BOOK REVIEW / Putting the yuck in Yucatan: Mexico - James Michener: Secker, pounds 14.99

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A KIND of literary tradition has grown up around Mexico, ranging from Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent to the splendour of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano. As the place where the Old World first encountered the New (only to find that it too was old), the Mexico of fiction is often presented as a conflict between the sterile light of modernity and the dark inscrutability of the ancients.

James Michener has made a successful career of sticking a pin in the map and turning the history of the lucky location into literary 'infotainment'. Starch-stiff with research, laden with melodrama, dripping with sentiment, Hawaii, Texas, the Caribbean, even Space have all received the treatment. The anchor-man of Michener's latest novel, set in Mexico, is an American reporter whose Spanish-Mexican-Indian descent qualifies him to cover a bullfighting contest, to guide us through the past glories and gore of this 'violent, colourful land'.

Pre-Columbus, we're treated to the discovery of alcohol and the building of pyramids, and page after page of human sacrifice before the pale men on four-legged gods arrive bringing peace, love and roast heretic. The 'chaotic years' of the Revolution turn out to be unnecessarily complicated, meriting just half a page of dead bandits.

Michener's prose lands in the worst of both worlds. The Altomec Indians are a 'fictional composite of several ancient peoples'; buildings and clothes are forever 'typical of the period'. While fans may forgive the creaking prose and crass simplification, they'll be less happy that the new Michener lacks even a good story. And as for the racial-cultural issue, forget it: he buzzes around the debate like a horse-fly at a bullfight.

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