An unsatisfying rail-and-plane tour of our southern neighbor, ``a nation besieged by its history.'' Pindell (A Good Place to Live, 1995, etc.) has made a minor specialty of traveling across whole nations—previously, the US and Canada—by train and reporting what he has found along the way. He has done well in English-speaking venues, but his account of his sojourn in Mexico will disappoint anyone who knows the country. Pindell announces but doesn't quite work out some idÇes fixes—for example, that Mexico is difficult to understand because it is grounded in ``ancient pre-Hispanic spirituality'' and that in Mexico ``nothing is what it seems on the surface.'' Evidently lacking Spanish (and despite his native Latin collaborator, Ram°rez Mallis, of Keene State College), Pindell concentrates on just those surface appearances, and, from Merida to Hermosillo, he interweaves an impressionistic account of fruit markets and taco stands with the kinds of historical information that one would find in an encyclopedia. That information is too often half-absorbed, and half-understood; for instance, Pindell offers a staggeringly simplistic interpretation of why the US was able to conquer the nation so quickly in the war of 1846, and he fails to grasp the import of the latter-day Zapatista uprising in the southern state of Chiapas. While trying to be a sympathetic traveler, Pindell often condescends to those he is studying; he is especially bad in dealing with Mexico's Indian population, who emerge in his account as innocent people who are universally reluctant to speak with strangers. (In fact, if you have even a smattering of Spanish, you'll find it not so hard to strike up a conversation with them.) Mexico may indeed be burdened by its history, as Pindell asserts. But what nation is not? His book fails to illuminate that history or to cast any new light on Mexico's present troubles.
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