Juan Villoro, Horizontal Vertigo: A City Called Mexico (2021)
The temptations of a sinking, brown-aired, mismanaged, inescapably stimulating metropolis
It doesn't hurt to keep in mind a list of the cities to which you could relocate should everything fall apart where you are. That list need not be expansive: mine has only two columns, the Asia one headed by Osaka and the America one by Mexico City. (It has no Europe column as yet, but I'm told I'd like Milan.) That I live in Korea makes Japan the geographically convenient choice. But I'm also an American, and Americans have a time-honored (if not generally honorable) tradition of heading south of the border in troubled times. Though I can't claim intimate knowledge of country of Mexico, a few visits to its capital have made palpable to me the allure of the city of Mexico. Not having been in nearly a decade now, I picked up Juan Villoro's Horizontal Vertigo: A City Called Mexico to refresh my impressions.
I've taken note of Villoro's name ever since my first visit to Mexico City, which I made to record interviews for my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. This isn't because I interviewed him but because I didn't: my failure to make contact placed him in the hall of "the ones that got away." The more I learn about him, the more unfortunate this seems, since I can hardly imagine an interviewee at once as well-suited to the show's sensibility and as well-placed to speak about any city. Born and raised in Mexico City, he's also in his six-and-a-half decades "lived for three years in Berlin, three in Barcelona, and two semesters at universities in the United States": just enough experience of everyday life in outside lands, as I see it, to grant him an at least partially objective perception of everyday life in his hometown.
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As much memoir as city book, Horizontal Vertigo reveals Villoro to be an even more "international" figure than he'd seemed. "I had no ingenuity, no gift for telling jokes, but I said strange things," he writes of his childhood self. "That came from my miscellaneous cultural influences. My father was born in Barcelona and grew up in Belgium. He would say whirligig instead of top and staff instead of cane" (details rendered nearly meaningless, if perhaps necessarily so, by the English translation). The young Villoro went to the Alexander von Humboldt German School, with the result that "at the age of six, I knew how to read and write, but only in German" — an experience that "enabled me to understand my own language as an elusive free space that I had to treasure at all costs."
Given this formation, we should consider Villoro an at least partially European writer, and to that extent not a wholly Mexican one. If this distances him from Mexico, it brings him closer to Mexico City, which in aspects of my own experience feels like a European capital displaced in southern North America. (That's still less geographically incongruous than, say, Buenos Aires, which I imagine as a kind of Milan of the southern hemisphere.) It's also, in a European manner, a city defined by literature, at least in my mind: I can scarcely think of it without thinking of Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, or less internationally known living men of letters like Mario Bellatin and J. M. Servin. In recent decades, of course, most English-language readers have got their most vivid depiction of Mexico City from a Chilean novelist: Robert Bolaño, the posthumously literary-industralized author of The Savage Detectives.
Bolaño figures into Horizontal Vertigo, as a conjurer of the Mexico City café life to which Villoro devotes a chapter. "When I was in my twenties, I would make my pilgrimage along Bucareli heading for the La Habana café," he writes, "where, to use Roberto Bolaño’s phrase, the 'poets of iron' gathered." Though born only three years after Bolaño, Villoro writes of him as a member of an earlier generation, a brother-in-arms of the poets from whom he later received dissolute mentorship over coffee or something stronger. These included Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, who would show up at La Habana, "order a beer at ten a.m.," and reminisce about the nineteen-sixties, the period in Mexico City later reimagined in The Savage Detectives. Bolaño's breakout novel would be published in the year of Papasquiaro's own early death, immortalizing him in the character of Ulises Lima.
"The best climate in Mexico City is to be found in a café," Villoro declares. In a sense he means this literally, as one of several asides about the notoriously poor air quality of this metropolis unfortunately situated in a high-altitude valley. But I suspect he also means it culturally. Though never so blunt as to call Mexico a philistine society, he everywhere evidences an instinct for carving intellectual environments out of inhospitable settings, like a desert creature evolved to suck moisture from the rocks. A short chapter on the brazenly shoddy (and thoroughly Mexican) genre of movies based on the flamboyant and moralistic exhibition sport of lucha libre wrestling finds him, predictably, quoting Roland Barthes. The memory of a nineteen-eighties excursion to a gay bar featuring "a stripper who copulated with a papaya" calls to mind a journalist's description of "the subtle foams of Ferran Adrià."
