On Set in Cuernavaca, Mexico

On Set in Cuernavaca, Mexico

On the film set of this season's The Blood Oranges, novelist A. S. Byatt takes in the sensual charms of Cuernavaca and its colonial world

I am not good at holidays. I don't like doing nothing, and I don't like looking at things just because they are there to be looked at. On the other hand, I am addicted to sunlight. When Philip and Belinda Haas (who made the film of my book Angels and Insects) invited me to Mexico to watch the filming last January of John Hawkes's The Blood Oranges, I thought I could combine writing in winter sun with the excitement of the shoot.

Sun is essential to The Blood Oranges, which is set in an imaginary Mediterranean Illyria. Tropical Cuernavaca, about 60 miles south of Mexico City, has the same clear, hot light described in Hawkes's book, so Philip had chosen to shoot there. The Blood Oranges is a film about sex, about the philosophy of sex, and about innocence and earthly paradises. This entailed intimate scenes where observers were not welcome. When the actors practiced their lovemaking, I would write.

I flew from London to Mexico City, arrived after dark, and was driven through an invisible landscape, down and around. All I could see of the valley were abstract patches of bright light from the town, two great curved horns of red and gold points, reaching into the bulk of the hills. Cuernavaca means "the horns of the cow," and I could see why. It had rained fiercely and everything smelled wet and warm. There was the fragrance of wood smoke, the sound of crickets chirping.

This was my first visit to Mexico, and the images I had of it were harsh rather than paradisal. Graham Greene's 1930's The Lawless Roads is a dry, angry book, written out of rage at the Mexican revolutionaries' persecution of the priests. I had read Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, a brilliantly excessive account of the demise of a drunken English consul on the Mexican Day of the Dead, without realizing that Lowry's Quauhnahuac was Cuernavaca. The impression is of restless violence through a haze of tequila.

I had visual images of the country as well: Brando's powerful performance in Viva Zapata!; and Manet's painting of the execution of Maximilian, with the firing squad and their rifles taking up most of the picture, and the small, insignificant emperor exploding in the background. But behind all these inexorable renderings of blood and death was a perfect childhood memory of magic, W. J. Turner's poem "Romance," about the names of volcanoes.
I walked in a great golden dream
To and fro from school—
Shining Popocatapetl
The dusty streets did rule.

It haunted Lowry's drunken consul, too.

THE CAMINO REAL SUMIYA, WHERE THE FILM PEOPLE AND I WERE STAYING, seemed to have nothing to do with Mexican struggles. Barbara Hutton had built it for $2.2 million as a Japanese-style retreat in 1959, with imported Japanese workers. It was called Sumiya after the home of an imperial courtesan in Kyoto. I was told that Hutton had built a Mexican-style house in Japan, looking up at Mount Fuji as Sumiya looks up at Popocatépetl. I was also told that she had demanded the removal of a pylon at Sumiya that contaminated her view, had been rebuffed, and was never seen again. This seems to be a myth.

There is a Zen sand garden at Sumiya, and an elegant Kabuki theater where Hutton and her friends used to watch home movies of themselves, a sad, enclosed activity. I spent an afternoon sitting on a faded velvet stool there watching the Haas children do an alligator dance. The terraced grounds are full of running water under high trees. These brooks are Mexican as much as Japanese— they are called apantles in Nahuatl, meaning "water which runs through smooth land." I sat down to write under an umbrella on the terrace, near a fountain with a sculpted crane, and felt detached and happy. Then I discovered the serpent in this paradise. All over the gardens, in the flower beds, by the shallow steps, are small clay or concrete beehives, like Mexican Indian shrines. In fact, they are the many mouths of a piped-in music system, which jangles and strums wherever you are. I found I could write if I wore the earplugs from the airplane. Total silence. No birds, no crickets, no fountain. No music.

On the streets of Cuernavaca, flowers tumble over stone walls. It is a city where rich Mexicans come to relax; their walled gardens are hidden from sight, but color and brightness are everywhere. There are red trees with candle-like flowers, and a red bougainvillea, so much livelier than the Mediterranean purple one.

