Horizontal Vertigo: A City Called Mexico 
by Juan Villoro, translated by Alfred MacAdam.
Pantheon, 346 pp., £27, March 2021, 978 1 5247 4888 3
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Battles in the Desert 
by José Emilio Pacheco, translated by Katherine Silver.
New Directions, 54 pp., £10, June 2021, 978 0 8112 3095 7
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Mexico City​ , in the words of the critic Carlos Monsiváis, is ‘above all, too many people’. In Los rituales del caos (1995), Monsiváis summed up the ‘multitudes surrounding multitudes’: the swarms of cars, the street pedlars and fire eaters encircling them at traffic lights, the massed congregants at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the millions of passengers crammed daily into the Metro. Any attempt at a coherent portrait of this teeming excess seems doomed to failure. There are too many people with too many stories, too many sights, sounds, smells, too many historical epochs mingled together, too many possible books to write.

Juan Villoro – novelist, critic and newspaper columnist – was born and raised in Mexico City, but he doesn’t try to encompass it. Instead he offers a fragmentary personal account that combines memoir, history, reportage and satire. His title, Horizontal Vertigo, borrows a phrase that Drieu La Rochelle used to describe the Argentine pampas and applies it to the endless, logic-defying sprawl of a capital city with a population of 22 million. The book’s kaleidoscopic form reflects ‘the juxtapositions the cityscape entails – the tyre shop opposite the colonial church, the corporate skyscraper next to the taco stand’.

The conurbation Villoro lives in far exceeds the administrative boundaries of Mexico City proper. The constitution of 1824 set aside a federal district for the capital, leaving what seemed at the time ample room for expansion. The district’s limits had to be stretched several times before 1900, however, and as the population grew from 3.4 million in 1950 to 13 million in 1980, the urban area spilled into neighbouring Mexico State. In 2016 the federal district was renamed the City of Mexico – Villoro was among the experts who helped draft its new constitution – and has since been rebranded as ‘CDMX’. But its formal boundaries still can’t contain it: today, perhaps half of its residents live outside Mexico City’s official limits, in vast low-rise agglomerations that are themselves the size of cities – the municipality of Ecatepec has a population of 1.6 million, Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl of 1.1 million.

The ‘city called Mexico’ now carpets most of the broad bowl ringed by mountains known as the Valley of Anáhuac. In a 1917 poem, Alfonso Reyes imagined the area as ‘the most transparent region of the air’, a phrase that would be met with grim, smog-choked laughter by its current inhabitants. As Villoro observes, Reyes himself was expressing alarm at the frantic pace of urbanisation as early as 1940: ‘What have you done to my high metaphysical valley?’ The days when the white peaks of Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl formed a constant backdrop to the city’s south-east are long gone. In fact, they are now so rarely seen that when they are visible residents may say: ‘The volcanoes came out’ – as if the mountains had ‘decided one day to take a look at us’. ‘On those rare, clear days,’ according to Villoro, ‘we’re a bit better.’ Moods are lifted and morals improved simply by the ‘possibility of a horizon’.

Most of the time, though, life in the city is relentless, and Villoro depicts its inhabitants’ persistence: ‘what best defines the chilango is his obstinate way of staying here.’ The demonym itself is a symptom of scrappiness: one derivation suggests it came from the Mayan word xilan, meaning ‘unkempt’. What began as a disparaging term applied by outsiders to people from the capital has been taken up as a proud badge of identity. Among the many chilangos featured in Villoro’s mosaic, some have distinctive backstories: a hobo who called himself the king of Coyoacán; a group of street children living around the Hidalgo Metro stop. Others are urban types: the tyre repair man, the sewer cleaner, the organ grinder – according to Villoro, ‘the out-of-tune sound that emanates from the device reminds us of the state of the nation’ – as well as the army of street vendors. (They play a prominent role in Mexico City’s soundscape, from the high-pitched whistle announcing a sweet potato cart to men wheeling propane canisters and shouting ‘gaaaas’ to a legion of carts all playing the same recording that announces Oaxaca tamales.) Then there are the purveyors of bootleg classics on the Metro: ‘Out of nowhere, a vendor walks into your subway car and offers Aristotle’s Ethics: three people buy it in under two minutes.’ The ready availability of Greek philosophy is incongruous given the setting: built in the late 1960s, the Mexico City Metro remained futuristic enough to serve as the backdrop for Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 version of Total Recall. Villoro says there is still fake blood splattered on the ceiling of Chabacano station.

‘City characters’ is one of the six themes Villoro uses to guide us through the megalopolis. Other strands address ‘Living in the City’, ‘Shocks’, ‘Crossings’, ‘Ceremonies’ and ‘Places’ – covering the city’s history, its mundane strangeness, its monuments and squares, its various forms of transit. The original Mexican edition of the book included a colourful schematic map showing these strands as intersecting Metro lines, in lieu of a table of contents. As well as leaving out the map, the US publisher let through several translation gaffes: at one point a notary (notario) is rendered as ‘notorious’ (notorio) and, throughout, indigenous Mexicans are bafflingly transformed into ‘Native Americans’. But Villoro himself is always engaging, conjuring up both the immediate sensory experience of the place and its more intangible idiosyncrasies. He finds meaning in the artistic uses chilangos find for their rubbish:

The first thing I see as I leave my house is a precarious installation: from an electric power line hangs a pair of shoes. On the next block, a rectangle of grass is covered with plastic bottles filled with water to protect it from the scatological intentions of dogs; a short distance later, a tree trunk is covered with chewing gum. Going out onto the street means making contact with a strange decorative passion.

