Not long ago, I dined with three visiting Mexican businessmen at a restaurant a few blocks from the White House. “Obama doesn’t really live there,” one of them said as the others nodded. “The first lady, and the girls? No way.”

According to the musings of Jorge Castaneda — author of the provocative, though almost clinically detached “Manana Forever?” — my guests were exhibiting a fundamental aspect of the Mexican character. They not only don’t trust government, they trust no one.

Others — notably the superb Mexican stylists Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes — have sought to explicate “Mexican-ness” and have done so much more eloquently than Castaneda, a former Mexican foreign minister and respected scholar who lectures at universities in Mexico and the United States. Still, there’s a provocative and intriguing insight in Castaneda’s often plodding analysis — which he self-diagnoses at one point as a “tedious technical discussion.” Mexico’s national character, he writes, “dramatically hinders its search for a future and modernity,” and “its soul” is a “burden.” The “main traits of its national character,” Castaneda determines, “are radically dysfunctional.”

Citing reams of polling data and drawing from historical analyses, Castaneda draws a dispiriting picture of his countrymen. They don’t respect the law and are disinclined to pay taxes. They are so mistrustful, so prone to “acute individualism” and “stubborn rejection of any type of collective action” that they “prefer to be alone than to share anything with the ‘other.’ ” This inability to play well with others, Castaneda writes in a chapter called “Why Mexicans Are Lousy at Soccer and Don’t Like Skyscrapers,” explains why the country has performed better at individual events in the Olympics than at team sports.

Mexicans, he says, also suffer from a “congenital defect of conflict aversion as a way of life,” a trait he attributes to the fact that most of Mexico’s great national heroes died as a result of their heroism. As Mexicans say, “Mas vale un mal arreglo que un buen pleito” — “It is better to reach a bad deal than to have a good fight.”

‘Manana Forever?: Mexico and the Mexicans’ by Jorge G. Castaneda (Knopf. 293 pp. $27.95)

“Everything that is binary repels them: elections, the law, the market, competition, choosing sides in practically any area of national or human endeavor,” Castaneda writes. “To choose is to take sides; to pick sides is to make someone happy and someone else angry; and anger is to be avoided whenever possible.”

That last trait might be tough for American readers to reconcile with the persistent headlines about Mexico’s savage drug war, responsible for more than 35,000 deaths in the past four years. President Felipe Calderon’s decision to confront drug cartels has resulted in an “unwinnable war of choice” and is the nation’s “greatest self-inflicted dilemma in recent years,” Castaneda writes. He argues convincingly that “Mexican attitudes toward impunity and the rule of law stand in the way of the policy changes needed” to more effectively counter drug violence. But he fails to explain satisfactorily why supposedly conflict-averse Mexicans so frequently resort to the ultimate kind of conflict: chopping off a head or putting a bullet in it.

When he’s discussing current affairs, Castaneda has a tendency to stray into something approaching a stump-speech vibe. His own ambitions to run for president in 2006 were quashed — with very little popular upset — by Mexican courts because he did not have the backing of an organized political party. Castaneda extols the virtues of promoting Mexico as a haven for snowbirds and retirees, and wants U.S. and Mexican leaders to begin “at least imagining” a “North American Economic Union or Common Market” with a “single currency.”

Castaneda — a founder of the San Angel Group of Mexican intellectuals — deserves credit for helping to end seven decades of authoritarian rule by Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which was toppled in the 2000 presidential election. So it’s interesting — and refreshingly admirable — to read that he believes the PRI’s “corrupt and lawless political system” was more a consequence of Mexico’s innate character traits than a cause. “The PRI,” he writes, “was a mirror of Mexican society and its members, not a molder or creator.”

After the highly suspect 1988 presidential election, Castaneda traveled to the breathtakingly beautiful mountain town of Tepoztlan to help oversee a local election. He detected “obvious tampering” with tally sheets by the PRI, but his local allies resisted his entreaties to make a fuss. “ ‘If we protest,’ ” he recalls the locals telling him, “ ‘the PRI guys will get upset.’ Which was undeniably true, and entirely the point: to stop the old ruling party gangsters from stealing another election, even if they were ultimately unhappy about it.”

Unfortunately, this is one of only a few real-life anecdotes that buttress the author’s arguments. His book about the character of Mexicans shows he knows a lot of facts and figures about Mexico; the only thing that’s missing is Mexicans themselves.

Manuel Roig-Franzia writes for the Post’s Style section and was formerly the paper’s Mexico City bureau chief.


Mexico and the Mexicans

By Jorge G. Castaneda

Knopf. 293 pp. $27.95