My Mexican notebook (6)

February 6, 2011

DF: December 21–26

I walked around getting lost and not lost, always reaching a museum or gallery just after it closed. This is a constant for me wherever I go—a combination of half-hearted planning, an acceptance that I will always see the beautiful outline of something and rarely its insides, a pleasurable anticipation of the time and effort it will take to reach the destination too late, the urbanations involved in people-passing, in uttering “Perdon” or “Hola” or “Buenas tardes” every few blocks, the latter phrase so satisfying to say and hear that noon always brought a happy hum to my ears, urbanations in architecture, in squeezing the bright color blocks with my eyes wide opened, young lovers everywhere tightly embraced, the Metro my favorite convenience in the city, in any city, and whenever I pass through them like a little parasite through a tapeworm swimming through a giant organism of a city, I always make half-hearted vows to travel only to cities that have a subway system. I went to the Museum of Modern Art twice and fell into contemplation/conversation with María Lagunes’s bronzes, silvers, golds, and woods; a young Japanese business student tagged along with me for a while, and then we lost each other. One night I browsed the bookstore-café El Pendulo, felt out of place, then found a used bookstore a few blocks away, Libreria la Torre de Lulio, said to the owner, “Juan Rulfo, por favor.” From a dusty shelf he pulled out Pedro Páramo y El llano en llamas—two books in one. I wrote a note of gratitude in English: “I have both books in English in separate volumes, and I’ve also read two translations of Pedro Páramo and now I can try to read it in Spanish, I came to Mexico just for him, you see—or for them, Juan Rulfo and Pedro Páramo. Gracias.” The owner said something to me then, and I didn’t understand the individual words but did grasp their message: “Juan Rulfo is the ultimate Mexican writer!” Sí.

In a Roma Norte café on Christmas Eve, I wrote a story about Lu Xun’s ghost following around my narrator, he’s alternately annoyed and flattered by her inquisitiveness. I also read more of Saramago’s Ricardo Reis, a direct influence on the story about Lu Xun’s ghost. The café owner is friends with a chef in New York, I’ve forgotten the name of the restaurant now, it’s located in Manhattan, and the café owner assured me that I could find authentic Mexican food there, sí, and then, as a guitarist began playing nearby, he told me long, loving stories about his three dogs. Later I passed a group of construction workers, about thirty of them milling about, maybe waiting for instruction on a job. I aimed my camera at a pile of bricks near them—and just as I’d hoped, the construction workers called out for me to take their photographs. The shots of them were standard and I wasn’t happy with the result, but as with most of the Mexicans I’d encountered, including sweet Ángel, the dapper security guard at the Metropolitan Cathedral in the zócalo, I didn’t stay long to take more. I could have stayed. I could have spent a good half hour lining up the men for shot after shot, giving them something to do while they waited for their job, something to laugh about afterward, and giving myself some practice in portraitizing, in interacting with strangers through pantomime and flirtation, and in not retreating into shyness about my demands or into nervousness about being a solo female traveler with no Spanish carrying an expensive camera. But I left, satisfied with how the interaction had started, and also trying to imagine how to make strangers in New York trust me, well they’ll just have to think I am lost and can’t speak English.

On Christmas day in Tlatelolco, I sat through my first-ever mass, which ended with everybody walking about shaking their neighbors’ hands; I shook five hands. The square is large, with an archaeological site cordoned off in one pit and the plaza vast, gray, a lazy sort of bustle beginning once mass ended, just a bunch of kids kicking around a soccer ball and riding their bikes, older kids cooling off in a shallow, foaming fountain, more couples embracing, ghosts of the massacred students ghosting about, old ladies being escorted from one quiet end to the other, themselves ghostly. I acted as escort for a scarfed old woman; we descended a set of stairs. “Chino?” she asked. “Sí,” I said.

The day after Christmas, my last morning in DF, I went to Frida’s blue house for a quick tour, per my friend Jessica’s insistence, and was moved by the artist’s garret where paints are laid out, wheelchair and easel positioned just so, walls of books and photographs behind glass, Frida’s delicate bed in her little bedroom. This house is the first place Jessica visits whenever she comes to Mexico City. I can see why, because Jessica herself is full of vivid color, and all of it also in a compact, strong frame. She’d given me an art catalog of her friend Eduardo Olbés’s recent exhibit, Las ecuaciones económicas perversas, which I wish I could have seen in person. I had managed to visit a few generic galleries in DF, but the work there does not compare to what is in Olbés’s catalog, where his discourse about Cd. Juárez has you doing triple- and quadruple-takes. Mexico itself is art, with its startling patches of colors, bravura pinks next to deep reds, stark greens abutting menstrual purples, though the words “pink,” “red,” “green,” and “purple” seem to have no meaning here after a time, because the colors are so unexpectedly paired, unexpectedly bright and charming. But yes, I do wish I could have explored an exhibit that had a consistently mature and blatantly political bent; for now, I will pore over this catalog that Jessica gave me and cross my fingers that Olbés will one day come to New York.


5 Responses to “My Mexican notebook (6)”

  1. beth Says:

    Didn’t realize you had been writign anything here — I love these recollections about your trip to Mexico, especially after revisiting the photographs.

    Another story: back in the early 1980s one of our clients was Frank Janney of the now-long-gone Ediciones del Norte. I happened to have the felicitous job of designing a book – the only book, so far as I know – of Juan Rulfo’s photographs. They were shown in pairs, and it was such a pleasure to lay out the original prints on the floor and decide on the groupings and the pacing of the book. We did a Spanish edition and an English one. Unfortunately they’re out of print, and I’m not even sure I can lay my hands on my own copies. I’ll try though. [Inframundo: El México de Juan Rulfo / 1st ed. 1980, 2nd ed. 1983 / Versions in Spanish and English with essays. Published in 1980/83 by Ediciones del Norte in Hanover, NH]

    • wmc Says:

      Oh! How lovely that you had worked on this book. Do you remember anything else about the experience?

      In a bookstore in San Cristóbal, I debated whether to buy this book of photographs. I don’t know why I hesitated for so long; in the end I didn’t buy it—I think I’d run out of cash or I had vowed by then not to buy another thing. Well, here’s one reason, then—if not the reason—to return to Mexico. I’m now feeling the ache of its absence; I’d had it in my hands—it had been mine for a few seconds—but I let it go for no good reason.

      • beth Says:

        What’s scandalous is that I had a partial box of them, along with other Spanish editions of major authors, and let them go to the Five-College Booksale before we moved. Frank died a while ago – far too young – and I had a lot of things left in my files. I could have given you three, five copies! And now I see they’re selling at used book sites online for $70 and more! What an idiot. I wonder what happened to all the books in his warehouse. Publishing is a very strange business; now I see it from the inside.

  2. bint battuta Says:

    A month late, but I thank you. Beautiful and soothing (to this frazzled brain).

    • wmc Says:

      BB, I hope your brain will unfrazzle soon. I’ll hurry up and write my second post about Oaxaca, to help.

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