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Journal of Modern Literature 24.2 (2000/2001) 251-269

Genesis of a "Might-Have-Been Masterpiece"1: Rebecca West's "Survivors in Mexico"

Bernard Schweizer
New York, New York


Over the past decades, literary criticism on Rebecca West has progressively honed in on what is generally considered her masterpiece, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941). Because of recent political turmoil in the Balkans, literary scholars have turned with renewed vigor to the task of interpreting and commenting on this extraordinary book. The 1990s also witnessed a flurry of travel books and political commentaries that grappled with the legacy of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. 2 Quite in the shadow of all this activity, and hardly noticed by the academic community, there exists another work by Rebecca West which was designed to equal Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in its cultural and historical scope. This is an unpublished manuscript about Mexico that West wrote between 1967 and 1970. 3 This text, tentatively entitled "Survivors in Mexico," exists in a large number of draft versions ranging from a few pages to one hundred and forty-six pages in length. 4 Since Rebecca West left traces of almost [End Page 251] every aspect of the composition process in this fascinating palimpsest of successive revisions, modified arguments, and parallel narratives, it is possible to account with greater precision than is normally possible for the creative evolution of the work. 5 But "Survivors in Mexico" not only tells the story of its own genesis and eventual abandonment; it also provides new insight into West's philosophy and into her mature views on race, religion, and culture.

Judged by the apparently disorganized state of "Survivors in Mexico" and by West's relentless urge to tinker with her prose, one might consider this a minor, unpromising work. But a close and patient reading of these multiple drafts reveals a different level of achievement. Indeed, "Survivors in Mexico" has the makings of a spirited, penetrating, and informative work of cultural history that need not fear comparison with the best of Rebecca West's published writings. One way of assessing the literary potential of "Survivors in Mexico" is by comparing it to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. To begin with, "Survivors" also contains references to a poem from the local culture, an Aztec song about the impermanence of life, entitled "The flowers are only lent to us." 6 This corresponds to West's use of the Serb ballad about the grey falcon in her Yugoslav book. Then, there is the Mexican symbol of the volcano, whose paradoxical significance as an emblem of renewal and destruction is even more complex and evocative than the sacrificial lamb in Yugoslavia. Moreover, as in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, West had at her disposal near-allegorical figures in the persons of Dr. Atl (1875-1964) and Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), around whom she spun captivating narratives of sacrifice and resistance. Because of the Mexican history of human sacrifices, she also commanded new data for her meditations upon the death wish. Finally, she skillfully explored one of the greatest stories of conquest and vividly engaged a rich historical record full of heroism, treachery, and survival.

Despite these promises, West eventually gave up on "Survivors in Mexico," shelving the project indefinitely in 1970. Two years earlier, on 13 June 1968, she had confessed in a letter to a friend that "I just had to put my Mexican book away. Henry didn't approve of it and his [End Page 252] disapproval is pervasive like a London fog. It suffocated that book." 7 But although West's husband died half a year later, "Survivors" remained incomplete. Thus, the deeper reason for West's inability to complete this work must lie elsewhere. Part of it can be attributed to the fact that West considered her journeys to Mexico as an incomplete affair or perhaps even as a failure. 8 In one version of "Survivors," she states that she had come to Mexico

not as a tourist, but with a triple strand of intention. I...

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