JAMES A. MICHENER could have called his book "Mexico" "The Matadors."
The story line is of two bullfighters: a bowlegged, taciturn Mexican Indian and a lean, graceful Spanish torero. The narrator, John Clay, is a 52-year-old American journalist born in Mexico, who returns to cover a showdown between the antagonists.
Thus Michener establishes the means to explore the primary historical and cultural influences - in the scope and detail of Michener classics - that converge to create Mexico today. Although set in 1961, when Michener researched the novel, time has spun no cobwebs on the observations.
Michener acknowledges that most bullfights are disgraceful, cowardly exhibitions that leave the beast looking like a four-legged pincushion. But he also examines cultural biases against bullfighting and explains why aficionados consider it not a sport but a Spanish art form.
At its finest, Michener says, "for twelve minutes out there on the sand you will see something that occurs nowhere else on this earth, the perfect duel between life and death.... You will see men on their toes daintily throwing their lives upon the horns, and at the end you will watch a man with a frail piece of cloth play a bull to death. People will scream with insanity from the tension. Horses far from the scene will neigh, and when it is all over you will sit limp as death yourself."
To understand the Mexican psyche and bullfighting, says a Mexican bullfight critic in the novel, one must understand the Spanish fascination with death. While English literature often explores immortality, he notes, in Spanish literature life is a preparation for death.
"If Spaniards are preoccupied with death, it is because our greatest men have taught us to be so," the critic says. "If we love bullfights it is because we subconsciously know that this is the world's only art form that depicts our preoccupation."
At one point, their Mexican guide leads a group of American tourists into a cathedral to show them what bullfighting symbolizes. They look at a vivid carving of Jesus crucified. "We fool ourselves in the most bitter mockery if we try for the sake of prettiness to gloss over the terrifying fact that Jesus Christ died in the agony you see depicted there, and by and large, only the Spanish peoples have been brave enough to acknowledge that fact," the guide says.
A woman asks if the bullfights will be as gory as the crucifixion. "They will be exactly the same. They will be very sickening, and [North] Americans ought not look at them," is the reply.
"Mexico" is uneven. Every three or four chapters, there's an often plodding historical digression that delves into the narrator's Indian or Spanish or United States ancestry. Credibility is constantly stretched in these chapters. How come this magazine hack has so many royal or socially elite ancestors who just happen to have been involved in many of the most critical junctures of Mexican history?
Perhaps some answers can be gleaned by reading another recently released Michener book, "My Lost Mexico." Here one sees the challenges and birthing pangs experienced by Michener in creating "Mexico." "My Lost Mexico" is a chronicle of Michener's first attempt at the novel back in 1937. After finishing "Hawaii" in 1959, Michener returned to Mexico but encountered writer's block. The half-finished novel was abandoned and "lost" after a Random House editor's unfavorable critique. In 1991, the manuscript wa s discovered in a closet by a cousin and resurrected in the form finally published.