At last available in English—the acclaimed Mexican novel whose protagonist, like a contemporary Leopold Bloom, takes a day-long tour of his city, exploring magnificent landmarks and grimy bars in pursuit of an elusive history.
Series: Texas Pan American Literature in Translation Series, Danny J. Anderson, series Editor
Professor Juan Manuel Barrientos prefers footsteps to footnotes. Fighting a hangover, he manages to keep his appointment to lead a group of students on a walking lecture among the historic buildings of downtown Mexico City. When the students fail to show up, however, he undertakes a solo tour that includes more cantinas than cathedrals. Unable to resist either alcohol itself or the introspection it inspires, Professor Barrientos muddles his personal past with his historic surroundings, setting up an inevitable conclusion in the very center of Mexico City.
First published in Mexico in the late 1990s, And Let the Earth Tremble at Its Centers was immediately lauded as a contemporary masterpiece in the long tradition of literary portraits of Mexico City. It is a book worthy of its dramatic title, which is drawn from a line in the Mexican national anthem.
Gonzalo Celorio first earned a place among the leading figures of Mexican letters for his scholarship and criticism, and careful readers will recognize a scholar's attention to accuracy within the novel's dyspeptic descriptions of Mexico City. The places described are indeed real (this edition includes a map that marks those visited in the story), though a few have since closed or been put to new uses. Dick Gerdes's elegant translation now preserves them all for a new audience.
- Foreword by Rubén Gallo
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 8
- Chapter 9
- Chapter 10
- Chapter 11
- Chapter 12
- Chapter 13
- Chapter 14
And Let the Earth Tremble at Its Centers belongs to a genre with a long history in Mexican letters: the literary portrait of Mexico City. The practice began in the early sixteenth century, when the Spanish chroniclers of the Mexican conquest penned lavish descriptions of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, destroyed in 1521 by a victorious Hernán Cortés. Among the ruins—toppled temples and paved canals—the Spaniards edified a new city, built from the volcanic stone known as tezontle that can still be seen lining the façades the Cathedral and other grand buildings. The Spanish city was immortalized by the poet Bernardo de Balbuena, who in 1604 devoted his epic La Grandeza Mexicana [Mexico's Grandeur] to extolling the rich palaces and vibrant life of the first metropolis on American soil.
Literary portraits of the city blossomed after Mexico's independence from Spain in 1821. The nineteenth century saw the emergence of a new figure, the "chronicler of Mexico city," a writer who made it his mission to depict every aspect of life in the capital: the experience of walking through its streets; the flavors of its dishes; the endless changes and metamorphoses undergone by what began as a city of canals, morphed into an elegant grid of stone palaces, and finally recast itself as a metropolis of pavement and high-rises. The first chronicler of Mexico City was Artemio de Valle Arizpe, a turn-of-the-last-century dandy who immortalized the legends and urban tales of a sleepy town that had barely reach a population of about 300,000 by 1910. The city—like the entire country—was shaken by the Revolution of 1910, but when peace was restored in 1920, a new chronicler arrived on stage: Salvador Novo, an irreverent young poet who fashioned himself as a cross between Oscar Wilde and André Gide.
An ambitious young man if there ever was one, Novo decided to rewrite Balbuena's epic ode to Mexico City, bringing it up-to-date so it could account for the numerous changes brought by the twentieth century: shiny Packards, roaring Chevrolets, and elegant Cadillacs; wide boulevards modeled after Parisian allées; art-nouveau apartment buildings and art-deco neighborhoods that were the pride of forward-looking young architects—all of these appear in Novo's 1946 Nueva Grandeza Mexicana [New Mexican Grandeur], a chronicle of a modern Mexico City as seen from the seat of a speeding automobile.
The next major chronicler of Mexico City was Carlos Monsiváis, an essayist who began publishing in the 1950s and has devoted his entire career to analyzing the vibrant popular culture that flourished in the capital; from the old-fashioned love songs of Agustín Lara to violent wrestling matches, from the film divas of 1950s melodramas to the macho icons of the Ranchera song, Monsiváis immortalized the most important elements of a world that no writer before him had taken seriously. His urban chronicles were collected in the volumes Amor perdido and Días de guardar and a selection was translated into English and published as Mexican Postcards.
As Gonzalo Celorio has written in his essay "México: Ciudad de papel" ["Mexico: City of Paper"], an English translation of which can be found in a volume I edited called The Mexico City Reader, the most surprising aspect of the rich literary tradition of chronicles is the fact that the Mexico City that appears in its pages is no longer there. Gone is the lake city of the Aztecs sung by Nezahualcóyotl; gone is the "City of Palaces" immortalized by Humboldt; gone is the sparkling modern city described by Novo; even Monsiváis's city of cantinas and lucha libre now seems like a fading old photograph. The real city, Celorio argues, is always on the move, always reinventing itself, demolishing and reconstructing its buildings according to the latest architectural fashion; but parallel to this city of brick and mortar there is another Mexico City, a "city of paper" that lives on in the literature that has been devoted to it since the sixteenth century. "The lost city," writes Celorio in his essay, can only "be retrieved by the literature that builds it day by day, restores it, reveals it, ministers to it, and defies it" (64).
