This article was written on 19 Jul 2014, and is filled under Literature, Urbanities.

Literary maps: México, DF

Iconographic Plan of Mexico City Showing the General Layout of its Pleasant and Beautiful Streets, as well as the Repair and Elimination of the Negative Features of the Various Neighborhoods, by Manuel Ignacio de Jesus del Águila (via Wikimedia Commons)

Iconographic Plan of Mexico City Showing the General Layout of its Pleasant and Beautiful Streets, as well as the Repair and Elimination of the Negative Features of the Various Neighborhoods, by Manuel Ignacio de Jesus del Águila (via Wikimedia Commons)

I’m preparing for a research trip to Mexico City. As always when I travel, I’ve been looking at maps—maps of the metro, maps of neighborhoods, maps of the whole city and the whole country, creative maps and boring maps and Google maps (which are both creative and boring). And all this looking has attuned me to how writers inscribe senses of cartography into their writing.

For example, early on in The Interior Circuit, a recently published chronicle of Mexico City, Francisco Goldman describes the city seen from above:

From the air, perhaps because it is such a predominately flat city and almost all the roofs are flat and because so much of it is brown, Mexico City looks like a map of itself, drawn on a scale of 1:1, as in the Borges story “The Exactitude of Science,” which refers to “a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point.” (11)

Goldman has chosen a concept that feels omnipresent today. Borges’s alluring story feels like a joke that should be taken seriously, and as with lots of good jokes it bridges an abstract notion (representation in general) to something very specific (a particular form of folly). This little fable is a favorite of contemporary writers, who use it most often as an illustration of the integration of digital representations into the practice of everyday life. (It’s there in my last post, for example.) These representations adhere to the thing represented. They penetrate the earth’s crust and the sea’s surface. They ring the planet in information, pulses and vectors of desire. In other words, Borges’s map gets at something crucial about the species of madness motivating the way we understand the present.

All that said, I think Goldman is getting at something else. His version of the parable seems more literal, more focused on the infinite complexity of everything here—everything that’s constantly accumulated and exhausted right where clarity turns into opacity. Hence his description of the Guía Roji, a spiral-bound map of Mexico City in 200+ pages. This “bible” for cab drivers, he writes, “evokes Borges’s map sliced and bound into an inexhaustible book.” It is limitless, or its limits are so ill-defined that it might as well be. In Goldman’s hands the urban atlas resembles another of Borges’s creations, the towering Library of Babel. He doesn’t cite this monstrous building, but he does describe “a bewildering chaos that is actually possessed of a mysterious order that even those who’ve spent a lifetime exploring the city can only dimly perceive” (12). It is like the city it represents, in other words: expansive, full of repetition with difference, difficult to navigate.

Goldman’s account of Mexico City is attractive largely because of the way he weaves personal experience into an overarching sense of the city, its history and present, its place in relation to the rest of the country and the rest of the world. Thus the book’s title names more than just the highway that encircles Mexico City. It seems to refer also to a general desire to draw boundaries and limits. But the “interior circuit” also suggests other, more specific themes—the author’s struggles with the grief of familial loss, for example, and the urban interior of the city itself, fragilely bounded off from the worst forms of cartel violence that afflict much of the rest of the country. These interiors are precarious, and Goldman reveals how all boundaries are porous.

They’re fragile because interiors are just exteriors that have been arranged otherwise. The guts of an origami swan are surfaces folded into an enclosure. Hence the ways in which Goldman’s book constantly moves back and forth between emotion and action, grief and engagement, human inwardness and urban exteriority. He finds it hard to motivate himself to take driving lessons, but does so all the same, finding a unique companion in his instructor. He finds unlikely solace in certain church masses, and also in conversations with certain friends. We find him lost in thought while caught on an absurd party bus, but the night ends with a fight and his ugly pummeling by the sons of Mexico’s elite. Throughout the book, the reader is the guest of this dialectic between interiors and exteriors.

All those examples come from the first half of the chronicle. The second, not divided into chapters, details Goldman’s quest to uncover the truth behind a kidnapping that took place in the Zona Rosa, in which a dozen residents of the city’s Tepito neighborhood were abducted—to be later killed in gruesome fashion—as they left an after-hours club. The kidnapping bore all the signs of a cartel crime. As the author pursues his investigation, this hypothesis becomes to seem likelier. And if it is correct, then it means that the interior circuit, the symbolic boundary that insulates Mexico City, has been breached. “The shadow over Tepito and the shadow over Mexico,” Goldman writes, “are the same shadow. That shadow has spread over the DF” (306).

