D. H. Lawrence is my favorite 20th-century English writer. Some of his books are masterpieces, others wildly uneven. I loved them all in my teens, though some hold up better than others. Recently I reread The Plumed Serpent, a lyrical but rather tedious novel, published in 1926, about the rise of a cult in Mexico (the cult is fictitious). The cult centers on the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, who takes the form of a plumed serpent. Don Ramon, a wealthy Mexican landowner, claims he is Quetzalcoatl: one of his goals is to drive Christianity out of Mexico. He also likes to be worshipped.
Fortunately, we observe Mexican culture from the point-of-view of Kate Leslie, an Irish tourist who is the only fleshed-out character in the book, and perhaps the only one Lawrence understands. She is ambivalent about Mexico, and the politically correct should not venture into these pages.
The Plumed Serpent begins promisingly enough at a bullfight in Mexico City. Kate, her American cousin Owen, and their young friend Villiers sit in the broiling sun because they did not pay extra for seats in the shade. The crowd is rowdy, snatching straw hats off heads and throwing them into the air, and when Owen takes off his hat they throw oranges at his bald spot. Poor Owen. Why does he stay? But it is the violence of the bullfights that repulses Kate. She walks out.
Kate is not politically correct. Readers today who do not know Lawrence’s work might consider this novel racist, sexist, anti-Mexican, anti-American, anti-European, but Kate and Lawrence are concerned mostly about individualism. In the 1920s, Kate hates most places and people: she can’t stand the the U.S., finds Americans “mechanical,” loathes England, isn’t crazy about Ireland, finds some Mexicans “reptilian,” and on and on. Obviously, Lawrence would have perceived things differently had he lived in our culture, but this was written in 1926. Kate is well-traveled but she is having a bad time. Lawrence writes,
She was more afraid of the repulsiveness than of anything. She had been in many cities of the world, but Mexico had an underlying ugliness, a sort of squalid evil, which made Naples seem debonair in comparison. She was afraid, she dreaded the thought that anything might really touch her in this town, and give her the contagion of its crawling kind of evil.
Despite her ambivalence, Kate stays in Mexico after Owen and Villiers go back to the U.S. (She hates the U.S. more than Mexico.) She is attracted to Don Cipriano, an Indian general who has introduced her to Don Ramon. But it’s not until she leaves Mexico City and rents a house on a beautiful lake near Don Ramon’s house that she sees the beauty of Mexico. I empathize with Kate: I, too, hated Mexico City on a trip with a boyfriend who spoke Spanish but was culturally illiterate. Alas, no Diego Rivera paintings or Aztec ruins for me! All he wanted to do was drink. And then we spent 12 nonstop hours on a bus (without a restroom) to a supposedly Edenic seaside village, where there was donkey shit on the beach and I got a blistering sunburn. He spent his days in the bar getting drunk and talking to the bartender while I drank Manzanita (apple pop) and read. I huddled in the cockroach-infested hotel room reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and part of George Eliot’s Romola. I gazed with longing at the posh hotel where the Americans and Germans stayed. I yearned for good plumbing and a bug-free space. (And it probably wasn’t even expensive.)
Eventually we got out of that hellhole and went to Veracruz, which I loved. It is one of the most gorgeous cities I’ve ever been. And that’s where I found The Plumed Serpent, the only English novel in the bookstore. I adored the book back then.
I do enjoy Kate’s experiences, but the Quetzalcoatl cult, the dancing to drums, and the rants against Christianity are endless. There is also a horrifying military scene where the cult takes over the Catholic church in the village. The narrative is interspersed with long hymns to Quetzalcoatl. If you like Lawrence’s poetry, you will enjoy some of the hymns perhaps.
I was looking forward to this reread, but, alas, this book is no longer for me. I prefer his realism in The Rainbow (which I wrote about here) and Women in Love to the symbolism of his later work.