Chapter 90: Writing the Impossible City
For writers, there is no escaping the city. At various stages in life, our innermost narratives are formed by the shape of its streets, just as its collective history is a central character in the daily news. We write and read the city, from the grand urban epics to the ads on the subway, to the keyboard from which we seek to describe it, and again in the views we take in when looking away from our screens.
Fiction and non-fiction of the past centuries are filled with stylistic attempts, linguistic patchworks, and choral narratives grappling with how to convey the city’s riches, to capture its cacophony of voices. In that sense, it seems madness that any single account should hold sway. Yet distinctive voices stand out over time: their writing becomes the mirror in which multitudes experience daily life, understand and rediscover their surroundings.
Of all the writers who have tried this impossible task, Juan Villoro is foremost among those deciphering his own metropolis, Mexico City.
The author of over a dozen books of fiction, it is Villoro’s nonfiction that best showcases the distinctive form he once coined “the platypus of prose.” His analogy describes the possibilities of narrative journalism: a unique confluence of literary and journalistic genres; a hybrid that boasts the novel’s capacity to narrate a character’s world along with reporting’s unwavering facts; the tension of a short story; the dialogues of theater and interview; the essay’s capacity for arguing and connecting dispersed knowledge; the autobiography’s memorial tone.
It is a form that has served him as he described everything from narcotraffic and prostitution in Mexico to the intricate beauty of soccer, and most recently his decades-long journey to capture Mexico City and its Horizontal Vertigo.
The Mexican capital has countless points of entry. Few today are crafting with more style an entrance to the city from within the page.
We hope you enjoy the tour.
“Mexico City has been narrated in many ways. In Horizontal Vertigo I quote several of those voices. The conquistadors who had waged war in Italy compared it to Venice; since then records abound about a territory gradually transformed. One of the most singular and disconcerting experiences of the twentieth century was precisely the expansion of cities. Never before had anything like it been perceived. Anyone born in Tokyo, Calcutta, Sao Paulo, or Mexico City at the beginning of the 20th century will have seen unparalleled transformations over the next seventy years. This modification of the environment brings with it cultural and psychological alterations that had never previously happened. You live, simultaneously, in the streets of the present and in those recalled by your memory.
“Literature belongs to the city recovered from evocation, no less real than we perceive it daily. I enjoy the chronicles of Vicente Riva Palacio and Guillermo Prieto from the 19th century, or the urban notes of Martín Luis Guzmán in the first decades of the 20th (especially the landscapes that determine his greatest novel, The Shadow of the Strongman), up to the 20th-century chronicles of Elena Poniatowska, Carlos Monsiváis, Fabrizio Mejía Madrid and Jorge Ibargüengoitia.
“In my book, I dedicate a chapter to the many poets who have referred to the disappearance of the city’s blue sky. Carlos Fuentes' Where the Air Is Clear is the best-known novel about Mexico City. It is not the first urban novel, but it is the first to make it the protagonist of the plot, in the manner of John Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer or Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz. Fuentes' novel was published in 1958 when the city had four million inhabitants and could still be portrayed in its entirety. I was born two years later, so I belong to a different variant of the city dweller: mine was the sprawling megalopolis. Today the city has some 20 million inhabitants and can no longer be portrayed by a single writer; in any case, it requires an assembly of authors to be told. Horizontal vertigo is one of the many ways to approach it.
“Some nonfiction writers focus exclusively on the facts, while others prefer to comment on them. My texts have a hybrid nature because the events and places are not only described but also interpreted. We must not forget that events occur twice: in reality and in the minds of the witnesses. Therefore, I am interested in events and the public opinion they generate. I register what others say about the subject and what I think. In this sense, narrative journalism pieces have an essayistic touch.
“I've gotten lost enough times in the city to prevent the same thing from happening to someone else. It is not easy to orient yourself in an environment where everything changes and where there can be a hundred different streets named Zapata. When writing I have to take into account a possible reader, who doesn't know that environment. Before the GPS, you had to ask people how to get to places. I was impressed by the difficulty most people had in describing an itinerary to a stranger; they spoke as if the other person had already been there (‘see where the monument with the clock is?’ they’d say, alluding to references that the other person was completely unaware of). I have since learned to give directions by describing the space as something I visited for the first time. I try to write in the same manner; it's the only way for the particular to make sense to someone other than oneself.”
You evoke the sensation –and the concrete reality– of the lost city, of living in the deportation of the disappeared past. In this exploration of the landscape as autobiography (both personal and collective), what longing stands out from that city that no longer exists?
“I would like to see the palm trees on Eugenia Street again, which granted elegance to a street that is now nothing more than an urban axis; I would like the return of the streetcars, a means of transportation both comfortable and highly efficient, so different from the buses where someone of my height can barely stand; I would like to recover a city in which traffic has boundaries; but, above all, I would like to live in a place where walking isn’t a risk, where my children could go out on the street without a fixed direction and I wouldn’t have to worry about it. None of that will ever return. It is sad that ‘progress’ means a diminishing quality of life.
“Cities are artifices that pretend to civilize their users. The ancient idea of civitas proposes harmonious coexistence among different individuals. Yet not only do the streets modify those who live in them, but the opposite also happens. I love the spontaneous ornaments that decorate cities, from the colored chewing gum that covers the trunk of a tree with a pointillist aesthetic to the shoes that hang from the light wires to the graffiti. Literature is another form of appropriation of the city; you make it yours with words. My book tries to reflect the urban landscape but also the face of the person who looks at it. The difference between a mere photographic record and an iconic image is that the latter includes the aura of the photographer, the way he or she looks at and frames the space. From its title, Horizontal Vertigo alludes to the nervousness and desperation that the city arouses, and throughout its pages, it seeks to demonstrate that it is possible to love that which makes you nervous and desperate. A book is an act of passion, and no passion is simple; on the contrary, it is made better by the obstacles it presents you with and the challenges to resolve them. ‘To love is to transgress,’ said Octavio Paz. It is the best way to love a city as challenging as the capital of Mexico.”