Yet Mexico City is far from culturally arid, at least for those who know where to look. This is seldom where one would expect to look: the vast open-air black market of Tepito, for instance, where todo se vende menos la dignidad. "In this precarious setting, you’ll find Borges’s Aleph with regard to film," Villoro writes, offering as evidence his own pirated purchases: "Alexander Kluge’s Capital, Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma, the director’s cut of Blade Runner, the history of the Helvetica typeface, Lacan’s Sorbonne courses, an interview with Foucault, the documentary Louis Kahn’s son made about his father." This is a city where, "out of nowhere, a vendor walks into your subway car and offers Aristotle’s Ethics: three people buy it in under two minutes" — even if "the next vendor has a loudspeaker strapped to his back broadcasting Shakira’s spasmodic lamentations."
I've heard a fair few of those backpack blasters myself. They constitute as much a part of my mental image of what Villoro calls the "inconceivable pre-Hispanic modernity" of the Sistema de Transporte Colectivo as its bright orange trains and the ruins preserved in its stations, each of which is identified by its own literacy-neutral cultural-historic icon. But it is a relief that they don't go near cafés, at least the ones in which I'd want to write. In so doing I would participate in the history of cities themselves, which Villoro identifies with "the history of cafés, where life mixes with culture." Each writer has his café: "for Claudio Magris, it’s the San Marco in Trieste; for Karl Kraus, it was the Central in Vienna. Jean-Paul Sartre used the Deux Magots in Paris; Fernando Pessoa, the Martinho da Arcada in Lisbon; Juan Rulfo the Agora in Mexico City."
I'm writing this in one of Seoul's cafés, albeit a café full of not wild-eyed poets but frowning college students. Though Villoro still lives in Mexico City, he seems to have put its cafés behind him. That may owe to the demands of the novelistic and journalistic writing that's made his name. "The rhythm of the café lends itself to the reworking of verses that move forward in the same way cigarette smoke did before," he writes. "But you can’t write novels in cafés. The pressures of journalism and a need for isolation took me away from those places where I began to think myself superfluous." He's also become well-known for writing crónicas, a form known primarily in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries, one positioned between the ideals of literary subjectivity and journalistic objectivity. "The café man understands his era using what he hears," and so, presumably, does the cronista.
The crónica appeals strongly to me with its framing in time and place, its conversational style, and its essayistic disregard for what I consider the more pious conventions of reportage. It also happens to be a form exceptionally well-suited to writing about cities and life as lived in them. Though the crónica per se never caught on in the English-speaking world, there was something of the cronista about the popular American city-paper columnists of the middle twentieth century: Herb Caen in San Francisco, Jack Smith in Los Angeles, Mike Royko in Chicago. Their closest equivalent in Mexico City would be the slightly younger Carlos Monsiváis, whose cronicas made their greatest impact in the nineteen-eighties. Perhaps he, too, would have been one of my desired podcast interviewees, had he not died a few years before.
Like a city columnist, a cronista tends to live by his snappiness, stoking the fire of relevance with a steady attack of one-liners and fresh coinages. In Horizontal Vertigo Villoro quotes several from Monsiváis, such as his observation that in Mexico "a person with fewer than eight different jobs qualifies as unemployed" and his oft-repeated question "What percentage of you belongs to Carlos Slim?" Monsiváis was especially perceptive about what Villoro describes as Mexican life's oscillation "between carnival and drama" where "partying combines with catastrophe," which inspired the elder cronista to assemble the portmanteau apocalipstick. Chilangos (the informal Mexico-City demonym, whose obscure etymology Villoro doesn’t shrink from tracing) regard their city's proneness to disaster with an apparent relish that can strike foreigners as perverse. Monsiváis, who understood this attitude, wrote that "There is no worse nightmare than the one that excludes us."
The first Monsiváis quote in the book is his declaration that "Mexico City, above all, is too many people." That line will sound familiar if you often read about major cities, especially the "megacities" of Latin America, Asia, and Africa. In sheer population Mexico City comes just below Seoul: neither are hamlets, but nor do they rank any higher than the bottom of the top ten. If Mexico City gives a disproportionately intense impression of crowdedness, that seems due to the struggles of its often ill-conceived and shoddily maintained infrastructure to accommodate what Villoro sees as the indomitable Mexican need for closely packed togetherness. Chilangos "do not struggle to adapt to overcrowding; they know it is their only possible condition. If someone finds a taco restaurant with lots of empty tables, they suspect the tacos served there are filled with dog meat. Anything not overflowing is a failure."
Villoro makes weather almost as heavy of his hometown's ever-increasing land area. "Mexico City has spread out like wildfire. Over the course of seventy years its territory has grown seven hundred times. How can we comprehend such enormity?" The solecistic ring of that enormity makes me wish I had the original Spanish text at hand, but the fact that the translation was performed by the highly experienced Alfred Mac Adam suggests to me that Villoro really did have in mind that English term's sense of not so much great size as great wickedness. Nowhere does he seem less than ready and willing to acknowledge the filth, poverty, brutality, mismanagement, and sheer inefficiency of Mexico City. In fact, he comes off as almost too ready and willing, making himself an implicit example of the somehow prideful resignation that characterizes Mexicans, but even more so chilangos.
