Zigzag Way : A Novel

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2004-11-09
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

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In her long, distinguished career, Anita Desai has focused her capacious vision on questions of culture and identity. Her mesmerizing new novel, The Zigzag Way, brings her fiction to an unexpected region of the world: mythical, lush Mexico. In this seductive landscape, a young American stumbles upon an unlikely path to self-discovery. Eric is a newly minted historian just out of graduate school, unsure of his past choices and future options. With no clear direction, he follows his lover, Em, when she travels to the Yucatan for her scientific research, but he ends up alone in this foreign place. And so he pursues his own private quest, tracing his family's history to a Mexican ghost town, where, a hundred years earlier, young Cornish miners toiled to the death. With vivid sympathy, Desai conjures the struggles of Eric's grandparents and their community. Now, in place of the Cornish workers, the native Huichol Indians suffer the cruelty of the mines. When he inquires into their lives, Eric provokes the ire of their self-appointed savior, Dona Vera. Known as the "Queen of the Sierra," Dona Vera is the widow of a mining baron who has dedicated her fortune to preserving the Huichol culture. But her formidable presence belies a dubious past. The zigzag paths of these characters converge on the Day of the Dead, bringing together past and present in a moment of powerful epiphany. Haunting and atmospheric, with splashes of exuberant color and darker violence, The Zigzag Way is a magical novel of elegiac beauty.

Author Biography

Anita Desai is a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Table of Contents

Eric Arrivesp. 1
Vera Staysp. 51
Betty Departsp. 99
La Noche de los Muertosp. 137
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.


1 Oh, tourist, is this how this country is going to answer you and your immodest demands for a different world, and a better life, and complete comprehension of both at last, and immediately ... -Elizabeth Bishop, "Arrival at Santos" "THERE IS only the one inn," he was told when, on getting off the bus, he asked where he might stay. Since the inn was directly across the square from where the bus had stopped, he could not have missed it even in the dusk. The wind that had scraped and scoured the hills around till the stones gleamed white now struck the tin signboard against the wall of the inn with the sound of a bell striking the hours, drawing his attention to it. He buttoned up his jacket, sank his chin into the folds of his scarf, picked up his bag, and set off toward the house on a path under the casuarina trees, passing an empty fountain with a broken spout. The houses around the square were all shut and dark, no window or door to let light fall across the pillared arcades except for the store at the corner where a few men had gathered under a bare electric bulb as if for warmth; it was from them he had inquired about lodgings. Now they watched him as he crossed the square to the inn and continued to watch as he knocked again and again at the door. If they said anything to each other, he could not hear them for the sound of the wind coming through the casuarinas and the tin signboard beating. Finally, a woman let him in. She was engaged in conversation with someone in the room behind and did not stay but withdrew, leaving him in the darkness of the hall. He could make out a desk, a massive carved one like a house with many doors, all shut, but no one attended it. A row of keys hung from a shelf above it on which some short stout candles flickered and poured out pools of soft tallow. They cast their uncertain light on a skull with green sequins for eyes and a circlet of gilt marigolds for a crown. Above this, on the wall, whole skeletons danced and cavorted, rustling in the draft from the door, for they were cut out of paper. He watched them and listened to a clock ticking somewhere, mesmerized. In the room beyond he could see light and a fire, people and movement-real, living, not papery or skeletal or funereal. The clattering sound of metal pans and earthenware told him it was the kitchen. That was promising but no one seemed interested in the appearance of a stranger. Eventually someone, someone else, did come down a staircase from the upper regions of the house and greeted him, a young woman with her dark hair tied back in a ribbon. She pushed up the sleeves of her red sweater as if for business and when he asked if she had a room, slid a form across the desk for him to fill in. "How many nights?" she asked but when she saw him hesitate, shrugged, indicating he could put down what he liked, it did not matter. Unhooking an iron key eight or ten inches long, she offered to show him a room. He followed her down a dark stairwell, which had dim lamps attached to a stone wall at such long intervals that there were stretches of stone steps where no light was cast at all. Deeper and deeper down she took him, her felt slippers making no sound, and it was as if they were going farther and farther back in time, finally reaching a period that was surely medieval for the door they arrived at seemed hewn with an ax; when she turned the immense key in its immense lock, it creaked open on what he feared would be a cellar if not a dungeon. Instead, when she switched on an electric light, the room blazed into color, proving improbably cheerful. There was a vast bed heaped with red cushions on a white bedspread, a sheepskin rug on the floor, an

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