Like Carlos Fuentes's classic La región más transparente [Where the Air is Clear, 1959], Celorio's And Let the Earth Tremble at Its Centers is a novel inspired by the long tradition of chronicles about Mexico City. But if Fuentes's novel aspires to represent the capital in its entirety—rich and poor, ancient and modern, the center and its peripheries, the autochthonous and the foreign—Celorio's focuses on only one neighborhood: "El Centro," the city's oldest quarter, home of the Cathedral and the National Palace, the main square officially called Plaza de la Constitución but affectionately called El Zócalo by virtually all of its residents. El Centro is graced by the Palace of Fine Arts, the Palace of the Inquisition, the Palace of Correos—grand constructions that once made the capital known as "the city of palaces." But many of these former mansions are now in ruins: they have been divided up into dozens of makeshift apartments squatted by destitute families; their baroque wrought-iron balconies are now crowded with gas tanks and laundry lines; eighteenth-century stone courtyards are littered with trash; and many of these once aristocratic residences have been turned into motorcycle repair shops, taco restaurants, and, of course, bars and cantinas.
Many writers have lamented the decay of El Centro and its transformation into a neighborhood crowded by street vendors and eclectic repair shops. Historian Guillermo Tovar de Teresa, for instance, published a two-volume account of the destruction of historically significant buildings since the nineteenth century. The subtitle of his City of Palaces is "chronicle of a lost heritage," and the author spends every page of his study lamenting the demolition of a baroque convent, the transformation of a colonial cloister into a department store, the piercing of new avenues through the winding alleys. Dazzled by the elegance and glory of the baroque city, Tovar de Teresa can only see today's Mexico City as tragic ruin, a faint shadow of its former self.
And Let the Earth Tremble at Its Centers's portrayal of El Centro could not be more different from Tovar de Teresa's. Celorio, too, describes convents turned into shops and churches half-demolished to enlarge inner-city expressways. But rather than lamenting the loss of a glorious past, Celorio celebrates the vibrant urban life that continues to thrive in the center of Mexico City; its palaces might be in shambles and its baroque splendor might have faded, but its streets teem with vendors peddling every kind of imaginable object: from magic powders to cure the evil eye to DVD players; from juicy mangos sprinkled with chili powder to the latest computer software; from t-shirts and pant-suits to wedding gowns. Amid the labyrinth of vendors and their stands, thousands of people from every imaginable social class rub shoulders: bureaucrats on their lunch break; housewives in search of the best deals; dazed visitors from the provinces; dancers clad in pseudo-Aztec attire for the amusement of American and European tourists. All one has to do is stand for a few minutes in any corner to witness the impromptu apparition of a veritable human circus.
It is this lively Mexico City—not the city of palaces but a city of people—that Celorio celebrates in And Let the Earth Tremble at Its Centers. The novel's protagonist, Juan Manuel Barrientos, is an erudite literature professor who also has a taste for popular culture—a happy combination of interests that makes him the perfect guide to El Centro's nooks and crannies. As he wanders through San Juan de Letrán, Tacuba, or the alleys behind La Merced, Juan Manuel gives his readers an insider's tour of downtown Mexico City. He points out the columns of Aztec temples reused in the construction of the Cathedral; he discovers a Colonial cloister hidden behind the pink façade of an Evangelical church; he recalls the poetic names that used to grace an avenue that now bears the prosaic name of Eje Central [Central Expressway]. As he walks by these churches, convents, and palaces, Juan Manuel recalls their presence in Colonial Mexican literature: the glorious verses of Bernardo de Balbuena; the allegorical arches built on those very streets to welcome the new viceroy and immortalized by Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora.
But Juan Manuel is not only a well-read scholar; he is also a connoisseur of the city's bars and cantinas, and his itinerary includes a tour of the neighborhood's most famous watering holes: Bar La Ópera, a once fancy establishment steps away from the Palace of Fine Arts and furnished with red velvet banquettes (to amuse tourists, waiters point to a bullet hole on the ceiling and recount the story of how, during the Revolution, Pancho Villa came for a drink and when the bill came he took out his gun and began shooting away); the legendary El Nivel, which has since closed; and many others featuring exotic or even surrealist names: La Puerta del Sol, named after one of Madrid's landmarks; Las Sirenas, which in Spanish can mean both Sirens and Mermaids (who would ever think of placing mermaids in a place with so little water and so much cement?).
One of Juan Manuel's favorite pastimes is to take his students on a tour of El Centro—an itinerary that includes palaces as well as cantinas. The professor is in his fifties; his students are in their twenties. As the novel makes clear, for most of Mexico City's younger residents—those born after 1960—El Centro is as unknown and as exotic as a foreign country. Until the 1950s, the National University was located in El Centro and its streets were crowded with students. To be a student in Mexico meant to spend several years in the neighborhood's cafés, bookstores, plazas . . . and bars. But once the University relocated to the vast modernist campus designed by Mario Pani and his team of architects in the southern edge of the city, El Centro lost its students and young people lost contact with one of the city's most dynamic neighborhoods. Juan Manuel's students were born in the suburbs, and their daily routine involves crisscrossing the city from north to south, from east to west, driving along the expressways built in the 1950s and 1960 and designed to bypass the crowded central neighborhoods.
The title of the novel, And Let the Earth Tremble at Its Centers, is a verse from the Mexican national anthem, composed by Francisco González Bocanegra after Mexico obtained its independence from Spain in 1821. The anthem's lyrics are as bellicose as befits a nation emerging from a prolonged war:
Mexicanos al grito de guerra
El acero aprestad y el bridón
Y retiemble en sus centros la tierra
Al sonoro rugir del cañón.
Mas si osare un extraño enemigo
Profanar con sus plantas tu suelo,
Piensa, ¡oh Patria! que el cielo
Un soldado en cada hijo te dio.