I made my first excursions outside Sumiya to the 18th-century hacienda near Cuernavaca where The Blood Oranges was being filmed. The cavernous hacienda, which belongs to the Golf Club San Gaspar, was becoming a fiction as the film took over. It would be the set for the run-down villa where the protagonists, Cyril and Fiona, take in Hugh, Catherine, and their children after a minibus accident, hoping to tempt them into their life of erotic freedom. Another part of the hacienda would serve as the studio where Hugh, a photographer, prints his sinister photos of nude peasants. Paul Brown, the set designer, was subtly turning the whole place softer, more Mediterranean, culling some of the ferocious cacti sprouting from what I think of as ramparts. Lemon trees were planted and extra lemons attached with thread. The design crew had planted improbably green grass, which they would then torch so it would look sun-dried. Huge roots like mythic horsetails sprouted from ruined walls.

In this grim and ancient building, Paul designed a world of seventies essentialist kitsch. One particularly beautiful touch was his creation of a bare room with dark blue walls, where Hugh and Catherine's children are put to bed in suitcases after the accident. He covered the floor with pale-golden apples, stored for winter, glowing dimly in the dark. Cyril makes love to Hugh's wife, Catherine, in the next room, on bright-pink nylon sheets. The colors, against the old walls, are temporary and delicious.

Sometimes I stood behind the camera watching a woman smoke on a rickety brass bed and turn lazily, again and again and again. Sometimes I sat in the courtyard under a tree, to drink in the sun and listen to small sounds and watch butterflies— huge, black, floating ones; a bright green one; a large yellow; a small yellow— a lizard; a glistening, black, fat bee that fit into a very small hole in a tree.

Ignacio Decerega, the assistant director, leaned repeatedly over the balcony to cry, "Silencio! La siguiente toma!" ("Quiet! It's a take!") Philip was anxious to exclude all noise, to increase the sense of being in no particular place. I wished Ignacio could deal with the musical beehives.

Sometimes I explored the hacienda. In the heavy-arched cellars, now partly converted to dressing rooms, I found a curious tile set in a wall. On it was an image of Popocatépetl, and below it some lines in Spanish: "Qué bonito / es no hacer nada / y después de no hacer nada / descansar." (How nice it is to do nothing, and after doing nothing, to rest.) It is a Mexican earthly paradise attitude, a contrast to the violence of the literature.

POPOCATÉPETL WAS REVEALED QUITE SUDDENLY ON MY THIRD DAY. The whole horizon came out of cloud and mist, and there they were, the two volcanoes— Popo and Iztaccíhuatl (in Spanish, La Mujer Dormida, "the sleeping woman"). Seeing them was unexpectedly moving: the glass-walled lift that climbed the back of the Hotel Sumiya had been designed to exactly frame Popocatépetl. The mountain was never two days the same: the clouds changed, over it, round it; the snow changed, the smoke changed, the light changed.

I became obsessed with watching it, like Monet watching the Rouen cathedral. I talked about it to Hector López, the film's producer in Mexico, who sat in an office near the swimming pool faxing and fixing. He was pleased that I was so excited, and told me one version of the legend behind it. Popocatépetl was an Indian hunter who loved the beautiful Iztaccíhuatl. She fled from him upon discovering that she had consumption; she didn't want him to see her beauty destroyed. She was found far away, dying in the snow. The two were transformed into mountains so they could be together eternally, and he leans protectively over her sleeping form. I gave Hector the volcano poem, which he was glad to learn about.

I also went with the film crew to a small village, Real del Puente, to watch them audition locals as part of the crowd that gathers around the minibus accident: firemen were wanted, swimming boys, old women. In the village's concrete square were the remains of a tiny fair— two Ferris wheels, child-size, a bandstand, some sideshow booths. There was a queue of prospective extras, mostly children with pleasant, unsmiling faces. The directors sat behind a table under a balcony. The extras were chosen according to whether they looked markedly Mexican-Indian, as opposed to unidentifiably Mediterranean.

I began to worry about the rejected little boys, who hung around and joined the queue again. I remembered auditioning for the York Mystery Plays and being rejected, as I was neither blond enough for an angel nor dark enough for a demon. Films are about appearances. The genial drink-seller in his white apron was recruited, as was a wonderful gray-bearded man who just happened to be passing by, holding an archetypal sickle and a bunch of herbs. There was a very drunk drunk in a glaring red-ocher suit, gyrating slowly round the square and shouting: "Hey, man. I'm your man, kiddo."

The villagers were calm and courteous. They asked no questions about the película— everyone behaved as though movies were part of normal life. Later I discovered that Cuernavaca still remembers the filming of Under the Volcano with Albert Finney. Hector worked on it. Hotels and bars have been renamed for it.

