Monday, May 13, 2013

A Walker in Mexico City

And Let the Earth Tremble At Its Centers, by Gonzalo Celorio

"He couldn't remember anything that happened the night before."

I confess a weakness for what might be called dipsomaniacal novels--books whose plots revolve around the excessive consumption of alcohol.  Great dipsomaniacal novels include Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes, John O'Brien's Leaving Las Vegas (which also fits into another category, that of novels whose film adaptation is actually better than the book--a rare class indeed), Lawrence Block's sublime Matt Scudder novels, Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, Charles Jackson's The Lost Weekend, Ironweed by William get the idea. And my favorite,  the book most relevant to Celorio's brilliant novel, Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.  The great virtue of novels whose narrator drinks too much is the narrator's honesty--that's the reason these books are so powerful--drunks might be deluded about themselves--that goes with the territory--but they don't hesitate to speak the truth about the world around them.  I'll never forget reading Lowry for the first time and being shocked at the extent to which his story of the final day in the life of the self-destructive Geoffrey Firmin (the "Consul") put me inside a man bent upon the eradication of his being --Lowry's gift for poetically rendering a self-destructive consciousness was unique, and  Lowry's prose was nearly hallucinatory, as if (as if!) he were writing in a state of morbid inebriation himself.  Compared to Lowry, Bukowski was a member of the Moral Majority. 

So: booze and books go well together--and I don't mean writers who like booze; hell, there's no end to that subject--no, I mean books where drinking is an integral part of the character's life, where it shapes his or her reflections on the world.

The other category of fiction to which I am hopelessly addicted is the perambulatory novel--the novel whose plot is focused on the ramblings of a thoughtful person, usually through an urban landscape.  I emphasize "urban" here; I have little  interest in books about people walking in the woods, even the inimitable Bill Bryson, or books that describe botanizing strolls in the country except if the country carries the narrator to an especially blighted landscape (as in Sebald's brilliant Rings of Saturn).  No, walks should be taken in cities, where there is something to see and be stimulated by--I'm no naturalist, and though I often hike in the woods, my thoughts among trees are banal--"Why is there always a fly buzzing around my face?"--whereas a walk in Paris or Tokyo or Lisbon or Manhattan or (best of all) Philadelphia is bound to evoke ideas about the human condition, history, late capitalism, and the best place to get a drink.  The city, after all, is humanity's greatest cultural achievement. I love thoughtful walkers like Sebald and Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin; Mrs. Dalloway, Leopold Bloom, Jane Austen's claustrophobic heroines (Catherine, Elizabeth, Marianne), and Farnsworth, hero of Joshua Ferris's remarkable The Unnamed, Alfred Kazin (A Walker in the City, a book that made Brownsville as fascinating as Joyce's Dublin)--these are the sorts of walkers I like to carry in my knapsack while lounging in Central Park.

Given these odd fictional interests, Gonzalo Celorio's And Let the Earth Tremble at Its Centers (the words are from the Mexican national anthem) was just the book for me.  Celorio describes one day (the final one, as it transpires) in the life of an older academic, Dr. Juan Manuel Barrientos, a man who loves to wander the streets of Mexico City, who is intimate with the city's architectural history, the stories behind each façade, intimate with every café and bar, and a lover of drink--not, perhaps, an alcoholic, but one of those ritual imbibers whose rules about when and where to have beer, tequila, scotch, and/or wine, reflect a conscious admission that life on the cusp of inebriation offers charms that sobriety does not:

"Once and for all, you're ready to take the second shot of tequila of the day--the one that produces happiness and euphoria, according to your theoretical disquisitions. Impulsively, you're about to order another one, which will send straight to hell the rules of the game that you yourself imposed on your students [college aged, disciples of Dr. Barrientos]."

Drinking and walking, Dr. Barrientos alternates between thoughts of his students--especially his close followers, those whose admiration gives him a reason to live--and thoughts of his childhood, of his parents and his life in the city that he loves.  Just as Mexico City is a modern metropolis built literally on the bones of the past, so is Barrientos' inner life a kind of archaeological dig--his reflections tip seamlessly into bouts of reminiscence and of regret, not only for the life that is fleeting past, but for the life of a great city that is, even as he walks its streets, being destroyed by political and economic forces Barrientos cannot comprehend.  The air of the novel is polluted with sadness and the sense of loss.

And then, of course, there is tequila, a drink that, like mescal in Under the Volcano, promises ease, tranquility, escape from loneliness, and, as it transpires, death. 

Dr. Juan Manuel Barrientos, like Lowry's Consul, is a man enamored with self-annihilation.  In Mexico, los borrachazos are serious about their drunkenness.  Barrientos is a thoughtful drinker, but as the climactic scenes of the novel make clear, he too has a Baroque-Catholic fondness for the distinguished thing.  Lowry's and Celorio's heroes (like Greene's 'whiskey priest') aren't British clubmen sipping gin and quinine in some African enclave, or Irishmen downing what is a rather salubrious mixture of barley and hops, or Frenchmen breaking up clots of butterfat with glorious Bordeaux's; no, Barrientos comes from a long line of imbibers of those ferocious spirits brewed from plants that are themselves unforgiving, harvested in the harshest country in the hemisphere. Dia de los muertos indeed.

Barrientos' brief odyssey through the bars of Cinco de Mayo and Avenida Moneda ends ingloriously to be sure, in violence and humiliation, but there is a humanity at the heart of Celorio's story that is lacking in the more calculated and depressing tale of Geoffrey Firman.  The well-intentioned, vain, and befuddled Professor stumbles into his fate; the Consul embraces his destruction right up to the moment his body is tossed into a ravine.  I'm inclined to think Celorio was influenced by Lowry, but perhaps not.  Novels that take their theme from the landscape of Mexico City are not unusual; in any case the great beauty of both these books is their relentless examination of the memories of their monomaniacal protagonists--both books lack supporting characters, for good reason:

How many hours of your life have you spent sitting in front
of mirrors at bars, alternating one foot or the other on the
barstool rung, staring at your reflection, rebuffing it at times,
and at other times, doting on it with tenderness? Tell me,
how many hours has it been? If you dared to add them up,
they would become days, weeks, months, and even years.”

Gonzalo Celorio, born in Mexico City in 1948, is a critic and essayist as well as a novelist. He is the former director of the Fonda de Cultural EconomicaAnd Let the Earth Tremble At Its Centers is his first novel to be translated into English, and with great skill, by Dick Geddes.  It was published by the University of Texas Press in their excellent Pan American Literature in Translation Series.

George Ovitt (5/13/13)


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  2. Another great dipsomaniacal novel: Hans Fallada's The Drinker.

    1. I don't know this novel but will make a point of looking for it. I haven't seen any interesting lists of novels about dipsomaniacs but would love to start one. Thanks for the comment.