. He admitted later in life that he had chosen the wrong subject for his degree and should have chosen to study English literature. He graduated in 1963 and then took postgraduate courses in applied mathematics at the University of Freiburg, Germany (1964-65).

After returning to Mexico he worked for IBM de México for 12 years as head of public relations and assistant to the company’s president. In 1974, Casillas was the founding editor of Nonotza, the in-house magazine of IBM de México. Nonotza, published until 1994, was a quarterly magazine disseminating the latest scientific, technological and cultural developments. Casillas relinquished his editorship in 1976 to pursue other interests.

In 1976, Casillas took a storytelling workshop with innovative Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso (1921-2003) who was born in Honduras but lived most of his adult life in exile in Mexico City.

Casillas returned to the world of scientific publishing in 1978 when he was made editorial director for Ciencia y Desarrollo, the magazine of Conacyt, the National Science and Technology Council, a post he retained until 1980.

In 1980, Casillas founded his own publishing company, Martín Casillas Editores. Within the next five years he published more than 100 titles of Mexican literature. In 1986, he began publishing La Plaza and El Inversionista. La Plaza, published in Guadalajara, was a literary and cultural monthly subtitled “Crónicas de la Vida Cultural de Guadalajara.” One of the many fascinating articles in this sadly short-lived publication was a transcription by Martín Casillas of his mother’s account of her own wedding. In the previous issue, Casillas’ sister, Mina Casillas, had reviewed the Posada Ajijic.

El Inversionista was a Mexico City business publication. In 1988, Casillas was one of the founders of the national financial daily El Economista; he began a regular column, “Juego de espejos”, and remained the paper’s managing editor until May 1994.

In the next decade he focused on writing several books, starting with La Villa de Chapala (1895-1933), published in 1994, a non-fiction account of some of the personalities and stories associated with Chapala’s transformation into a tourist destination. Much of the same material was incorporated into his later work, ¡Salvemos a Chapala! (2004).

In 1995 he published his first novel, Confesiones de Maclovia (Confessions of Maclovia). Inspired by the life of his grandmother, Cova, this was planned as the first book in a trilogy related to Lake Chapala. The second volume in the proposed trilogy was released in 2002. In Las batallas del general, Casillas spins a fictionalized account of the life, loves and actions of General Ramón Corona. Corona was born in Puruagua, near Tuxcueca on the south shore of the lake, and was governor of the state of Jalisco at the time of his assassination in 1889. The final volume in the trilogy, which was never published, was provisionally entitled Los invitados de honor and was to be based on the events surrounding the gala opening of the Chapala railroad station (designed by the author’s grandfather) on 8 April 1920.

In 2008, after taking a workshop in England with Richard Olivier, the son of famous British actor Sir Laurence Olivier, about Transformational Leadership (based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest), Casillas began teaching at ITAM (Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México), a private university with an outstanding business school and widely regarded as one of Mexico’s top “think tanks”. Casillas taught an Executive Development course there about leadership, based on lessons from Shakespeare. He has since given dozens of similar courses, workshops and lectures looking at the leadership lessons that can be learned from studying works such as Henry V, The Tempest and Julius Caesar. Casillas has also written, edited and published more than 40 works on Shakespeare and his plays.

In 2015, the Fondo de Cultura Económica (FCE), a Spanish language non-profit publishing group partly funded by the Mexican government, appointed Casillas as the head of its subsidiary in Spain.

Martín Casillas de Alba’s autobiographical Fe de erratas en la vida de un editor was published in 2017.

We will take a closer look, in later posts, at the two Spanish language novels written by Martín Casillas de Alba that are related to Lake Chapala.

Sources

  • Marcela Alejandra Duharte Solís. 2017. “Divulgación y tecnología en México: la revista Nonotza” in Reflexiones Marginales, Año 6, #41 (Oct-Nov 2017).
  • Martín Casillas de Alba. 1994. La Villa de Chapala (1895-1933). Mexico City: Banca Promex; Martín Casillas de Alba, 2004. ¡Salvemos a Chapala! Mexico City: Editorial Diana.
  • Martín Casillas de Alba. 1995. Confesiones de Maclovia. Mexico City: Ediciones del Equilibrista.
  • Martín Casillas de Alba. 2002. Las batallas del general. Mexico City: Editorial Planeta.
  • Martín Casillas de Alba. 2017. Fe de erratas en la vida de un editor (Mexico City: Bonilla Artigas Editores).

