book blogging: the plumed serpent -- chapter I part I

Friday, April 3, 2009

I've never finished the whole thing, so maybe writing about it will get me to do so.

I don't own a copy, so I'm working from the edition posted on Project Gutenberg

The book opens in Mexico City the Sunday after Easter, on what is the last bull-fight of the season. Evidently this is a pretty important bullfight because we're told that four special bulls have been brought in from Spain, Spanish bulls being "more fiery" than Mexican bulls.

Perhaps it is the altitude, perhaps just the spirit of the western Continent which is to blame for the lack of 'pep', as Owen put it, in the native animal.

And with that we're introduced to the first character in the novel--Owen--and the first thing we learn about Owen is that he's "a great socialist" and that he disapproves of bull fights.

The first few paragraphs of any novel usually establish the major themes, and while it's too early to say what's important or what means what, already there seems to be a dichotomy between Easter, or the celebration of the rebirth of Christ, and a bull fight, which is a celebration of death. The significance of this will no doubt become apparent.

The absence of "fire" in the Mexican bulls seems important, too. Bulls are strong, sturdy, and virile beasts, and we don't usually think of them as lacking "pep." And since this is a D.H. Lawrence novel, I think it's safe to say that unpeppy bulls symbolize impotence, more specifically Mexican impotence.

But let's get back to Owen. "Owen" is a Welsh name, so it's a safe bet Owen's not a native to Mexico. That and the fact that he "shall have to go" to the bullfight even though he disapproves of them suggests that he's just visiting Mexico and wants to catch the sights. It also sets him up as a hypocrite.

His companion, Kate, agrees."Kate" is derived from Greek, but it's a common name throughout Europe. "Neither she nor Owen spoke much Spanish" confirms them both as tourists, but are they a couple on holiday? The narrator introduces them so offhandedly and provides so few facts as to their personal lives that we won't know for a while. In fact, right now we don't even know that they're traveling with a third companion, Villers.

As Kate and Owen reach the ticket counter, "an unpleasant individual" waits on them in American, further identifying the two as Anglo-Saxons. The ticket man (as well as the onlookers) insist they buy the premium tickets, but Owen, ostensibly under the guise of preferring to "sit among the crowd" opts for the cheaper tickets.

As soon as they do, Kate has second thoughts, but Owen, despite his disapproval of bullfights continues to insist they see one:

I don't believe in them on principle, but we've never seen one, so we shall have to go.

Owen's starting to look like a real douche.

Owen was an American, Kate was Irish. 'Never having seen one' meant 'having to go.' But it was American logic rather than Irish, and Kate only let herself be overcome.

Now we know the nationalities of the two, and though we still don't know what the nature of their relationship is, we see that Kate's subservient to Owen.

The next paragraph introduces Villers, who's the youngest of the group, also American, and the keenest on taking in the fight.

The three of them drive through the dilapidated streets of Mexico City, with the narrator placing particular emphasis on the "dreariness" of the day and the buildings. The Mexicans aren't much different either: The words used to describe them--"unpleasant," "lousy," "gutter-louts"--don't paint a very flattering picture. Nor are any of them named, either. They come off as vermin, scurrying around a run-down, cold, dreary city (which makes you wonder what the Hell the three protagonists are doing there).

Kate felt she was going to prison. But Owen excitedly surged to the entrance that corresponded to his ticket. In the depths of him, he too didn't want to go. But he was a born American, and if anything was on show, he had to see it. That was 'Life.'

But as bad as the Mexicans come off, Owen doesn't seem much better, maybe even worse, because even though he's a "great socialist" he doesn't feel anything for these people or even admit he's uncomfortable around them--to him it's all a show; it's not life but rather the idea of life.

And that's where I'll stop for now.