[Mexicans! At the cry of war
Ready your swords and the horses
And may the earth tremble at its centers
At the canon's thundering roar
And if ever a foreign enemy
Dared to trample your land
Think, oh motherland that heaven
Gave you a soldier in every one of your sons.]
To this day Mexican schools have their students perform an elaborate ritual in honor of the flag every Monday morning: boys and girls sing the anthem, salute the flag, and march around the schoolyard imitating the strut of military marches. Every schoolboy knows the anthem's lyrics by heart, even if the precise meaning of those bellicose utterances escapes him. There is even an old joke about the anthem's arcane language: a young peasant woman has just given birth; when the priest asks her what name she will give the boy she answers he will be called Masiosare. "Masiosare?" retorts the priest, "I've never heard such a name." "It's in the national anthem," the woman chirps back, "You know: the name of the foreign enemy, Masiosare, un extraño enemigo."
The novel gets its title from another pun on the national anthem. Wandering through the streets of El Centro, Juan Manuel recalls the verse "y retiemble en sus centros la tierra." What would happen, he wonders, if one took the bellicose verse and made "los centros" refer not to the bowels of the earth but to the center of Mexico City? What would it mean for downtown to tremble? (El Centro did indeed tremble during the tragic earthquake of 1985, when dozens of tall buildings tumbled, trapping or killing tens of thousands of its residents). Lost in his associations, Juan Manuel remembers a curious detail about national history that will become important for the novel: in his original version of the anthem, the composer did not write "centros" but "antros"—a word stemming from the same etymology as the English term "entrails," but which has acquired an altogether different meaning in colloquial Mexican Spanish. An "antro" is a dive, a hole in the wall, a sleazy bar. And since Juan Manuel's tour of El Centro is also a tour of its antros, the anthem does poetic justice to the reality of downtown Mexico City. The center of the city trembles with people, with vendors, with crowds; and nowhere does it tremble as intensely and as violently as inside its rowdy cantinas. It is precisely the story of that trembling—that minor earthquake of Mexico City's nightlife—that Celorio's novel recounts.
And Let the Earth Tremble at Its Centers is not only a novel about El Centro; it is also an inventive bildungsroman. Through a series of flashbacks—induced by beer, tequila, and other cocktails imbibed along the way—Juan Manuel evokes important moments of his childhood and adolescence: his first drink, during a weekend visit to his friend's Cuernavaca house; the death of his father; a formative trip to the northern city of Matehuala to stay with his half-brother Ángel; his initiation into the mysteries of sexuality in a dusty motel owned by an ex-pat named Mr. Prince.
Celorio has used a similar narrative technique in his other novels, most recently in Tres lindas cubanas [Three Pretty Cuban Girls], his most ambitious work to date, recounting the history of his Cuban-Mexican family and his three trips to Havana, before and after the generalized disenchantment with the Cuban Revolution. The novel narrates the story of three generations of his mother's family through a series of flashbacks and childhood memories.
In And Let the Earth Tremble at Its Centers, Juan Manuel's memories point to the evolution of Mexico City from the 1950s until the present. During his boyhood years, the city still had the atmosphere of a provincial town: its streets were lined with trees, a handful of American automobiles cruised down its boulevards, and the air was still clear. In the decades that followed, the population exploded, the city received a massive influx of migrants from the countryside, and gradually cement and smog smothered its streets. The novel opens in a chaotic Mexico City, an eternally congested megalopolis that forces Juan Manuel to spend hours in his car, traversing the city from north to south to get from El Centro to the University.
Along with the population and the cityscape, Mexico City's famous nightlife underwent a radical transformation from the 1950s to the present. Juan Manuel recalls how as a little boy he used to walk by La Fuente, the famous cabaret where the legendary diva Ana Bertha Lepe performed risqué shows wearing—as the ads proclaimed—"10 ounces of clothes." The 1950s were the glory days of the cabaret—that Mexican institution immortalized by Ninón Sevilla in the film Aventurera. In these establishments, men could pay to dance with one of the many women working the floor: one simply had to buy a ficha, a token, for the privilege of sharing a song with the pretty fichera, as these dancing women were known. The interactions between these mostly married men and ficheras were governed by an unspoken code of honor and civility. Gentlemen paid for the privilege of dancing, talking, perhaps holding hands, but no more. . . . The fichera was a lady and she had to be treated as such.
During the 1960s and the 1970s the sexual revolution brought profound changes to Mexico City's nightlife: the first gay bar opened in a discrete basement in Zona Rosa; the first American-style discos appeared in the city; and rock music, sung in Spanish, made the city's entrails tremble. The 1980s brought karaoke bars and other foreign imports. But it was the 1990s that brought the most radical transformation to the capital's nightlife.
During most of the seventy years that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ruled Mexico, the government kept tight controls on the city's nightlife. Health inspectors roamed bars and cabarets, and would shutter an establishment in no time if they considered the unspoken code of decency had been broken. But these rules were liberalized in the 1990s during the presidency of Carlos Salinas; after the signature of the North American Free Trade Agreement, nightlife got wilder. It was then that the famous "table dance" bars began sprouting like mushrooms throughout the city. No more honor code, no more quaint notions of chivalry or respect; these new places advertised, quite openly, sex for sale.
The last bar Juan Manuel visits during his noche de ronda is one of these tables, as the establishments are affectionately known in Mexico City. Readers witness the shock felt by this old-fashioned scholar, used to cantinas and cabarets, upon entering the table of iniquity. As in the old days, there are still tokens, but it is no longer possible to dance with a partner; instead, a topless woman wearing a G-string will come to the table and dance on the paying gentleman. "You can touch any part of her, except the genitals. And if you purchase three tickets, you can go with her to a private room, where she'll dance three songs, just for you, but completely naked this time."
