A Visit to Don Otavio

Sybille Bedford


A Visit to Don Otavio

Sybille Bedford


Mexico, through the eyes of Bedford, is a country of passion and paradox: arid desert and shrieking jungle, harsh sun and deep shadow, violence and sentimentality. In her frank descriptions of the horrors of travel – through bug-infested jungle, trapped in a broiling stationary train, or in a bus with a dead fish slapping against her face – she gains our trust.

But it is the charmed world of Don Otavio which steals our imagination. She stays in his crumbling ancestral mansion, living a life of provincial ease and observing with glee the intense life of a Mexican neighbourhood. 

‘... a book radiant with comedy and colour.’  - Sunday Times
‘... a wonderful book.’ - Bruce Chatwin
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A Visit to Don Otavio
ISBN: 978-0907871-87-3
Format: 320pp demi pb
Place: Mexico

Author Biography

Sybille Bedford was born in Germany before the First World War, of a German father and English mother of mixed, partly-Jewish, extraction. She was brought up in Italy, England and France.

A Visit to Don Otavio was her first published book. Originally entitled The Sudden View: A Mexican Journey, it came out in 1953 and was soon acknowledged as a classic of travel writing.

Sybille Bedford witnessed and wrote about some of the most important criminal trials of the century - including the Auschwitz trials - and has written extensively on the law at work. Her two-volume work on Aldous Huxley, who had been a great friend, was published in 1973. The Spectator recently hailed it as "one of the great classic English biographies, Sybille Bedford’s unforgettably profound and unsparing life". 

Extract from Chapter One

O le pauvre amoureux des pays chimériques!

THE UPPER PART of Grand Central Station is large and splendid like the Baths of Caracalla.

‘Your rooms are on Isabel la Catolica,’ said Guillermo.

‘How kind of you,’ said I.

‘Pensión Hernandez.’

‘What is it like?’

‘The manager is very unkind. He would not let me have my clothes when I was arrested. But you will have no trouble.’

‘Whatever next,’ said I.

‘One cannot tell,’ said Guillermo. His mother was a Mexican lady; his father, so Guillermo says, had been a Scotchman. Guillermo looked like an alley cat, not sleek; survival only seemed to be his forte. ‘Friends will look after you.’

‘What friends?’

‘Friends. Very sweet and useful.’ His louche fly’s eyes swept the floor. ‘Don’t mention my name at the Pensión.’

‘I suppose not.’

‘Much better so,’ said Guillermo.

After some years in the United States where a seat at a successful movie has to be booked six weeks in advance and hotel reservations are a matter of patience and cunning settled at the last minute by luck, one never expected to move freely again. You couldn’t get into the Reforma at Mexico City for love or money, they told one at the American Express. One did not wish to get into the Reforma, one explained. Well, the Ritz was just as hard. At that point one gave up. Hence Guillermo, hence the Pensión Hernandez. Guillermo was lonely and serviceable and always rushed in to do the things one wanted in a way one did not want them done.

‘Shall we have a little drink?’ he said.

We were sitting in the station bar, waiting. There was a great deal of time. The bags were in the hands of porters and suddenly, after the rush of days, there was nothing more to do. We were receiving. That is people were dropping in to see us off and to buy us and each other drinks. People we had not seen for years. Arrival and Departure are the two great pivots of American social intercourse. You arrive. You present your credentials. You are instantly surrounded by some large, unfocused hopefulness. You may be famous; you may be handsome, or witty, or rich; you may even be amiable. What counts is that you are new. In Europe where human relations like clothes are supposed to last, one’s got to be wearable. In France one has to be interesting, in Italy pleasant, in England one has to fit. Here, where intercourse between man and man is without degrees, sans lendemain, where foreign visitors are consumers’ goods, it is a matter of turnover. You are taken up, taken out, shown around, introduced, given parties for, and bang, before you can say American Resident, it’s farewell parties and steamer baskets. Your cheeks are kissed, your back is slapped, your hand is pressed; you are sent bottles and presents and flowers – you are Sailing. The great empty wheel of hospitality has come full circle.

These last days have atmosphere and intensity, there is a quantitative increase of everything, more parties, more people, drinks. And for all their slapdash bonhomie these agitations are not meaningless. The warmth, the sudden intimacies, the emotion, are not false, they are ritual. To Americans, sailing is a symbol. Of travel past and potential, of their peril and their safety, of isolation and flight. They stay and are safe; they too may go and prove themselves free. The dangerous, the coveted, the despised and admired continent of Europe lies only a few days across the sea. One’s sailing drives it home. Farewells are vicarious magic: Americans still believe in l’adieu suprême des mouchoirs.

Between arrival and departure – if one is tactless enough to stay – there is a social no-man’s-land in which one is left to make one’s friends and lead one’s life. The country is large and so is the choice. One’s life and friends are rarely among the hospitable figures of the first whirling weeks. Some vanish, and, if one runs into them, are too kind to ask, ‘You still around?’ Instead they say, ‘Call me some time.’ ‘Indeed I will,’ one says, and that is that until another year.