The Zigzag Way
(2004), a novel by Indian author Anita Desai, follows an American scholar and writer named Eric, who follows his girlfriend, Em, on a scientific research sabbatical in Mexico. Once he arrives, he is told he is not allowed to live on her research site, so he travels Mexico developing his skills as a fiction writer and exploring his family’s past. The search takes him to the territories of the Huichol Indians in the Mexican Sierras, where his Cornish grandfather once labored in the silver mines. The novel presents Desai’s concept of globalization as a force that makes people essentially of no single physical, national, or ideological origin. Like her other novels, the story deals with its characters’ processes of searching for themselves in the murky chaos of societal transformation and memory.
At the beginning of The Zigzag Way,
Eric is in the midst of graduate school at Harvard. He and Em live in Boston, but both want to see somewhere more exotic. The opportunity presents itself when Em receives funding and approval to do a research sabbatical in Mexico. Without obtaining the research program’s approval, Eric goes along; after they arrive there, he is told that he must find somewhere else to live and work so that Em is not burdened while doing her research.
Eric attends a lecture by a mysterious and famous academic, Doña Vera, on the topic of Mexican history, specifically the mountain-inhabiting Huichol Indian nation. Eric finds the names of the people and places she mentions strikingly familiar, then realizes that he has heard them before: when he was a child, his grandfather often mentioned them when recalling his experiences in the Mexican silver mines. Eric decides to visit the Sierras to try to connect with Doña Vera, in the hopes of learning more about his grandfather.
Eric locates Doña Vera high in the Sierra Madres. He asks her many questions about the time before Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution. During those years of unprecedented economic promise, his grandfather immigrated to Mexico seeking a better life. Doña Vera also describes her own relationship to Mexican history. During this time, the plot breaks away from Eric to explores Doña Vera’s roots. A teenager who grew up in a troubled and poor family, like many in Mexico, she first made a living by becoming a sex worker. Her story is punctuated with many setbacks, but due to her will and perseverance, she eventually became wealthy and respected. Her story is a path of many twists and turns in which each new step was rarely visible ahead of her.
The plot turns to Eric’s grandfather, telling the story of his perilous voyage to Mexico and the many Cornish immigrants who died, were killed, or were deported after all their hard work. At the end of the novel, back in the present-day Sierra Madres, Eric attends a local festival called “La Noche de Los Muertos,” or “The Night of the Dead.” During the ceremony, he meets a spirit from the past, who shows him a glimpse into his own future. Though the tortuous paths of its characters often seem impossible to understand, The Zigzag Way
suggests they can be better navigated by referring to the past and seeking to understand one’s ancestors.