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By Tony Cohan
Reviewed by Harriet Hart
Mexican Days by Tony Cohan is a self-portrait of the artist as an outsider, a spectator on the sidelines of life. He writes poetically about Mexico, his chosen home for over twenty years. Those who have read On Mexican Time know him as the ex-patriot who left California to find a different, slower paced life south of the border in San Miguel de Allende. Sixteen years later, Cohan acquires a disorder that propels the sufferer to hit the road and leave his ordinary life behind.
The “excuse” for Cohan’s travels is an article he’s asked to write about what’s new in Mexico but his reasons for taking this journey are more complex. Readers will identify with one of the themes that run beneath this travel memoir like the underground tunnels of Guanajuato: the negative changes we create in our paradise of choice. When Cohan arrived in San Miguel it was: “site of fiestas and miracles, ecstatic religion and fiery revolt, unearthly beauty and curative air–a place for dreamers and artists.”
As the book opens, it has been invaded by a Hollywood film crew where stand-ins for Johnny Depp and Salma Hayek drop into the plaza on ropes and fake gunshots wake residents in the morning. Tourists knock on Cohan’s front door or snap his photo as he strolls down the street. Like Peter Mayle in A Year in Provence, he has helped put his piece of paradise on the tourist map.
Cohan flees the film crew to visit Veracruz, Chiapas, Oaxaca, Mexico City and the Yucatan, but readers simply looking for a guidebook will have to look elsewhere. In Mexican Days they will discover the author’s current obsessions: what makes a man leave home? What is it about Mexico that captures travelers? What holds a marriage together?
Throughout the book Cohan asks himself repeatedly why he must be on the move. When he discovers “dissociative fugue, a curious disorder in which one or more episodes of sudden, unexpected and purposeful travel from home occur” he wonders if he is suffering from the condition and speculates that he is traveling to discover his true self: “Border to border, coast to coast, Mexico offered a boundless canasta of riches; yet I experienced these journeys less as attractions than as encounters with the necessary Other-myself, in new guises, revealed in reflection off the alien surfaces travel provides.”
Cohan postulates that writers require contrast and likens himself to other well-known American authors whose creativity was enhanced by their wanderings: “Melville, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, and Paul Bowles–full or part-time wanderers or expatriates all. For these writers, being outside often provided the best seat in the house: neither quite here nor there, yet in both places at once.”
What does he think is the special appeal of Mexico? Cohan doesn’t own a car; he’s exchanged a life of California driving for “a life on foot, open to the mysteries hidden in slowness.” In Mexico people can reinvent themselves: “you can do things in Mexico you can’t do elsewhere. Artists and architects, fascist and fanatics, ascetics and addicts have long known this. Here you can disappear, adopt a new identity, become who you aren’t – or who you really are.” He calls Mexico our collective unconscious: “Mexico stands in the foreign imagination as a permanently exotic, lawless and untamed antidote to the grey sterility of its northern neighbor, a country riddled with bullet holes and beauty.”