I explored the area, both with the Haas family and later with Señor Flores, who hires himself out as the most courteous of guides. With the Haases I heard the Sunday brass band play in a high bandstand in Jardín Juárez, surrounded by peddlers with snakes on strings and jumping metal frogs. I went to the covered market under the railway arches, tunnels and lanes of stalls that go on forever. I love markets, but they have lost their individuality in most parts of the world. There are the same plastic dolls, cotton socks, nylon bras, pink plastic radios in Cuernavaca, Birmingham, Hong Kong, and Toronto. Even in the elegant little Mexican crafts market next to Cortés's palace, the clay whistles and painted dishes are not surprising. I have seen them in markets and gift shops in London, Paris, and Cologne.

I found myself doing more and more deliberately what I call "micro-tourism"— looking at beetles, ants, butterflies, and birds that can't be replicated or exported. A plant I particularly hate is the poinsettia, a dismal papery Christmas offering in England. In Mexico it is brilliant and flamboyant, bursting out scarlet and crimson from huge bushes. The cheese plants and tradescantias of urban offices ramble and explode here. I listened to little flocks of striped birds tumbling and crying in the jacarandas in the evenings; I watched great carp and goldfish in Barbara Hutton's Japanese ponds. Best of all was a small frog with tiny black glittering eyes that Belinda found under a balcony one night, the size of a medium coin, the color of clear yellow English butter.

SEÑOR FLORES HAS A LOT OF WHITE HAIR AND A WHITE MUSTACHE. We drove to Taxco, a silver-mining town in the dry mountains. It is a small town perched on hills where iron and tin have been mined since the days of Cortés, and where José de la Borda made a fortune mining silver in the 18th century, lost it, and made another. The elegant rose-colored church he built, Santa Prisca, stands high above the plaza named after him. The outside is Baroque; the inside full of the writhing, dazzling abundance of churrigueresque carvings. There is a particularly terrifying image of the scourged Christ, with his crown of thorns, in what is popularly known as the Chapel of the Indians.

Conversation with Señor Flores was dignified and inhibited at first. Then he began to tell me stories. The history of the Bordas, who built the Jardín Borda in Cuernavaca. The history of the haciendas: how the Indians were enslaved by the priests, how they were all forced to stand until one confessed to having stolen some grain dropped by harvesters on the roadside. The guilty one was imprisoned for 40 days in a cage— "each hacienda had its prisons," Señor Flores said. He told me parts of the history of José María Morelos and Benito Juárez, who rose up against the Spaniards; stories with which I was somewhat familiar concerning the ruthlessness of Cortés's conquerors and the ruthlessness of the Aztecs and the Maya before them. "It is a bloody history," he would say, reflectively and grimly.

It is not a history the British learn. Latin America is perhaps the most alien part of the world to us. Suddenly, too late, I was curious about everything Mexican, listening to Señor Flores. He told me about the doomed French emperor, Maximilian, and his wife, Carlota, who came to Mexico to bring justice and order, as they saw it. When Carlota first saw the valley she described it as "a golden bowl filled with sunshine." Señor Flores took me to the artificial lakes of the Jardín Borda, where Maximilian and Carlota spent holidays. We walked under shady trees and looked at the waterfowl and the small, shabby boats. Carlota, who went mad when Maximilian was imprisoned by the forces of Juárez, had something in common with Barbara Hutton, retreating to her artificial Japanese garden. Señor Flores had known Barbara Hutton. He had driven to Sumiya when it was isolated at the end of a dirt road, and had been requested to dress in a kimono, as were all of Hutton's visitors.

I had never felt any desire to find out about pre-Hispanic culture— the gruesome popularizations of it in films and novels, the little I know about blood sacrifice, had always seemed enough. I went to the pyramid of Xochicalco with Señor Flores early one morning, because it was there. It is a formidable site, almost 5,000 feet above sea level and 427 feet above the plain. It seems to have been a great city, a meeting place between cultures, with buildings from the first century through the 14th. In the seventh century there was a great gathering of astronomer-priests from Mayan, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Aztec cities; the imposing central Pyramid of the Plumed Serpents combines several building styles. As we walked up and over the staircases and grassy slopes, Señor Flores told me about the ball game that ended in the sacrifice of the loser, and the observatory where they watched the stars.

MICRO-TOURISM CONTINUED— vultures circled, a slate-blue, red-breasted parrot rose out of a bush, and Señor Flores described how tequila is made from the agave cactus. I was comforted by the vultures. I could not at all imagine the people who had built this place, or the world as they had thought it was, requiring spilt blood to make the sun rise. Vultures make sense. The plumed serpent was unreadable, unconnected to me. It is good to meet things you cannot at all understand. It is the opposite of the ubiquitous pink plastic music.

