Novelist Rosalind Brackenbury’s review of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

[published in Solares Hill, October 31, 2010]

Memoir of a Sensual Quest For Spiritual Healing

Reviewed by Rosalind Brackenbury

“San Miguel de Allende, Mexico”¬†

By Rick Skwiot

Antaeus Books, $14

A memoir of a time, a place, the people in it and the young man he was 25 years ago, when he lived in Mexico, Rick Skwiot’s beautifully observed and written new book pleases at all its levels.

On repeated visits to Mexico, Skwiot takes us from a first, dazzled encounter with blue skies, bougainvillea, the smells of the street and the easy warmth of casual acquaintance into deeper realities: the poverty of the people, their intimate lives and crises, his own fears, the distance between languages, the complications of love relationships and friendships, fights and arrests on the street, death, sorrow, misunderstandings, all the events of life that will include you, in the end, if you decide to be more than a passing tourist in a place.

A memoir can benefit from being written some time after the events described. Here, the perspective gives the writer a chance to see what really mattered. The mature Rick Skwiot looks back on his younger self, in different times, and is able to see the wood for the trees.

Of course, to do this you need to have taken notes, and kept them. Memory fades over the years, but for a novelist (which Skwiot is) this can deepen the impact of the narration. The book has no real plot — well, life hasn’t either. But there’s a narrative tension that is quite rare in memoir, each story drawing you in to wait for the outcome, the denouement of a particular event.

It’s also quite rare in a memoir to find characters who are as real as the narrator. Here, they move and speak on the page: Licha and Adriana, the women with whom, at different times, he finds love; Ernesto his friend; Ramos the eccentric doctor; Lupe his landlady; the American Arnold Schifrin, and others.

Skwiot went to Mexico in the first place to cure a fit of the mid-30s blues. Is any time in our lives more agonizing than our 30s?

This was after a broken marriage and a sense of his life going nowhere. So far, so recognizable. He installs himself in San Miguel de Allende the way many dissatisfied, ex-pat Americans have installed themselves in foreign cities, from Hemingway in Paris and Havana to Paul Bowles in Morocco and on.

He is lonely, doesn’t know the language, goes through the inevitable throes of panic and homesickness as well as amazement at the beauty and kindness of the place. He sits alone, makes notes, is determined to become a writer. People begin to come to him with their stories, he receives them, gets involved, and this is what makes the book a joy to read.

As in Skwiot’s earlier novel, “Sleeping with Pancho Villa”– reviewed here some years ago — and as the place-name of the title suggests, it is the place and its people that are allowed to speak.

Skwiot doesn’t hide his feelings but neither does he dwell on them; the quest for spiritual healing through a sensual involvement in life is allowed to emerge from the events rather than being analyzed.

Yes, if you immerse yourself in life, life will pick you up and take you somewhere.

¬†Mexico offered him its insights: Money doesn’t matter that much, live for today, enjoy yourself, let your body take over from your mind, let go of anxiety. But it is the writer’s ability to let us see how this happened gradually, as well as a humorous irony that includes himself, that makes it a pleasure to read.

A memoirist needs to be sufficiently personal to be interesting, to connect the dots that are the random events of life, to make us want to go along for the ride.

Essentially, however, he has to get out of his own way and let life in.