The rise of tables in Mexico City dealt the deathblow to the last remaining cabarets. Presented with the choice of either dancing with or being danced on, male patrons opted for the latter. In those same years, the capital was shaken again by an unprecedented crime wave. The Salinas boom years came to an abrupt end in 1995, when one of the most severe economic crises in the history of the country plunged Mexico City into an abyss; the peso tumbled, interest rates soared, and millions of middle class Mexicans lost their jobs, their cars and their homes. There was an explosion of violent crimes: robberies, burglaries, kidnappings, and even murders. Mexico City became one of the most dangerous places on the planet, and going out at night now included the added thrill of anticipating thefts or kidnappings. In the first pages of the novel we see Juan Manuel preparing to leave his house and deciding to leave his credit cards at home . . . just in case he falls victim to an "express kidnapping," a misdeed consisting in driving the hapless victim to a cash machine and holding a gun to his head until he has withdrawn all available funds. We learn that Juan Manuel "didn't know the access codes anyway, which could be fatal in the event of a mugging."
It is no coincidence that Juan Manuel's night out turns sour at the table dancing club—and not at any of the dozen or so traditional cantinas he visits before. The rise of tables was part of the gangsterization of Mexico City—and it is inside this seedy establishment that a drunk Juan Manuel is robbed of all his belonging by a gang of thugs sporting police uniforms.
In the end, the death of Juan Manuel represents the death of a period in the history of Mexico City—a time when it was safe to walk the streets of El Centro, to hop from one cantina to another and visit one or two cabarets along the way. The city that Juan Manuel loved to share with his students is rapidly turning into another "city of paper," yet another one of the many aspects of city life that have ceased to exist, except in the pages of its novelists, poets, and chroniclers.
El Nivel is now closed. How long will Las Sirenas, La Puerta del Sol, or La Ópera remain open? But Celorio, unlike Tovar de Teresa, does not lament the ever-changing nature of Mexico City. And Let the Earth Tremble at Its Centers is not a nostalgic novel; it is a realist work that faithfully represents the never-ending metamorphoses undergone by the city. At least since 1521, the Mexican capital has never ceased to reinvent itself. It vanished as a city of canals to reemerge as a city of stone buildings; its baroque palaces changed façades in the nineteenth century to adopt the more fashionable neoclassical style; the quaint provincial city of 1900 was reborn as a bustling megalopolis around 1950; and the Mexico City portrayed in Celorio's novel—with its cantinas, its cabarets, its tropical music—has now been replaced by a globalized urban center where hip kids dance to the beats of techno music—sung in English, Spanish, French, or German.
And Let the Earth Tremble at Its Centers leaves us with an apocalyptic vision of Mexico City as a place in which going out for a drink can turn into a deadly trap. The novel's dark ending reminds the reader of a paradox Juan Villoro—another avid chronicler of the capital's popular culture—has explored in his essay, "The Metro," which also appears in English in The Mexico City Reader. Why, he asks, isn't there a mass exodus from Mexico City? Its inhabitants have made it a sport to lament the many plagues that have descended on the capital: poverty, overcrowding, traffic jams, pollution, violence, corruption. But if things are so bad, why do people stay? Villoro finds the answer to this puzzling question in an opera by Stravinksy. Mexico City's residents, he argues, are like that character in The Rake's Progress who falls in love with a bearded lady at the circus. She might be hideous, overweight and hairy . . . but love is blind. And the same has happened to Mexico City's residents, who continue to love, despite their frequent complaints, their smog-filled and crime-ridden hometown. And Let the Earth Tremble at Its Centers is one more family portrait of this hirsute but lovable urban hag.
That morning, Dr. Juan Manuel Barrientos didn't write a single word. He didn't drink his usual cup of coffee that magically transported him from sleep to writing. He didn't play the customary choral music either. For him, it was a strangely quiet morning.
Still half asleep, he winced when he remembered that slobbery, fetid kiss still stuck to his cheek. The saliva in his mouth tasted bitter. He looked pale. He felt nauseous. His head was hurting, and his back was hurting, too, as if he had been flogged. And his knees hurt.
He couldn't remember anything that had happened the night before. Only a few disconnected, blurry images came to mind. Everyone there had ended up falling asleep. You, Juan Manuel, were the only one who stayed awake. That part you do remember, as well as some of the things you pondered while the others were sleeping, stretched out anywhere and however they could. But who knows how the hell you made it to your bedroom, because you're in your bedroom and in your own bed. Like gauze to a wound, he could feel his eyelids stuck together. It was painful to open them, and all he saw was the luminous slit between the curtains. It was Friday morning. It's Friday morning, Juan Manuel. You've got an appointment today. At noon. Downtown. And the Friday traffic. He felt his way to the dresser, searching for his glasses. Luckily, he found them. It was 7:25 A.M. Seven and twenty-five makes thirty-two, he thought, as if his primary school teacher was testing his addition skills.
He didn't want to go. Even if he had been feeling better, he still had no desire to go. It certainly wasn't the same desire that he had expressed the day before, because he had acceded to their request with euphoria. And now that's what it had become—an obligation. It always turned out that way: first the passion, then the sacrifice, which is the flip side of passion, a perfect opposite.
While still in bed, he picked up the phone and tried calling Antonio. No answer.
It was hard for him to get out of bed. He hadn't slept much, and he had a hangover. Nevertheless, his sense of discipline was stronger than how he was feeling. He couldn't just cancel on them. Besides, he needed to swing by the university, if only for a couple of hours.
