Zen and the art of Mexican Living
A Mexico book by Tony Cohan
In 1985, during a grim time in L.A., Tony Cohan, a respected novelist, fled with his Japanese-American wife, Masako Takahashi, an artist and photographer, to a little town in the mountains in central Mexico, San Miguel de Allende. Captivated by Mexico, Cohan and Takahashi have lived there much of the time since, flying back to L.A. as necessary for exhibits and publishing arrangements. Now "the cool, electronic, agitating" life of L.A. coexists with "the intimate, voluptuous, sense-driven life" of Mexico, the "cult of tomorrow" giving way to "an awakening to the present, the immediate," a filling out of their American selves, not a renunciation.
San Miguel de Allende, founded over 450 years ago, looks like a Tuscan hill town. Its cobblestone streets, many churches and old buildings are preserved by government edict as a site of the revolution. The church bells of the many churches toll every hour, every quarter hour, sometimes punctually. Here time is different, not linear. In this old culture the future has already passed many times. What matters is the resonant Mexican present, the way some seemingly nondescript scene "can suddenly flare into the brilliant, the polychrome, the surreal." Influenced by his artist spouse, the man of letters awakens to "the material, the sensory, the seen and touched." On Mexican Time is a description of this awakening over the last fifteen years.
Cohan has the novelist's eye for detail and for nuances of relationships. This is a book of stories, among them the story of a Mexican couple who survived the student demonstrations in Mexico City in 1968, when police shot and killed many. They now operate a folk art store supporting the preservation of indigenous cultures. She becomes more and more involved with another man. Another story recounts the travails of a Mexican American small time businessman who with his beauteous, estranged Mexican wife, operate a small bed and breakfast; the adversity of their L.A. compatriots, the man suddenly suffering from a mysterious serious illness. Another is the extraordinary tale of Cohan's encounters with the local antihero, the murderer who killed a man twice. There are many others.
After a few years Cohan and Takahashi purchase a crumbling down 18th century house and gradually restore it, a saga suggesting comparisons to Mayle's A House in Provence and Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun. Cohan's writing is more eloquent, reflecting a deeper engagement with the culture.
Although Cohan sees Mexico as a contrast to the U.S., some things seem the same. Who is the despicable character trusted with access to a house owned by foreigners who turns it into his own secret hideaway for extramarital assignations, then, when the house is sold, carts off to his own place everything in the house not nailed down, and still demands a good cut of the sales price for himself? Why, the lawyer, of course.
San Miguel's mild climate, sharp light and charm have long attracted artists, writers and retirees. Now gringos are about five percent of the 100,000 or so population and many more come as tourists, leading to more and more upscale shops and restaurants and higher and higher prices. Cohan does not present San Miguel as The One Best Place, but as the place he and Masako happened to land. In fact, he reflects about a number of other places where they could live happily in Mexico, and regrets that this book may well add to the foreign invasion of San Miguel. But Cohan also laments the fact that to most Americans Mexico is only "a torpid blank somewhere south:"
"Mexico, grail to generations of artists, site of primordial revelation - - - Mayan temples, brujos, muralists, hallucinatory mushrooms - - - has fallen off the map. This whorled, ornate neighbor civilization so entwined with ours, is invisible, its people among us silent, nameless wraiths who clip lawns and clear tables."
On Mexican Time is an eloquent, heart-felt plea for admiration of Mexican culture and a warm and polite people. In it our neighbor civilization is brilliantly visible, its people revered. To describe this complex society Cohan invokes the Spanish word for flavor, sabor, meaning not just flavor in food but in all things, music, art, speech and dance, "a sensory profusion understood to show generosity of heart and imagination." His book is exactly that.
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