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Jun 062019
 

Juan Pablo Guzmán, a renowned Guadalajara physician, wrote several books, including a novel – El gran Chapa – set at Lake Chapala. We will take a closer look at the novel, which won the inaugural Premio Jalisco for literature in 1950, and offers valuable insights into lakeside communities and culture, in a separate post.

In this post, we consider the life and work of its author, Juan Pablo Guzmán.

Juan Pablo Guzmán Alemán was born in Guadalajara on 26 June 1909. His father died when Juan Pablo was still in his teens. At the time of the 1930 census, Juan Pablo’s mother, María Jesús Alemán viuda de Guzman, was head of a large household which included four children older than Juan Pablo (then almost 19 years of age) and three younger children.

The previous year, having just entered university to study medicine, Juan Pablo had won a statewide oratory competition, held in the Degollado Theater in Guadalajara, before going to on place second in a national competition in Mexico City. His younger brother, Victor, who also became a doctor, accompanied him on his trip to the capital.

Juan Pablo had completed his medical training and was practicing in Guadalajara when, at the age of 31, he married María Dolores Serratos on 29 October 1940. The couple’s son, Juan Bernardo Guzmán Serratos, born in 1945, also entered the medical profession, training as a medical surgeon and odontologist (forensic dentist) and teaching at the University of Guadalajara.

Juan Pablo Guzmán was a multi-talented individual who combined his professional life as a gynecologist with active involvement in the arts as a poet, musician, painter, writer and dramatist. He published three books, the first of which – El gran Chapa, was set at Lake Chapala.

Cover-Llaga viva

His second novel, a decade later was Llaga viva (“Open Sore”). It also won a Premio Jalisco. Guzmán’s third book, Tres voces en tres cuentos, was published in 1997.

The two early novels are extremely difficult to find though copies are held by several U.S. university libraries and the Biblioteca Pública del Estado de Jalisco Juan José Arreola in Guadalajara.

When Llaga viva was published, in 1961, Winston Allin Reynolds, a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California at Santa Barbara, supplied the introduction. The 181-page novel was enthusiastically reviewed by Dr. Alfonso Manuel Castañeda in El Informador who praised the author’s “penetrating and scrupulous observation of people”.

Castañeda described the succession of everyday characters that populates the pages of Llaga Viva as “pilgrims without a destination and migrants without a direction in the constant wanderings of life.”

For a sense of the style of Llaga Viva, here is a loose translation of a short passage lamenting the fact that it has become money not knowledge that establishes a person’s position in society:

“In the city you learn the urgency of money; the main thing in choosing a profession is to work out which one can most easily bring you wealth. People with experience, and all of society, had constantly yelled at him: Gold! It takes gold for you to live among us! It’s no use if you stuff your head with books while your pockets are empty. The old days, when a man was considered a man on account of his knowledge and virtue, have passed. Do you have the gold? With that you will buy a place in society; you will buy the sensuality of all women; you will buy valuable friends; you will buy the glories that cultured citizens pursue; you will buy life….”

A sentiment that is surely even more true today than it was in the 1950s.

Source

  • Alfonso Manuel Castañeda. 1961. “Llaga Viva.” El Informador, 24 September 1961, 14.
  • Juan Pablo Guzmán Alemán. 1951. El gran Chapa. Guadalajara: Gobierno del Estado de Jalisco.
  • Juan Pablo Guzmán Alemán. 1961. Llaga viva. Guadalajara: Universidad de Guadalajara.
  • Juan Pablo Guzmán Alemán. 1997. Tres voces en tres cuentos. Guadalajara: Secretaría de Cultura, Gobierno de Jalisco.
  • El Informador, 25 May 1929, 6; 20 June 1929, 6.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

May 092019
 

Leonora Baccante had published two novels prior to living in Ajijic in the 1950s, at the same time as Eileen and Robert (Bob) Bassing.

