There's a good, hyperventilated moment in Robin Bayley's first book. He's staying in a "casa de amor", a cheap Colombian hotel that rents out rooms by the hour for casual sex, and by the night for travellers who can't afford anything better. As he eats an unspecified fish, which tastes like carpet, he can hear everyone else having riotous sex or partying. Any maudlin self-pity or bad digestion is rudely interrupted by the sound of gunfire and a body landing on the roof over his head.
The wayward rhythms and chance surprises of Latin American life have long allowed its literature to splash colour on a monochromatic world. So too for travel writers who venture there. The danger can be that the result is all spectacle and no story, what in Mexico they call "magic realism lite". Bayley avoids this with a genealogical quest for truth: he goes to Mexico to look for traces of his great-grandfather, Arthur Greenhalgh, who went to find his fortune in a cotton mill near Lake Guadalajara.
In the processs, he reminds us of the waves of British emigrants who sought their fortune not in the British empire but in Latin America, whether railways in Argentina, nitrate mines in Chile, or guano in Peru. In Mexico, the Cowdray family led the charge, attempting to build a canal across the Tehuantepec isthmus. When the revolutionary government expropriated their assets, the family commissioned Evelyn Waugh to write a travel book denouncing what had happened, Robbery Under Law.
It is the Mexican revolution that also disrupts Greenhalgh's adventure. The workers at his cotton mill revolt against low pay, and his English colleague is shot. Yet this doesn't deter him from "going Mexican": he becomes Arturo Greenhal, poses like Pancho Villa on a horse with a handlebar moustache, and takes a local girl as mistress. After a circuitous route via a love affair in Guatemala and a delightful meander through Colombia, his descendant arrives at a truth about his family that is considerably stranger than any fiction.
Bayley unpicks the story of his ancestor's adventures with much skill and persistence. He has a fine ear for dialogue with a Tarantino-style, comic-book delivery, and the ending, in which he tries to reconcile his elderly grandmother to the truth about her father, is genuinely affecting.
Hugh Thomson's 'Tequila Oil' is published by PhoenixReuse content