"The chilango’s principal 'means of adaptation' consists in thinking about moving elsewhere, about evaluating the alternatives, admitting the momentary impossibility of leaving, and then remaining, but with the intention to make a better escape plan," Villoro writes. Ever-present but never acted upon, this instinct to flee must be maintained in part by the built environment's questionable prospects for continued existence. "Built originally over water, Mexico City is sinking into a swampy subsoil. We know this, but we still live in the superstition that we are on solid ground." At these points and others — not least his prolonged consideration of the chilango driver's Sisyphean battle with traffic — Villoro's exegesis of Mexico City's more difficult qualities and the attitudes held toward them brought to mind what I've read, and occasionally written, about Los Angeles.
If Mexico City (once thought the seat of a culture that "stretched, in an ideal line, from Chapultepec Forest to the Bois de Boulogne, the Paseo de la Reforma to the boulevards of Paris," as wrote the twentieth-century poet Bernardo Ortiz de Montellano) belongs on some deeper to level to Europe, then Los Angeles is essentially Latin American. That, at least, would explain some of the southern Californian metropolis' difficulties, and many of its pleasures. Chilangos are aware, on one level or another, that their buildings slowly vanishing into the earth; Angelenos have long settled into a state of mild but persistent expectation of a devastating earthquake, the "big one" that will finally put an end to the urban life so long regarded, for one reason or another, as unnatural in the first place.
For chilangos, "it isn’t ignorance that keeps us here. We like the city more than we like the truth. Like the Don Juan in Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress, we’ve fallen in love with the bearded lady in the circus." I can't imagine even the most appreciative observer of Los Angeles straightforwardly writing "we like the city," still less illustrating the sentiment with a reference to Stravinsky. Both elements, however, are characteristic of the how Villoro deals on the page with Mexico City. Despite its thoroughgoing Mexican-ness — or in an attempt to evoke the manifestations of that very Mexican-ness in all their variety — it has him bringing in cultural figures from Anthony Burgess to Graham Greene, W. G. Sebald to Günter Grass (who expressed bewilderment at the inexactness of Mexico City's population, then "between sixteen and eighteen million"), Sandy Koufax to The Simpsons.
Villoro also finds a place for Camus, specifically The Plague, which he plucked from his father's library before its donation to the University of Michoacán. I revisited that novel myself when COVID-19 arrived in Korea. But for Villoro, who finished Horizontal Vertigo in 2019, the reference is occasioned by his memories of the 2009 swine flu in Mexico, which will now sound uncannily familiar to readers around the world. "Dinner parties and meetings were canceled; people stopped going to the movies," he writes. "Masses were suspended, and only a few restaurants remained open. Soccer matches took place in empty stadiums, almost a cruel metaphor for the low quality of our teams. The army distributed millions of face masks, giving the city an unusual blue look." Before long, authority figures began to issue contradictory advice; conspiracy theories circulated. "The flu had become politicized." You don't say.
Yet swine flu — and, presumably, even COVID-19 — was far less harrowing than September 19, 1985, the day Mexico City was visited by its own "big one." With entire neighborhoods in shambles, Villoro, then in his late twenties, borrowed a shovel and joined the volunteers out clearing the rubble. As usual, the state proved unable to deliver immediate assistance. As Villoro sees it, the destruction at a stroke of so many hastily erected buildings at least revealed "the extent of real estate speculation: on September 19, the earth carried out the scrutiny the government would never conduct." This is the voice of a true city critic, a cultural role I posited a few years ago. Like the cronista, the city critic must be a connoisseur of every aspect of the urban environments in which he finds himself, rooting his judgments most deeply in his own experience.
Horizontal Vertigo is full of Villoro's experiences in various chapters of his own life and that of Mexico City, including a day of military service that somehow finds him in the aftermath of a quinceañera and a trip with his daughter Inés to KidZania, a vaguely dystopian work-simulating theme park for children. Inés has since grown up to become, like every self-respecting Mexican teenager, a die-hard otaku. Villoro acknowledges her membership in a chilango generation with its own symbols of modernity. "For me, the outstanding sign of the times is the Latin American Tower, standing on that corner and built in the year I was born, 1956." For Inés, "the concept of the new is opposite the tower in Frikiplaza, a three-story commercial building dedicated to manga, anime, and other products of Japanese popular culture." Neither the city critic nor the cronista can afford to miss a telling juxtaposition.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His current projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.
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Fascinating stuff. Like you Mexico DF is on my short list of cities I would like to live in. There's really nothing else like it on earth.