Source: New York Evening Post, 7 March 1931

Source: New York Evening Post, 7 March 1931

Baccante’s novels are not set in Ajijic, but Baccante herself was the basis for the character of novelist Victoria Beacon, the central character in Eileen Bassing‘s novel, Where’s Annie?

Little is known about Baccante, who is reported to have hated publicity, children and pets.

According to a short profile of her by Selma Robinson in the New York Evening Post (7 March 1931),  “Mrs Baccante,” who was born in London, England, “has lived for the past few years in New York, part of the time in Woodstock, part of the time with her sister in Manhattan.” Robinson added that even Baccante’s publishers “know nothing about her. She is a dark-haired, dark-eyed girl who looks Latin, although her Italian name is hers only by marriage.” Baccante was born in about 1905.

A 1928 Kingston, New York, newspaper account describes Baccante as a “former New York World staff writer” (The New York World ceased publication three years later.)

Baccante’s two novels are

  • Johnny Bogan: A Realistic Novel Of Violent Young Love (New York: Vanguard, 1931) and
  • Women Must Love (New York: Vanguard, 1932).

Baccante-JohnnyBoganJohnny Brogan is set in a small town and is a character study and love story rolled into one. The striking cover art by Puerto Rican artist Raphael Desoto shows a young brunette undressing in front of a handsome guy in a bedroom. The novel is about a ladies’ man Johnny Brogan, the son of a murderer, who falls in love with Cathy Willis, a girl who initiated their relationship at school. According to Baccante’s friends, the character of Cathy is autobiographical.

A short piece by Baccante, “Can’t we be Friends?”, with illustrations by Ty Mahon, was published in the October 1931 issue of the College Humor magazine. Baccante also wrote an unpublished play, Making the man; a play in 3 acts, recorded as written in 1929 when she was living in New York City.

Baccante renewed the copyrights of her two novels in 1958 and 1960 respectively.

Note: This is an updated version of a post first published in 2014.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Apr 182019
 

Novelist Joan Van Every Frost, born 28 Feb 1929 in Los Angeles, California, lived in Jocotepec from 1966 to 2012. She died at age 83 on 6 June 2012 in Santa Barbara, California. Her father, Dale Van Every, was a famous writer and screenwriter most active in the 1920s and 1930s.

Joan gained an undergraduate degree in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1951 and a librarian certificate from the University of California at Berkeley. She served as a librarian after the second world war on US military bases in France and Germany, and was later the Head Librarian of the Santa Monica Public Library for several years.

Joan Van Every (then 35) married artist and photographer John Frost (41) on 26 September 1964 in San Bernadino, California. In 1966, the couple relocated to Mexico, living for a short time in Uruapan in Michoacán, before establishing their permanent home and John’s photographic studio in Jocotepec on Lake Chapala. John maintained his commercial photography studio (specializing in aerial photography) in their home for more than 40 years.

Prior to finding their home in the village, the couple spent 6 weeks at the historic La Quinta inn in Jocotepec. Sadly, La Quinta, which had been an inn ever since 1824 and was one of a small number of truly historic buildings in the town, was wantonly destroyed in the 1990s.

frost-joan-ca-2008
Joan was an indefatigable supporter of numerous charitable organizations at Lakeside, including the pioneering Centro de Salud in Jocotepec, the Lakeside School for the Deaf. For many years, she helped coordinate medical consultations and surgeries for Chapala-area children via the Shriners organization. Joan  was also the co-founder in the 1970s of Amigos de Salud (which in 1993 became the Programa Pro Niños Incapacitados del Lago), and was a co-founder of the Lakeside region’s major annual fund-raising event: the Ajijic Chili Cook-off.

Using her married name of Joan Van Every Frost, Joan wrote six novels, several of them set in Mexico.

frost-joan-van-every-covers
Her first novel, This Fiery Promise (Leisure Books, 1978), dedicated to Tam, is a historical romance set at the start of the Mexican Revolution. It tells the fiery adventures of a horse-loving American girl who marries a rich, much older Mexican hacienda-owner. Their lives become entangled in the Revolution, and she eventually flees by joining a circus. The novel covers lots of territory from Santa Barbara (California) to Nayarit, Guadalajara, Colima and the port of Manzanillo.