His urine flowed dark yellow. Unable to look at himself in the mirror, he brushed his teeth with his eyes closed. Then he gulped as much water as he could from the faucet. He made no attempt to do his standard sixteen minutes on the stationary bike; instead, he remained in the shower much longer than usual, letting the hot water massage him as it flowed from the showerhead. Hoping to remove what felt like thorns stuck into his temples and the nape of his neck, he meticulously washed his hair. Stroking his eyelids and left cheek, which was hurting him, he delicately washed his face. Who was he? Who was that guy who came out of nowhere and planted a kiss on his cheek? He had no idea who he was. He had never seen him before.
Intuiting that perhaps tonight might be the last time he would use them, Manuel was especially attentive about washing his male parts. Hoping to restore any lost energy, he finished showering with icy-cold water, even though he was barely able to stand it a few seconds that seemed more like several minutes. Now chilled, he used gymnastic vigor to dry his hair and the rest of his body. Then he started coughing almost to the point of vomiting. After getting out of the shower, he wiped the steam from the mirror with a towel and, despite the refreshing shower, he discovered a sorry-looking figure—bloodshot eyes with dark circles under them, sagging cheeks, a graying beard. After shaving with an unsteady hand, he sloshed a more-than-usual amount of cologne on his face, temples, and neck.
As he gave himself a last sympathetic glance in the mirror, a fleeting image of Jimena and her feline nose crossed his line of vision.
Hoping to counter the feeling of collapse and in some way restore some energy, he dressed meticulously, choosing clothes that should have stimulated his now-spent jovial spirit. But, Juan Manuel, if you could only see that, instead of rejuvenating you, it only made you look older. He put on a treasured pair of faded, ragged jeans, argyle socks, dark-red Italian loafers, an audacious tie that clashed with his dark shirt, and one of his lightest ancestral tweed blazers, because, despite the grayish days lately, the weather had been unusually warm.
If, at this very moment, you were to discover a cadaver in your closet, whom would you call, Juan Manuel? Yes, the body of a young man sprawled out on the floor underneath your suits neatly hung in plastic bags? With an extended arm seemingly grasping for help, blood would have been trickling from the corner of his mouth with his eyes wide open, staring at nothing. So, whom would you call?
He clumsily gathered up his personal effects that were scattered about the room—glasses, watch, red kerchief, address book, keys, and pens. He took his credit cards from his wallet and placed them in a drawer. Why take chances on losing them? Besides, he had plenty of cash. And he didn't know the PINs, which could be fatal in the event of a mugging. He stuck two Maalox tablets in his shirt pocket and, despite the disgust he felt at that moment, he placed a Montecristo cigar, which he would enjoy later, in the outside pocket of his coat. He opened a drawer and took out his silver hip flask bearing the initials J.M.B.A., which contained tequila for that unexpected moment, and put it into his rear hip pocket. An umbrella: the weather had been fickle lately and you never know.
He went down the stairs and found the place in ruins. Everybody had gone home, but the vestiges of those who had been there the night before were in plain sight: dirty glasses; ashtrays crammed with cigarette butts; long-play records here and there. He closed his eyes. I wish Baldomera would come, he thought. So, barely managing to cloak the havoc done to him and ignoring the disaster done to his house the night before, he strategically placed his paraphernalia in the corresponding pockets of his shirt, blazer, and pants, after which he left for the university. Although he felt somewhat revived, he looked like hell. You can always shake off a hangover, Juan Manuel, but it's impossible to disguise it.
Before getting into his car, he walked down to the corner juice vendor, who concocted a shot of Tres Coronas sherry with a two-yolk chaser. That combo settled his stomach a bit, although at that moment he was either about to heave or slowly begin to accept the shot of alcohol. You can feel your eyelids begin to perspire, and you can even hear the voice of an angel, which is what they all say, as a group of men stood in front of the juice stand, initiating their day with that hangover cure.
The morning was gray and polluted, like almost every morning in the city. The sun wasn't capable of penetrating the scum that hung over the valley like a gigantic cataplasm. The few rays that did manage to get through only intensified the filthy air, which was composed of toxic ingredients, haze, and desolation. Reduced to a snail's pace in the heavy traffic, thousands of cars were lined up heading south on the beltway, while many, many more made their way north, which isn't entirely true, because they had come to a complete standstill. It was that time of day when children carrying enormous backpacks of useless school supplies were going to school, and office workers were making their way to work with the stress of time clocks on their faces. After finally getting onto the beltway, he saw the university come into view. At that early hour, the campus seemed like a luminous green island in the middle of a turbulent, agitated urban ocean.
At the university, Dr. Barrientos did little more than satisfy his customary obsession of being punctual, an obligation that he had imposed upon himself to thwart any self-recriminations. He tried reaching Antonio on the phone, threw some junk mail into the trash basket, and cancelled an invitation to attend a meeting of Mexican scholars in Austin, Texas. Despite his irritated eyes and headache, he detected—as if it were a fly dropping—a typographical error that soiled the first page of his recently published article on architecture and poetry of the allegorical arches of New Spain.
He tried reaching Antonio a third time, but still no one answered.
In order to meet his students downtown, he would have to leave by 11:00 A.M., which was about the time of day when the daily routine in his department had already started to wind down, leaving the place a tomb by early afternoon. He told the secretary that he'd be back on Monday.
