Thereís an unwittingly hilarious passage in Chapter 3 of Mexican Days where author Tony Cohan claims that ďIn Mexico your raptures are your own, not prepackaged or branded. The same when things go badly; youíre left to your own devices.Ē Itís a lovely, perfect statement, the sort of quote that could sum the entire book and all Cohanís rich experiences in his travels through Mexico.
Unfortunately, he then proceeds to spend another page discussing that attitude, analyzing it, explaining it, and making very sure that the reader has their rapture tied in a bow. By the time Cohan and the story get moving again, the original moment of epiphany is almost forgotten under layers of introspection. That makes it indeed the representative moment of Mexican Days, a book that swings between intense experience and seemingly endless self-obsession.
Cohan admits at the outset that he enters his Mexican Days travels in a sort of fugue, and it shows throughout his writing in the form of a recurring glassy distance between himself and the Mexico he struggles to portray. Perhaps to make up for the inadequacy of his own experiences, he spends an inordinate amount of time recalling his personal cultural heroes. Every town he passes seems to have birthed an artist, actor, writer or politician. He never neglects to give the biographies of these people, giving in detail their titles and foibles, their clever quotes and nutshell biographies. But except for those few whose political or historical importance speaks for itself, Cohan provides little reason why readers should care. Thereís no sense of connection to these long lost famous people. If youíve never seen Diego Riveraís paintings or lost yourself in John Huston films, you wonít share in the experience here. And for those who know these creators only as avatars of the creative world, they remain avatars, distant and unreachable, but with a few more facts attached to their names.
And that may after all be the most crucial failing of Mexican Days. Cohan sees and dutifully reports on wonders, on jungle museums and ancient cities, hectic open air markets, romantic trysts in ancient cities, fiestas, protests, family feuds, bizarre and tempting dishes, all with ripe long and loving examination. But he himself rarely seems to experience them. The dry nature of Cohanís prose is especially noticeable in the few passages when he loses his self restraint, and lets the moment take over. A music festival full of color and sound, the textures of the fair almost palpable, is a glorious exception. The tale of Hacienda Katanchel, told with fevered vividness, creates a unique connection with both a vanished retreat and the author himself.
Such moments of connection are too rare. Mexican Days delivers a Mexico largely seen through the safety of uninvolvement, the distance of a travel writer protected by his own confusion. When he breaks through that barrier, Cohan takes readers to astonishing new vistas, even in the dullest alleys. But for the most part, this is a Mexico bound and wrapped tight, with no room left for hidden epiphanies.