Lisa (New York: Leisure Books, 1979) is dedicated “For John, with all my love”. This historical romance, set in 1880s Britain, unravels the complex relationships of a dysfunctional family, in the midst of scenes involving horses, fires, medical doctors, and class differences.

Her third novel includes scenes set in Guadalajara and at Lake Chapala. A Masque of Chameleons (Fawcett 1981) looks at the adventures and misadventures befalling a troupe of traveling actors in mid-nineteenth century Mexico. The theater troupe withstands lots of internal intrigue and external pressures as it tours Mexico, from Veracruz, Puebla, Mexico City and Cuernavaca to Morelia, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Guadalajara and Lake Chapala. This novel displays a sound background knowledge of Mexican history and is engagingly written.

This is how Frost first describes the troupe’s arrival at Lake Chapala: “They finally came to a large body of water that stretched as far as they could see to the west, like an inland sea the color of a silver coin. Across the lake were green, brush-covered mountains, ancient dead volcanoes that had thrust themselves up when the world was still young to form this pocket cradling the endless lake.” ( p 228)

In Kings of the Sea (Fawcett, 1982), the publisher’s blurb claims that Gideon Hand is determined to endure all hardships as he struggles to forge a shipbuilding dynasty and to possess the woman he loves but cannot marry. Genius and passion hold sway in this sweeping saga of a shipbuilding dynasty.

Frost’s fifth novel, Portrait in Black (Fawcett 1985) has a Santa Barbara portrait painter Crystal Perry as its main protagonist. Perry not only paints portraits of Santa Barbara’s upper crust, but also paints horses, and she is quickly dragged into a web of extortion and murder.

Silvershine (Fawcett 1987) is set in Mexico, and looks at the drugs scene in the glittering Los Dorados hotel in Manzanillo, where swimwear designer Blaise Cory has opened a new boutique. A minor part of the action is set in Oaxaca (at Mitla). This is a tale of smuggling, money and corruption. The Los Dorados hotel is clearly based on Manzanillo’s famed Las Hadas hotel complex.

All of Joan Van Every Frost’s novels are well-crafted, and enjoyable light reading. While long out-of-print, copies are readily available via used books sites such as http://abebooks.com.

Joan was an active correspondent for the Guadalajara Reporter for many years. She wrote her first column for the paper in August 1975 and ended a column the following year by writing that, “There may be many irritations to living in a foreign country, but they dwindle to insignificance when we can revel in golden days, sunsets blazing red on towering thunderheads, and the comforting splash of rain as we lie warm in our beds at night.”

This profile was originally published on 22 December 2014.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Feb 212019
 

Alice Janice (“Jan”) Dunlap, who lived in Ajijic from 1967-1998, was born on 15 June 1927 in Addison, Texas, and died in Los Angeles, California, on 19 October 2018. Jan was one of eleven children born to Clinton Adolphus Dunlap and his wife Janice Blackburn and was suitably thrilled later in life when she discovered that she was a descendant of an aide to U.S. President George Washington.

Jan studied to be sociologist and was a member of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). She had a son, Michael, from her first marriage (when only a teenager), and four children with Ramón Rivas Jr. from her third marriage. She met Rivas, from Puerto Rico, when both were studying at the Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Texas in the early 1950s. The couple lived for a decade in Puerto Rico, where on one occasion Jan met Fidel Castro.

Later, when Jan was studying at the University of Texas at El Paso, she met and married artist Wesley Penn. Penn had friends who lived at Lake Chapala and suggested that they live in Mexico. Jan quickly agreed when she learned that Mexico wanted more English teachers ahead of hosting the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

The couple decamped to Ajijic, with Jan’s four children. Tragically, Penn was killed in 1970 when the car he was driving was hit by a bus on the Chapala-Guadalajara highway. Jan and her children remained in Ajijic where she became one of the village’s more colorful and warm-hearted characters of the 1970s and 1980s. Jan felt as though nobody was a stranger and believed that anyone in need was worthy of help and assistance.

