Study Questions for Anita Desai's The Zigzag Way (2004)

As usual, I give you lots of questions and discussion topics; choose the ones most useful to you as a study guide and discussion-starter for Desai.

Note:  I’ve also provided on the website for you to download and print a pdf file of a fine autobiographical essay by Anita Desai written before Zigzag Way, entitled “Bicultural, Adrift, and Wandering.”  I highly recommend this brief and eloquent essay.  Note:  Desai’s daughter, Kiran, won the Booker Prize in England (the equivalent of a Pulitzer) in 2006 for her fine first novel, The Inheritance of Loss, set in Harlem NYC and an Indian province near the Himalayas, among other locations.  I teach this novel in my Honors seminar too.

Interested group members whose computer can play podcasts (mp3's): for student comments on the Desai novel I recommend both Michael Stone's reading and commentary, and Melina Healey's reading from my Fall 2006 Honors seminar in American literature.  Go to:

--Peter Schmidt



How would you describe Eric’s character, beyond the fact that he’s rather indecisive and uncertain compared to his girlfriend Em?  What scenes most stand out for you revealing who he is?  Does he grow or reveal surprising sides to his character over the course of the novel?  (For those readers who find him too passive, not “forceful” enough, I’d urge you to consider whether this particular story could be told if we didn’t have such a dreamy and curious protagonist, one who wanders and waits rather than heads straight toward what he is certain of.)

Doña Vera’s story, juxtaposed with Eric’s, creates a powerful narrative tension:  he wants to explore if family’s unknown past, whereas she wants to leave her European past behind to reinvent herself in the “New World.”  Yet, like Eric, she too is obsessed with the past—with her vision of eternal Huichol Indian culture, in stark juxtaposition with corrupt Mexican history symbolized by the silver mines.  (Of course, it is wealth from those very mines that allow her to pursue her own vision—an inconvenient irony she refuses to recognize.) Doña Vera is haunted by another past, one symbolized by the vultures that show up in her nightmares.  Discuss Doña Vera’s role in the novel.  Some questions that come to mind:  How is she characterized?  What scenes most reveal her character for you?  Have other characters also ruthlessly reinvented themselves?  What does the end of the novel tell us of the cost of Doña Vera’s approach to life?  Yet before we too easily criticize Doña Vera, see Eric and André’s interesting discussion on pp. 88-89, of the urge to “walk away” from one’s past and start a new chapter (88), “no tracks, no tracks” (80).

If you’re interested in anthropology and the study of Indian culture, here’s some other questions about Doña Vera and her study center.  How should we understand Doña Vera’s protective possessiveness toward the Huichol?  Is she a genuine benefactor?  Are we meant to see her as a sham, profitably presenting herself as a fake expert on “authentic” Huichol beliefs to tourists?  In what ways can the novel be said to satirize such romanticization of Indian cultures as frozen in mythic time, ahistorical and premodern ?  If so, how is such a theme relevant for Eric’s story and his different approach to the past?  Remember that Eric too is interested in Indian histories in Mexico, but he approaches them rather differently than does Doña Vera—and she’s wary of him right from the start.

Close reading exercise (for those who enjoy them):

After you’ve finished the novel re-read carefully the description of Eric’s approach to and entrance into the cathedral, pp. 94-97, including the little essay on the difference between Mexican (or Catholic?) conceptions of sacred space vs. those in Puritan New England (“in the bright, bleak chapels of the North sin was not permitted”).  Notice in particular how the passage uses all five senses.  What details do you think are most important and why?

The novel’s style uses a mix of traditional Western “realist” novelistic techniques (like the scenes told from Eric’s point of view, for instance) along with what is erroneously called by English speakers the “magical realist” techniques from Latin American authors such as Gabriel García Marquez.  (I say erroneous because, from a Latin point of view, what some call the “fantastic” or the “magical”—like one’s dead ancestors visiting the living once a year—is for them merely a different level of “reality,” one that in many ways is truer than “this” world of illusion and loss.)  One example of what I prefer to call Desai’s “visionary” style begins on p. 71, when “Ramón the god appears…,”  but many more such moments can be found in the novel.  How well do you think Desai mixes these two styles?  What would the novel lose if she used just one or the other?