I was nearly too tired to go to Cortés's palace in Cuernavaca— which would have been a disaster, as it is what I remember best. The oldest secular Spanish building in Mexico, it was begun in 1533 and is solid and imposing without being grand. It now houses a regional museum, with everything from saber-toothed tigers to modern photographs. There are artifacts from Xochicalco, and the irons with which the Spanish branded Indian slaves. Most surprising was a display showing how there had been trade with the Far East before the arrival of the Spanish "discoverers." I had been wondering why Mexican and Korean embroidery colors have so much in common, and this suggested that the global village was always a fact of life. Long before Barbara Hutton devised Sumiya, Mexican women were wearing Philippine shells.

The best thing of all is the series of murals in the upper loggia by Diego Rivera. I had seen reproductions of his work, but never anything to match the way in which Mexican history is deployed to fit the spaces and arches of the palace. Here are the Aztec troops, dressed as eagles and tigers; here are the Spaniards, being led across a deep valley by an Indian in a wolfskin. Here are the slaves on the sugar plantation, the tortures, the Inquisition; here is Zapata leading the peasant revolt on his white horse; and here is Morelos, with Rivera's features. The patterning is a mixture of Mexican embroidery and receding perspective reminiscent of Utrillo. It is powerful and alive. It is bloody history and beauty and utopian vision.

I ASKED SEÑOR FLORES TO SHOW ME THE RAVINE where Lowry's fictive consul was tossed to die like a dog. It is full of twining plants and green energy. On another dark night in history, the conquistadors had crossed that same barranca. Images get layered, real and fictional. The faded photographs of the real Zapata mix in my mind with Brando's screen fighter, Señor Flores's stories of the brutality of the Zapatistas and Rivera's heroic revolutionary on his white stallion. When I left for London the film had reached a violent death in the projected paradise of lovers: one more layer of reality and unreality, inextricably merged. We live in a world of filmed images as well as universally portable artifacts. I like to think of the butter-yellow frog on the concrete, and the vultures going up into the empty air.

To reach Cuernavaca, fly to Mexico City and drive an hour and a half south; the mining town of Taxco is another 80 miles south on highway 95. The weather in Cuernavaca is near-perfect— a perennial spring.

Camino Real Sumiya Interior Fraccionamiento Sumiya; 52-73/209-199, fax 52-73/209-155; doubles $170. Barbara Hutton's Japanese-style retreat was converted into a hotel in 1993. The design of the 163 rooms is restrained and elegant; the gardens are blessedly serene.
Best Value Hotel Cádiz 329 Alvaro Obregón; 52-73/189-204; doubles $30, no credit cards. The intimacy of a B&B with the privacy of a hotel. The 17 rooms are sweet and traditional, as are the Aguilars, the family that runs the Cádiz.
Las Mañanitas 107 Ricardo Linares; 52-73/141-401, fax 52-73/183-672; doubles $113. Each of the 22 individually decorated colonial-style rooms is more beautiful than the last: intricately carved headboards, hand-painted tiles, original art, and bathrooms the size of a London bedsit. Request a room with a balcony, where you can watch peacocks and African cranes strut across the manicured lawn below. Or get a front-row seat at one of the two terrace restaurants, which serve wonderful seafood and Mexican specialties.

Los Arcos 4 Jardín de los Héroes; 52-73/124-486; lunch for two $10. A sidewalk café on Cuernavaca's liveliest square, with the best people-watching in town, as well as a prime view of the Palace of Cortés. The enchiladas verdes are particularly good.
La India Bonita 6 Calle Morro; 52-73/125-021; dinner for two $15. The rich, complex chicken mole has bred a loyal following, but the Mexican plate lets you sample seven different regional specialties.
La Strada 38 Salazar; 52-73/188-376; dinner for two $15. Eat in the courtyard, lit by braziers. The excellent pastas are a welcome departure from chilies.
— Kim Sevcik

Central Mexico Handbook by Chicki Mallan (Moon Publications)— Detailed maps and extensive information about the region's cultural history are the hallmarks of this solid regional guide.
Biography of Power: A History of Modern Mexico, 1810‚1996 by Enrique Krauze (HarperCollins)— A well-told chronicle of the country from the arrival of the conquistadors to the turbulent present. Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico by Hugh Thomas (Touchstone Books)— Includes intriguing sections about the Aztecs and the life of Cortés.
— Martin Rapp

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