Known to everyone in Ajijic as “Big Mama”, Jan ran a succession of restaurant-bars, boutiques and galleries, including El Tejabán, the Blackfoot Contessa Boutique, the Wes Penn Gallery, Big Mama’s (on 16 de Septiembre) and El Tapanco. Jan was especially proud of having arranged an exhibit of Ruth Anaya paintings in El Tejabán that got the gallery (and Ajijic) listed in Who’s Who in American Art. Jan was the “Grand Dame” of the “Rowdy Bunch” which contributed its positive energy to many Ajijic events.

Declining health forced Jan and her husband, Michael Shapiro, to move back to the States in 1998. Shortly afterwards, Jan founded Grandmothers Against Smoking, a campaign to help persuade young people not to smoke.

Jan finally realized one of her long-term dreams in 2017 when she published, shortly after her 90th birthday (and with a little help from me) her debut novel, Dilemma, an exciting tale about a drug-dealing cartel capo and a beautiful, youthful female DEA agent. The novel is loosely based on Ajijic gossip and her personal experiences in Mexico.

The novel, set mainly at Lake Chapala in Mexico, takes us back to the 1970s. Natalie, a beautiful young DEA agent, is sent to investigate an alleged king-pin in the drugs world who lives in Ajijic. Her life soon becomes far more complicated than she bargained for. The positive reviews on Amazon for this tale of international romance, drugs and intrigue speak for themselves.

The striking artwork used for the cover is by B.C.-based artist Oliver Rivas, one of Jan’s grandsons.

Jan also completed several other works including a novel entitled With Money Dances the Dog, and associated screenplay, based on an infamous series of murders in Ajijic in the mid-1970s.

Jan was predeceased by two of her five children: Janina Rivas died in Mexico following a dog bite in 1973; Ricardo Rivas died in 2015. She leaves behind her husband, Michael, and three sons – Michael, Ramón and Roberto – as well as many grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.

Sources

  • Big Spring Daily Herald, Big Spring, Texas: 13 February 1935, 8.
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 13 Dec 1975; 17 Jan 1976; 31 Jan 1976; 28 Feb 1976; 10 Sep 1977, 19; 15 Oct 1983.
  • Henrietta Clay County Leader, Henrietta, Texas: 11 June 1970.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in this series of mini-bios are welcome. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Jan 102019
 

The most elegant prose related to Lake Chapala ever written is almost certainly that by Sybille Bedford (1911-2006) in her first published work, A Sudden View, a book that New Yorker journalist Joan Acocella quite rightly thought should be read by everyone, whether or not they planned to visit Mexico.

Sybille (she disliked being called “Bedford”) was a dedicated if not especially prolific author. By the time of her death, at the age of 94 in 2006, she had completed several semi-autobiographical novels and a handful of non-fiction works including a landmark biography of her early mentor and good friend Aldous Huxley.

A Sudden View was first published in 1953 and later re-issued as A Visit to Don Otavio, the title by which it is now generally known. The book was based on a trip to Mexico in 1946-47. The book opens in New York as the author and her traveling companion, Esther Murphy Arthur (“E” in the book), start their train journey south. After exploring Mexico City and its environs, they then traveled to Guadalajara via Lake Pátzcuaro and Morelia. The remainder of the book is set almost entirely at Lake Chapala, with several relatively short and adventurous forays to other parts of the country.

Sybille was born on 16 March 1911 in Charlottenburg, near Berlin, Germany. Her German father and English mother named her Freiin Sybille Aleid Elsa von Schoenebeck. Sybille had a peripatetic childhood that precluded formal schooling, though she did pick up several languages. After her father died, she lived with her mother in Sanary-sur-mer in southern France. In the 1930s, Sanary was a magnet for a wave of intellectuals fleeing from other parts of Europe, particularly from Germany. These cerebral refugees, many of them fun-loving bohemians, included Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, and – most importantly for Sybille – Aldous and Maria Huxley who became her mentors and inspiration. Occasional visitors also included D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda.