Refusing to have to think about choosing alternate routes, he decided to cross the city using Insurgentes Avenue. Neither the sherry nor the water he had consumed had quenched his thirst. Even though the hour was propitious for less traffic, cars were moving slowly. In truth, Insurgentes had become an architectural chaos of fake renovations that pained Dr. Barrientos. In the southern part of the city, trees that had once surrounded country homes at the beginning of the past century and now shielded restaurants and boutiques had thinned out around the Viaduct. Back then, you still hadn't taken a physics class. You had just started high school, and you were poor in math. You didn't understand weights and measurements—well, measurements perhaps. For instance, you could calculate the number of steps between the classroom door and the flagpole outside. Even though you might fudge a bit as you got closer to the pole by taking greater strides or smaller steps to conform to your guess, you were almost always right. But how could you imagine the weight of one pound, such as a pound in the abstract sense? If a pound of bronze was the size of a particular weight on a scale, then a pound of feathers had to be huge, like the elongated pillow on your parents' bed. Even so, you still assumed that a pound of feathers could never weigh the same as a pound of bronze. And if you were unable to imagine the weight of one pound, it was even more difficult to think about an ounce—or several ounces—of something. Like an ounce of clothing, for instance. Taking a window seat on the school bus, you would wait anxiously to pass by La Fuente, a nightclub just before the Viaduct, where Ana Bertha Lepe was always waiting for you. Practically naked, she was wearing something transparent over her nipples and her crotch. You calculated that she would have been fourteen strides tall . . . if you could have climbed her to the top, like Spiderman, starting with those marvelous calves, then shinnying up her thighs, scaling her large breasts, finally reaching her puffy, erotic lips and staring into her fiery eyes. The gigantic figure completely blocked La Fuente from view, but there was an enormous sign on top of the building—ANA BERTHA LEPE, ONLY AN OUNCE OF CLOTHING. And the bus would speed up, preventing you from running your eyes up and down that monumental body, making your temples pound, your heart pulsate, and your groin hot. One time after getting home from school, you asked your mother how much an ounce was. Do you have cobwebs in your head? An ounce of what? she asked, as she beat some eggs for a dessert. Just an ounce, you responded. It's about three acorns, she replied. And while you strategically placed each one on Ana Bertha Lepe's body, you suddenly felt like something was going to explode in your pants. Once past the Viaduct, back then the pavement came to an end, giving way to an area of flimsy, makeshift housing that had popped up haphazardly after an earthquake had devastated the Roma neighborhood in the city. But today, given the sudden heat of the day, the conglomeration of cars, bottlenecks, corner vendors, street urchins washing windshields at each light, and clowns breathing fire along the roadway had made you so irritable that you almost stop your car right there at Cuauhtémoc Monument, jump out, and run away from it all. I know! A beer, but only under the shade of a straw hut on Mandinga Lake in Veracruz! For the love of God, just a beer! He continued down Reforma Avenue and turned on Juárez. Only skeletons of buildings were left from a bygone era of opulence. Empty lots in the midst of an enormous population. Scaffolding, construction trenches, and electric wires were everywhere.
"These [ruins], Fabius—oh, how painful!—that you see now . . ."
He parked his car at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. If only for a few minutes, he felt liberated from the prison of the automobile, but then he became engulfed in a sea of pedestrians scurrying in every direction imaginable. Crossing Lázaro Cárdenas Circle, which you still prefer to call San Juan de Letrán, he turned down Tacuba. Reaching Filomeno Mata, he crossed Cinco de Mayo at the block where the street changed its name to Gante, and continued past Madero to Dieciséis de Septiembre. As if his appointment were in London and not in Mexico, he stood in front of Salón La Luz at exactly noon.
It had been a while since he'd been to that bar. You remembered that at one time the place was in the basement, or at least below street level. You also remembered that it used to be dark inside, but who knows if that was true, or if your memory was fading. Back then, it was a bar only for men, all kinds of men, the type of which had become scarce, because in those clandestine surroundings you could actually drink 96-proof alcohol from bottles in brown paper bags. Nowadays, these bars—once the sole domain of men—were also open to women. This place had been transformed into something like a European bar. There were round tables with large umbrellas on the sidewalk in front and green foliage in massive clay pots.
None of the students had arrived yet. He started to get irritated. Even though he always ended up waiting for other people, he was always punctual. It occurred to him to walk around a bit until everyone showed up, which would be in keeping with his age, status, and the sacrifice he had made to get there, considering how lousy he felt. But he stopped and turned around. Besides, he needed a beer. Even though it was just a bar and the white tablecloths had already been placed on the tables, for most people it was still too early to have a drink. There was nary a customer inside. The floor had been mopped, the waiters were getting ready to open—cutting limes for shots of tequila, peeling shrimp, chopping onions, and carving up chickens for the soup that was the specialty of the restaurant, whose founder, Lencho, later used the same recipe at La Providencia, in San Ángel, where, by the way, during the mundane act of slicing up a loaf of rye bread, he whacked off three fingers of his left hand.
He decided to sit down in one of those outdoor rustic chairs and wait for the culinary frenzy inside to slow down before ordering a beer.
A block of ice had just been delivered to the restaurant and, having been placed on the sidewalk, it started to melt and trickle into the street. A merciful waiter finally brought out a beer, even though it still wasn't quite cold enough. Nevertheless, he took a long swig, which made him feel as good as the shower he had taken earlier in the day. The beer gave him momentary relief, and he capped it off with a slight burp. No one really knows how important beer can be until you need one.
Where's Antonio? Why wouldn't he answer the phone? Has he backed out on me?