For Villoro, life in ‘Chilangopolis’ involves a simultaneous awareness and denial of impending disaster. ‘Our version of the magazine Popular Mechanics would have to be called Popular Apocalypse and be dedicated to earthquakes, landslides, volcanic activity, water shortages, pollution, theft of cash machines, pirate taxis, and other tragedies.’ Yet ‘we believe that no harm can come to us,’ thanks to a ‘strange collective delusion’ that the worst has already happened. The feeling that you’re already living ‘beyond the apocalypse’ may seem a meagre source of comfort, but it makes for excellent dark humour. For Villoro, it also offers an existential alibi: it means ‘we’re the result, not the cause of the evils.’

Some of the best vignettes in Horizontal Vertigo concern disasters of one kind or another. Villoro recalls his experience of the 1985 earthquake and its aftermath, and the spirit of solidarity among those who volunteered to search for survivors and clear the rubble. But there are also many kinds of estrangement caused by the devastation. The cityscape had been uncannily remade: ‘We passed from a figurative landscape to another that was growing progressively abstract. On Avenida Insurgentes, at Colonia Roma, we found buildings that were still standing but which had lost their outer walls. So, from the street it was possible to see kitchens, clothing in closets and furniture, as if we were looking at a doll’s house.’ Villoro and his friends resort to ‘folkloric techniques’ for detecting tremors: they hang forks from the ceiling or leave a glass of water on the dresser. ‘If the water was still, the problem wasn’t the earth but ourselves.’ There is also a chapter on the swine flu epidemic of 2009, which prompted a citywide lockdown and mass wearing of face masks. It seems especially eerie now. Mexico City has seen more than 41,000 Covid deaths, though official figures probably understate the total by some distance.

Like any personal portrait of a city, Horizontal Vertigo evokes the present and recollects the past. Time and space can be collapsed into a narrative with at once personal and collective meanings. Villoro describes the successive visions of modernity his family found at the intersection of Madero and San Juan de Letrán in the historic centre of the city: for his grandmother, it lay in the Belle Époque bulk of the Palace of Fine Arts; for his mother, in the European-style Lady Baltimore café; for Villoro himself, it was the Torre Latinoamericana skyscraper, completed in 1956, the year he was born; for his daughter, it is the Frikiplaza, a three-storey complex devoted to video games and anime merchandise. Yet in presenting his own memories of the city, and episodes from his childhood, Villoro wants to avoid nostalgia: ‘I’m not idealising what has disappeared, but I do have to make note of an unquestionable fact: the city in those days was so different that it’s almost shocking that it has the same name.’

Not nostalgia, then, but the admission of constant, irrevocable change. A similar sentiment runs through José Emilio Pacheco’s classic novella Battles in the Desert, first published in 1980 and now reissued in a revised translation. The narrator, Carlos, recalls his childhood in Mexico City during the presidency of Miguel Alemán in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The chronology is hazy; the book begins with the words ‘I remember – I don’t remember: what year was that?’ The physical objects, the pop culture, the consumption habits of the time are summoned in obsessive detail:

There were already supermarkets but not television, only radio … The first postwar cars were rolling through the streets: Packards, Cadillacs, Buicks, Chryslers, Mercurys, Hudsons, Pontiacs, Dodges, Plymouths, DeSotos. We went to see movies with Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power … The most popular songs were ‘Sin ti’, ‘La rondalla’, ‘La burrita’, ‘La Múcura’, ‘Amorcito Corazón’.

But here, too, nostalgia is undercut by intimations of disaster. ‘It was the year of polio, schools full of children wearing orthopaedic devices; of foot and mouth disease: all over the country tens of thousands of sick livestock were being shot; of floods: the city centre had turned back into a lake, people were drifting through the streets in boats.’

The plot hinges on eight-year-old Carlos’s infatuation with the mother of one of his schoolfriends. Innocently, as he sees it, or perversely, as his family thinks, he decides to declare his feelings to her. Desire, shame and hypocrisy drive the book. But the welter of period detail has a force of its own, challenging us to feel a second-hand nostalgia that the narrator then denies us. His middle-class childhood in Colonia Roma can no more be recreated than Carlos’s actions can be revoked: ‘That city ended. That country is finished. There is no memory of the Mexico of those years. And nobody cares – who could feel nostalgia for that horror?’ The apocalypse has already happened.

The anti-nostalgic impulse shared by Villoro and Pacheco’s narrators is in direct contrast to Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 film Roma, which lingers lovingly on precisely the kinds of detail Carlos picks out – the cars, the decor, the cigarette smoking, the fashions. Set in the same neighbourhood as Battles in the Desert, the film goes against Carlos’s assertion that ‘they demolished Colonia Roma’: some of the streets Cuarón filmed didn’t need much dressing to look as if they were still in the 1970s. Yet in its own way the film stages the same forlorn struggle against forgetting. Its eidetic reconstruction of the past testifies not so much to the power of memory as to the vastness and futility of the task: whatever can be captured is gone, and the film consists only of fragments that are slipping out of reach.

When he was young, Villoro recalls, he and a friend would sneak onto a milk delivery truck as it was doing its rounds. Eventually the driver would discover them hiding behind the empty bottles and kick them out, leaving them to make their way home from whichever part of the city they found themselves in. The name of the dairy, written on the side of the truck, was El Olvido – Oblivion. The episode is a nice metaphor for memory, which, as Villoro observes, ‘plays hide and seek’. But it also captures a distinctive relation to the city. Forgetting is a reason to find new ways home.

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