Sybille spent the war years in the United States where she met (and fell in love with) Esther Murphy Arthur, her traveling companion in Mexico.

A Visit to Don Otavio is best characterized as a “fictionalized travelogue.” There is no doubting the essential authenticity of Sybille’s descriptions of many of the places she and Esther visited in Mexico during their trip. Her accounts of Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Morelia, Mazatlán, Guanajuato, Querétaro, Acapulco, Taxco, Oaxaca and Puebla are convincing.

However, Sybille’s descriptions of the various villages at Lake Chapala are as much fantasy as fact. For example, the name of the fictional village San Pedro Tlayacán (where Don Otavio’s hacienda is located) may have been derived from the real-life villages of San Pedro Tesistán and San Antonio Tlayacapan.

When I first read A Visit to Don Otavio, more years ago than I care to remember, I thought that Sybille must have stayed at the Hacienda San Martín, located at the western end of the lake, near Jocotepec, but I now accept that her fictional hacienda was based on the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala.

On their first visit to Don Otavio’s hacienda, Sybille and Esther had to abandon their borrowed car when the road beyond Chapala gave way to a “rutted trail” that passed “some stucco villas decaying behind tall enclosures. Sixty years ago, during the heydays of the dictatorship, Chapala had been a modish resort.” The trail “consisted of two not always parallel ruts of varying depth and gauge, caked hard, strewn with boulders, cut by holes and traversed by ditches.” [107-108] This is a very similar description to that given by Ross Parmenter when he drove from Chapala to Ajijic in March 1946.

Sybille Bedford moves her locations and characters around to suit her purposes. Several of the characters said to be living in Jocotepec in the book were people who actually lived in Ajijic. The novel’s Richard Middleton and his much younger wife, Blanche, for example, were based on an English couple, Herbert and Georgette Johnson.

Val Biro. Illustration for A Visit to Don Otavio, Folio Society edition, 1990.

Val Biro. Illustration for A Visit to Don Otavio, Folio Society edition, 1990.

The lake itself is the ever-present backdrop to A Visit to Don Otavio. Sybille found the views across it and its changes of color enthralling. Early in her stay with Don Otavio, she remarks how “In the late afternoon it is smooth like gelatine and shot through with unexpected reverberated colours, ruby and amethyst, cornelian and reseda.” [117] Some weeks later, it is dark by the time they return from Mazatlán but the lake is equally beautiful: “On the lake, the night was very clear, and filled with shooting stars. The mild water sparkled, phosphorescent, around our prow. Fish leaped, shone, and fell again. The shore lay softly, half-divined.” [179]

By spring 1947, Sybille and Esther were readying themselves to return north. Looking back in her memoirs (Quicksands), Sybille reflected that leaving Mexico was something of a wrench: “Foreigners are apt to get stuck – oh those Anglo-American enclaves: it’s the climate, the cheapness of living, the throngs of servants (rumour had got through about people now doing their own washing-up in England).” [Quicksands, 12-13]

By the summer of 1947, Sybille was back in Europe where she began writing her Mexico book in July 1949 while living in Rome. When A Visit to Don Otavio was published in 1953 it was a revelation and established Sybille as a serious writer with an individual style and viewpoint. In many ways it is a stunningly insightful work, penetrating the psyche of Mexicans of diverse backgrounds in a manner that is essentially timeless.

A Visit to Don Otavio marked the beginning of an impressive career, in which periods of self-doubt and introspection were punctuated by lengthy stints of powerful writing. A Visit to Don Otavio was followed in 1956 by Sybille’s best-known novel, A Legacy, and a series of other books before she reached her peak with her brilliant work, Jigsaw, which was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1989.

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to Fernando Partida-Rocha for helping explain the links between Sybille Bedford and the Villa Montecarlo via an exchange of emails.