All around him, the rest of the world was going about its business. Briefcase-laden bureaucrats, pot-bellied merchants, and hard-working people were scurrying around everywhere. While a blind man rattled a tambourine nearby, a street urchin tried to sell him some lottery tickets . . . c'mon, just one, just one, don't be mean . . . see? You are. When Barrientos shook his head, the little boy changed tactics and begged for money to buy a taco. With the same decisive slap as a flyswatter, he said "No!"
Yesterday, he had met with his students at Casa Pedro to celebrate the end of the semester. He had taught a class on relationships between baroque literature and New Spain's architecture. His head still pounded from the raucous laughter triggered by rounds and rounds of beer and shots of tequila. Even though the world of academia had been briefly displaced by bursts of gratification, its presence was never totally absent, because it could be felt through the growing delirium of erudite references, puns, irony, and jokes, some of which were almost indecipherable. It was as if literary greats like Baltasar Gracián, Luis de Góngora, Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz had been invited to join them. However, following the baroque tradition of deflection, the euphoria within which everyone was submerged had created anything but joy and happiness; instead, there was the need to conceal a general feeling of sadness, the need to inter the sorrow coming at the end of his course, because you, Dr. Barrientos, had announced your retirement. No, you won't be teaching anymore, which is what you've done for the past twenty-five years. Suddenly, overtaking the rowdiness in the restaurant, silence quickly spread throughout, as if one of those present were about to stand up and give a serious speech. On the tables, gold and silver, beer and tequila. In a moment of suspense, all eyes turned to you, yes, to you, Juan Manuel. You took a long and solemn swig of beer after which, devoutly, you put a dash of salt on a slice of lime and, holding the jigger of tequila with two fingers—your index and your thumb—you raised it in homage to your faithful followers, your students. You downed it in one swallow, right to the last drop without even savoring its flavor on your tongue, but only after which you sonorously exhaled the aftereffects of the salt and lime. Quivering slightly, you looked at your disciples one by one and told them with a smile that despite your retirement you would always be there for them: I'm leaving, but somehow, I'll always be nearby. Precisely at that moment, you accepted their invitation to meet them today, which is exactly what you're doing right now. Fernando suggested it, and Jimena enthusiastically endorsed the idea. Ah, Jimena. Her feline profile, whose nose corroborates each word she speaks, possessed that unique gesture that you desire to capture, detain, and protect, allowing you forever to re-create and possess it. As night approached in that southern part of the city where unpaved streets were spotted with brackish pools of water, you invited your students to your house to continue partying and celebrating your retirement. However, it was impossible to make it last. The euphoria of the moment had disappeared with the interruption of having to leave one place and go to another, where everything was different—the light, the temperature, everything. No matter, when the restaurant closed the bar, you implored your students to follow you home to have one last drink. You desperately wanted to rekindle that pleasure of listening to some of your best bolero songs and those unsuspecting waltzes. By then, however, everyone was drained and sleepy. Conversations became fragmented. No one was laughing like before. Everything had become stultified. Lingering murmurs turned silent. While Bola de Nieve ripped off his clothes in the song he was singing on the record player, people were yawning. Catalina and Patricia left first. You turned sad when Fernando left with Jimena, cutting short the possibility of hooking up with her that night. So, what would have happened anyway, Juan Manuel? Perhaps you would have become aroused and found the right words to seduce her, but more than likely, you would have engulfed her in your sadness and ended up frustrated. Besides, you wouldn't have been able to make love to her. You were drunk, and, given her youthful beauty, you would have been embarrassed by your flabby arms and voluminous gut. You're some twenty-five years older than she is, which translates to the same number of years that you had been the head of the department since your graduation. Incredible! Héctor, Julia, Susana, and Antonio, of course, had agreed to stay a while longer, but like the others they were already dozing off or talking among themselves. Suddenly, you found yourself alone, catching a whiff of an unfinished cigar, hardly differentiating between the scotch—without ice—that you were consuming at home and the rounds of tequila that you had downed at the restaurant, listening to the energetic, sometimes clamorous, yet subtle sigh of Bola de Nieve's piano and scrutinizing your tall bookshelves. Exhausted, you were lost in the rapture of the music. You had reached the end of the line. Your sense of discipline could no longer counter the feeling of surrender. And now that you were retired, you were ready to let go. You were dead on your feet.
You couldn't remember if you had fallen asleep when that crazy, wicked-looking young man with the greasy hair and toothless smile showed up at your place and gave you a kiss on the cheek. Your students had already fallen asleep on the couches in your study. You can't remember anything else. Apparently, Antonio woke up and sent the intruder packing. Without asking permission, the guy poured himself a drink and peed in a flowerpot on the porch. Antonio pushed him out the door, and that's the last you remember.
Lugging a small, brightly painted wooden box belonging to a Roman circus and sporting numerous colorful thumbtacks, tiny mirrors, and pictures of famous boxers, a shoeshine boy approached, distracting you from your fragmented memories. Need a shine, young man? he asked. Your Italian loafers didn't need it, but you said yes, if only to kill some time while you waited. They should have arrived by now.
With sacrosanct devotion to his trade, the shoeshine boy begins first by placing his equipment on the sidewalk in orderly fashion. Next, he inserts pieces of leather between your shoes and your socks, so as not to stain them. Then he soaps up your shoes with hygienic fervor in order to proceed with the actual shoeshine itself. It was like a religious liturgy, and you scrutinized his every move. He daubs a rag carefully wrapped around two fingers with oxblood wax and applies it to each shoe. Then comes a first pass with the brush without making them glisten yet. Next, he applies a neutral-colored wax directly with his fingers. Applying the brush a second time, but much more vigorously, it feels like he's going to massage your feet, Juan Manuel, appreciatively. Finally, he unrolls a strip of cloth to buff your shoes, and with five snapping sounds in the air before a light going-over, as if he were dusting off priceless pieces of jewelry, he gives three light taps on the sides of the soles of your shoes to let you know the ritual has ended.