Another element of the novel’s subtle synthesis of different ways of seeing and understanding can be found in its use of two different kinds of time in the narrative.  On the one hand, we have more familiar “regular” time, where actions take place in a linear fashion and progress understandably.  On the other, we have a narrative that is filled with a series of flashbacks and surprises.  These time-loops include relatively “easy” ones, like Eric remembering Em and his family in Part I (giving us what is sometimes called “backstory).  But they also include startling leaps decades back in time, such as the leap into a past that Eric cannot consciously know in Part III.  (Note the brilliant way in which the end of Part II, laughter Eric hears in the cathedral, gives us the beginning of the story in Part III, until we are returned to the “present” at the end of III and the beginning of IV.)  Eric can “know” his grandfather’s and grandmother’s stories, though, via this book’s visionary realism, where your ancestors can visit you and give you their knowledge via your unconscious.  Eric’s vision in the cathedral is triggered by sound (laughter behind him) and seems to require darkness, not bright light; it may also last just a split second in clock time, but it takes all of Part III to tell it and it has profound effects, though these appear to affect Eric unconsciously, not consciously.  Would Eric have ever been able to take the Día de los Muertos seriously and participate in it without what happens to him in the cathedral?  What do you think?  My main point in this little mini-essay:  Time functions in this short little novel in wondrous ways.

What are the meanings of the epigraphs that preface each of the major sections of the book?  Choose a few and discuss them.  How about the book’s title?  (Hint:  be sure to re-read the scene that Eric discovers in a history book describing the Indians’ difficult journey up the ladders in the mines:  p. 68).

On p. 89, André says that for forgiveness to occur, a “sacrifice” must be required.  What does he mean?  Eric is uneasy with such a dark and perhaps bloody vision of restitution, and as the conversation moves on both he and André (it’s a little hard to tell who says what) suggest that forgiveness must also be “earned” and can only be given by others.  Once you’ve read the whole novel, revisit this theme of sacrifice and forgiveness.  What different examples of both can we find?  In what ways is there a blood sacrifice in the book?  Or examples of penance and forgiveness of a different kind?

I find the entire La Noche de los Muertos conclusion one of the most moving passages in all of contemporary fiction, particularly the last few pages.  It not only displays Desai’s knowledge and love of Mexican culture, but it dramatically takes us to the novel’s climax in a way that would be impossible with conventional “realism.”  What do you think of this final section of the book?  Who does Eric meet coming down the path from beyond the graveyard?  What does it mean that the chrysanthemums are “devoid now of fragrance” (157)?  What is the meaning of the book’s magnificent last sentence?  (Consider this:  in a novel that shows places to be filled with the traces of all kinds of many different peoples and cultures, so that Cornwall can be “in” Mexico and vice versa, plus the past “in” the present, concluding that “everyone went streaming back to where they had come from” is a very mysterious way to end.)

Instead of offering us a narrow understanding of the meaning of family history and genealogy, it may be that this novel gives us an extraordinary sense of family not merely as kin but as “kith” (146), family as those who are “familiar” to us, sharing stories, cultural traditions, etc.  (Kith comes from the Old English “cuth,” meaning “known”; thus our word “uncouth.”)  Similarly, the history of a single place, such as this tiny mining town in Mexico, is shown to be infinitely layered, criss-crossed with the traces of exiles and travelers, from the first Indians to the Mexicans and English and many others, including even one exiled woman from Austria.  We might say that there are no stable “roots” in Desai’s fiction, only “routes” and re-imaginings.  “Racial” and “national” identities in particular are shown to be simplifying fictions that hide more complex realities.  Through Part III, for instance, we learn that Eric’s ancestor may have been nursed by a Mexican woman after his grandmother died—scandalizing the white settlers (127).  So, in a way, Eric discovers he is part Mexican, not simply an American with English roots, and that his ancestor’s name was originally Pablo, after a Mexican’s dead child, not “Paul.”  Discuss your sense of the novel’s presentation of family history and memory, vs. the sometimes very simple categories we use to define identity.

I like the Time magazine review’s description of the author, “the connoisseur of displacement”—but what does that mean, exactly?  Surely Desai’s own complex life story, which doesn’t allow her to be labeled simply as either a “South Asian” or an “American” author, has influenced the sense of place and time displayed in this novel.  It’s concerned with deep local histories, yet is thoroughly transnational and global, not provincial or national.  Perhaps this represents one example of the future of fiction in our globalized world, including “American” fiction?  What do you think?

Many readers in the book group may have experience with visiting Mexico.  Obviously in many ways the Mexico represented in Zigzag Way is an older Mexico, not the Mexico of the new millennium filled with maquiladoras on the borders, Mexican music stars being kidnapped and murdered, drug cartels, and huge percentages of the population of many towns and provinces living and working at least part of the year in the United States, and other postmodern difficulties and surreal juxtapositions.  In what ways did reading the novel cause you to remember your own experiences with Mexico old and new and, perhaps, understand them differently?