Sources

  • Joan Acocella. 2005. “Piecework: The writings of Sybille Bedford.” New Yorker, 18 April 2005.
  • Sybille Bedford. 1953. A Sudden View (London: Victor Gollancz); reissued as A Visit to Don Otavio (William Collins, 1960). Page numbers for quotations are from the Folio Society edition, 1990.
  • Selina Hastings. Undated. “Sybille Bedford remembered.” The Royal Society of Literature website.  [30 December 2018]
  • Fernando Partida-Rocha. 2017. “Sybille Bedford, genial autora de “A visit to Don Otavio””. El Informador, 19 June 2017.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Dec 272018
 

According to American writer Oakley Hall, the novelist Christopher Veiel (born in 1925) was living at Lake Chapala at the same time he was in 1952. A New York Times reviewer described Veiel as looking “a little like a British F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

veiel-hearts-and-heads-coverIt is not known what Veiel was working on, if anything, during his time in Mexico, but his first (and apparently only) novel was published two years later, in 1954, in the U.K. as Intrigue (London: H. Hamilton), and in the U.S. as Hearts and Heads (Boston, U.S.: Little, Brown and Company).

Michael Hargraves says that at the time of its publication Veiel was living in Connecticut, having settled there after some extensive traveling.

Veiel was also the translator (from French) of Francois Clement’s book, The Disobedient Son (Boston: Little, Brown, 1956) in which “Juan, an ignorant but proud and ambitious Indian, learns the ways of power in Veracruz and Mexico City, and returns to his village to lead the fight against those attempting to become the village bosses.”

The Kirkus Review of Hearts and Heads, describes it as “A frivolous entertainment” and “saucy and skittish”. The novel “follows the emotional escapades of Edward Wallingford and Constance, his young wife, as their first months of marriage take them to Geneva where Edward does not find with Constance the sexual incentive he has had with other girls… Constance, on the other hand, while appreciative that Edward is “such a rock” finds something softer in Pierre – the brother of the housekeeper of their neighbor Carlos, and now their chauffeur. Constance decides to marry Pierre but postponing the admission to Edward, the three leave for England where Pierre, in a moment of petulant pride, bares the past and turns on Edward – with a poker. Edward almost dies, and both Constance and Pierre are tried but cleared when Edward comes to their defense…”

“A. Christopher Veiel” (it is unclear what name the initial A stood for) was born in Switzerland and educated at Chillon College and the University of Geneva. He became a teacher of French, German and Latin and retained his Swiss passport after moving to the U.S. in about 1949 to work at Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut.

Choate alumni, according to Wikipedia, include President John F. Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, playwright Edward Albee, novelist John Dos Passos, investor Brett Icahn, philanthropist Paul Mellon, screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, actors Glenn Close, Michael Douglas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bruce Dern, Paul Giamatti, and businesswoman Ivanka Trump, daughter of President Donald Trump.

Note: This is an updated version of a post first published on 7 July 2014.

Sources

  • Michael Hargraves. 1992. Lake Chapala: A Literary Survey (Los Angeles: Michael Hargraves).
  • New York Times, 24 July 1955, 89.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Nov 082018
 

Garland Franklin Clifton was an American author who lived in the Chapala area in the 1960s. He wrote Wooden Leg John. Satire on Americans living in Mexico (apparently privately printed in Washington D.C., 1971). While the book is not set at Lake Chapala, it is highly probable that parts, or all of it, were written or conceived while Clifton was living there.

Wooden Leg John is written as a series of 20 letters dated from Christmas Day 1967 to Christmas Day 1968 from Bullard A. Loney (Bull A. Loney) to his “Uncle Sam”. “The “Bull” has deserted his wife and is living it up in Mexico and on the U.S.-Mexico border. The book includes many verses and lyrics.

Back cover art of Garland Clifton's Wooden Leg John, a satire on Americans living in Mexico.

Back cover art of Garland Clifton’s “Wooden Leg John, a satire on Americans living in Mexico”.

Clifton also wrote American meccas in Mexico: Guadalajara, Chapala-Ajijic, Manzanillo: a detailed discussion of these three vacation and retirement areas of Mexico, a 27-page booklet published in Laredo, Texas, in 1966.

Clifton was born 6 December 1922 in Yardelle, Arkansas, USA, and died 29 December 2013 in Gulfport, Mississippi. In the preface to Wooden Leg John, Clifton describes himself as a “Scotch-Irish native-born Arkansas Mountaineer and the tenth of 14 children.”