Somehow, you feel purified. For a moment, you think that that if you were poor you wouldn't mind being a shoeshine boy, because in barely three minutes he can produce a veritable work of art, even if the results are somewhat pedestrian. Faintly smiling, with that adjective you recognize the opportune precision of your choice of words and see in yourself something of a priest conducting the rights of initiation—shining your disciples' shoes. Oh, Juan Manuel, it's amazing how a hangover can make us ever so humble!
Partially hidden by the potted shrubs from the stares of a growing number of people who were passing by on their way to work, you took a last swig of your beer.
Then you glanced at your watch. Twelve after twelve, you mutter, with defiant resignation. That adds up to twenty-four. What begins badly, ends badly. The ten-minute grace period was over, so if they don't arrive by fifteen after, you'll have to order another beer—now colder—despite the fact that you'll be violating the first rule of the game, that is, not to have more than one drink at each bar. Otherwise, staying in one bar entraps your inebriated soul, and you end up in a process of confession, arguments, and then reconciliation. Hence, it's important to get out of the bar and seek renewal. Actually, this is a self-imposed decision to prevent you from getting drunk too soon. However, once you've had two or three shots of tequila by three o'clock and feelings of condescension are taking over, you'll have already violated your own rules. By imposing that early morning discipline upon yourself, you've only created a ploy for not going off the deep end; or it could be the other way around: the laxity that begins to overtake you in the early afternoon is simply a tactic for responding to your desire to defy the rigidity of your self-imposed discipline. Do you really believe that slacking off in the afternoons is your reward for the applied rigor of your work in the mornings? Or is your severity a way of chastising yourself for your excesses of the night before?
The planned excursion was neither an excuse for barhopping nor a formal class on architecture, but rather a melding of the two that was driven by the personality of Juan Manuel Barrientos. Guided by the erudition found in libraries and specialized archives and based on interminable walking tours, he became familiar with all the streets and plazas of downtown Mexico City. He had studied the inner city's civil and religious buildings, its shifting history, superpositions, aberrant alterations, and inconceivable destruction. But he also knew the bars, the dives, the local joints, the holes-in-the-wall, and the downtrodden places that sought to maintain some of their historical dignity. On the one hand, Juan Manuel accepted the invitation with enthusiasm, because it was a forum that he could continue to dominate outside the classroom as a way to hold sway over those students who had made him feel so young and alive. On the other hand, he was a little apprehensive about the whole thing, mainly because he knew only too well that his explanations about architecture would eventually become saturated with alcohol. Although he has long known his limits, his tolerance has been greatly reduced over time. In addition, you were extremely annoyed about feeling panicky, because you woke up this morning feeling like hell. In your efforts to normalize things, you could very well go off the deep end. But there's no going back now, Juan Manuel.
Antonio, his most advanced disciple and teaching assistant, had agreed to organize the excursion suggested by Fernando and supported by Jimena's enthusiasm. He was absolutely positive that they were supposed to meet at Salón La Luz at noon sharp. We'll see you at Salón La Luz at noon tomorrow, said Antonio as he was leaving Juan Manuel's house, after having thrown out the party crasher and said good-bye to his classmates, who had already fallen asleep. Finally, now, he remembered it all perfectly.
He glanced at his watch again. It was 12:15 P.M. What the hell, I'll order another beer. It's not your fault.
You don't miss your other students—Antonio, Fernando, Héctor, Javier—the way you miss Jimena. You more than like her. You're enchanted by her feline gestures and the way her words and smile transform her nose. She would send you into a frenzy with that raspy voice; even if you believed that you didn't like her that much, her presence would always be necessary. The presence of women has always fascinated you. Somehow, they modify your behavior and transform your conversations. It would take only one woman—just one—to be present for you to feel the impulse to seduce her, if only verbally.
Now it was 12:30 P.M. Taking the last sip of his second beer, he knew that his disciples weren't coming. What a waste, he thought, and then he felt that slobbery kiss on his cheek. If you were to discover a cadaver in your closet, Juan Manuel, whom would you call? Just whom would you call?
He had the option of returning home, but it took him longer just to consider that option than it did to reject the idea outright, because there was the traffic, the dirty glasses, the filthy plates, the ashtrays full of cigarette butts, and the stench of unfinished cigars. And it was highly unlikely that Baldomera had shown up to clean the house today. And to top it off, spending an afternoon at home depressed him. All he would do was sleep three hours, wake up in a bad humor not wanting to do anything, and face a sleepless night. Instead, he needed a stronger drink right now. He decided to do the tour by himself. Well, truth be told, he didn't make that decision himself. It was a command that had to be obeyed to its fullest extent.
He decided to leave the bar and paid the bill. With two midday beers under his belt, he felt a certain effervescence bubbling in his head. He exited the green demarcation line of Salón La Luz, and, despite the dirty air surrounding him, he walked into the luminosity of early afternoon. It was so sunny that afternoon that, as soon as the professor became integrated into the pedestrian traffic, his umbrella became a teacher's pointer, as if his students were following him. He pointed out a frieze here, a cornice there, and spires and archivolts. He was taking no fixed route, because the second rule of the game that he had imposed upon himself consisted of not following any preconceived itinerary or taking any predetermined route, but only of respecting his intuition and even his tottering.
“It’s intriguing and intelligent; readers familiar with the city will appreciate it anew.”