He joined the U.S. military in September 1940 and retired from military service in November 1960, having served overseas in New Guinea, the Philippines, Germany, Japan and Korea, by which time he had been awarded numerous decorations and ribbons and risen to be a U.S. Air Force master sergeant.

Not long afterwards, he married a Mexican girl, María. The couple had four children, and lived for some time in Chapala, before moving, in 1967, to Douglas, Arizona. By 1971, he was living in Washington D.C. with wife Maria (then aged 26), Manuel (8), Laura (7), Carmen (5) and Armando (1).

Clifton’s quirky, sometimes piquant, sense of humor enlivens Wooden Leg John. Satire on Americans living in Mexico. Judging by his writing, Clifton would have been a highly entertaining, if somewhat provocative, dinner party guest.

Note: This is an updated version of a post first published on 30 May 2014.

Sources:

  • Garland Franklin Clifton. 1971. Wooden Leg John. Satire on Americans living in Mexico. Privately printed in Washington D.C.
  • Ruby Woods-Robinson, M.S.L.S. “Garland Franklin Clifton” [accessed 4 May 2014]
Aug 022018
 

Anthony Ralph Wolryche Stansfeld was born in Winchester, Hampshire, on 4 March 1913.

Cover of first edition (published by Michael Joseph)

Cover of first edition (published by Michael Joseph)

It is unclear how he and Peter Lilley first met, though they were very close in age.

Continuing the pen name Dane Chandos, the duo wrote two travelogues: Journey in the Sun (a trip from Mexico to Spain) and The Trade Wind Islands (which takes the reader from Mexico to several Caribbean islands).

The two men also created the huarache-wearing Mexican detective Don Pancho and wrote two well-constructed stories about his crime-solving exploits: Boiled Alive and Three Bad Nights, for which they used the pen name (or more accurately pen name of a pen name) Bruce Buckingham.

References

  • Bruce Buckingham. 1956. Three Bad Nights. London: Michael Joseph (Reissued as Penguin edition, 1961).
  • Bruce Buckingham. 1957. Boiled Alive. London: Michael Joseph (Reissued as Penguin edition, 1961).

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Jul 192018
 

The second strand of the pen name Dane Chandos, and indeed the originator of the name, was Peter Lilley. How, when and where Lilley first met Nigel Millett is currently unknown but they became literary collaborators and good friends during their time in Ajijic…

Peter Lilley is not known to have published anything under his own name, or any nom de plume, prior to the books about Ajijic.

The name Dane Chandos was conjured up by Lilley himself, since it combined his nickname at Stowe – “Dane”, on account of his blond hair and square, Danish-looking jaw – with Chandos, the name of one of the school’s boarding houses. Interestingly, though, Lilley had actually spent his own school years in a different house, Grafton.

Village in the Sun tells the story of building a house (located in real life in San Antonio Tlayacapan). The house was Peter Lilley’s home in Mexico. In House in the Sun the author has added extra rooms for guests and taken on the role of amateur hotelier, “held hostage by maddening servants and equally unpredictable and maddening guests.”

The two books share many of the same characters.

The final Dane Chandos book

Leslie Chater and his wife, Moreen, long-time friends of Lilley, eventually became the new owners of the house in San Antonio Tlayacapan.

A chance find there in a desk drawer by Moreen Chater caused her to revive the Dane Chandos brand in 1997, long after all three original Dane Chandos authors had died. Chater stumbled across a “scruffy folder” containing a manuscript of recipes “faintly typed and badly eaten by mice.” Providentially, these proved to be Candelaria’s original recipes, with notes and anecdotes added by Lilley. Chater used them to compile Candelaria’s Cookbook, an unusual bilingual book of more than forty recipes (and related stories) sold as a fund-raiser to support projects benefiting children in San Antonio Tlayacapan.

References

  • Dane Chandos. 1945. Village in the Sun. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
  • Dane Chandos. 1949. House in the Sun. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
  • Sophie Annan Jensen. 1999. “Candelaria’s Cookbook” (review) on MexConnect.com –
    [25 May 2018]

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

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