This shadow is a darkness that reveals in stark fashion what has been known for years—that the narco mafias are actively operating in Mexico City. The sense of insulation has been punctured, Goldman says, by the visibility of this crime. He cites an official from the Federal Human Rights Commission, who says that the case “opened eyes to the problem of disappearances inside the DF’s vaunted security ‘bubble’” (325). Another person cited mentions a good run in the capital over the course of twelve years, and one gets the strong sense from this book that this run—with the return of the famously corrupt Partido Revolucionario Institucional to the presidency—may be drawing to a close.

Borges’s map is ultimately about the futility of modeling anything. Perhaps Goldman is getting at a similarly resigned conclusion. The map he draws of Mexico City, a map of feelings and trajectories as much as neighborhoods and demographics, comes to look increasingly like a map of Mexico in general.


Another book about Mexico City (partially, at least), the recently translated collection of essays Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli, engages even more explicitly with urban cartography. Her writing follows itineraries. She draws maps in paragraphs indexed by places. Her writing feels like ekphrasis, but not of any real visual representation. Rather, it describes the invisible constellations of passage through place. The map is implied, rarely detailed—a mobile, evanescent map, not exactly interactive, but rather a map of the traces of minimal journeys through the city.

For example, the essay titled “Alternative Routes” follows a bicycle ride through the streets of the Colonia Roma. Sixteen headings divide the essay into individual trajectories, each one marked by a street and a direction: “Calle Mérida—northbound,” “Turn left at Durango,” “Circle Plaza Rio de Janeiro—clockwise,” etc. These headings feel like directions from a GPS device, but they are more than simple indications. Alongside them runs a long meditation on nostalgia, melancholy, saudade, and other products of black bile. The city meets the experience of missing the city—or missing something while in the city. And the headings make it seem that this experience is somehow linked to the passage through the neighborhood.

However, as we imagine the voice of this essay from the height and speed of a bicycle, it is difficult to discern the nature of this connection. What ties the streets to the turns taken by these thoughts? Perhaps nothing. After all, even if bodily displacements have for centuries been associated with the flows of thought and emotion, this association isn’t mechanical or even predictable. Luiselli seems rather to be tracing the arbitrariness of the way that thought responds to stimuli. Like Goldman, she charts the often unexpected connections between internal life and external experience.

Hence the importance of the specific medium of travel. Cities have changed since the days of the Parisian flâneur. The stroll on foot—emblem of chance encounters and literary energies from Rousseau to the Situationists—is less and less a real possibility. As Luiselli writes in “Manifesto à Velo,”

The urban walker has to march to the rhythm of the city in which he finds himself and demonstrate the same single-minded purpose as other pedestrians. Any modulation of his pace makes him the object of suspicion. The person who walks too slowly could be plotting a crime or—even worse—might be a tourist. Except for those who still take their dogs for a walk, children coming home from school, the very old, or itinerant street vendors, no one in the city has the right to slow, aimless walking. (33)

Granted, those classes of walkers account for a lot of exceptions, but the rule holds nonetheless. Walking in an overcrowded city means adapting to the pace of those around us. And to do so is to surrender the experience of autonomy, of following a whim or simply getting lost in thought. Automobiles and metro cars are no better. They alienate or overwhelm us. Only the bicycle, writes Luiselli, affords space for modulating one’s thoughts and velocities in individual fashion.

The autonomy imagined by the Situationists was won through varying one’s route through the city—walking otherwise. Luiselli takes their ambition one step further. She suggests that rhythm, along with its modes of vision, is only truly modified once we trade in one vehicle for another. And I think that this autonomy means something more than freedom of movement. It also embodies a desire for life outside of accounting. Statistics, after all, are the fuel for contemporary mapping practices. “The city, its sidewalks: an enormous blackboard—instead of numbers, we add up bodies,” writes Luiselli about a particular murder victim (57). In death that man became another tally mark on the chalkboard, but he was already one in life. Hence the desire for “alternative routes”—alternative modes of traversing space.

Beyond the little utopia of the bicycle ride, there is the utopia of the imagination. Luiselli mentions, in the essay “Relingos: The Cartography of Empty Spaces,” various fanciful architectural plans—a theater space for the San Hipólito Deaf League, a bonfire on the Eiffel Tower—that defy practicality with the insular logic of the madman. Such plans inhabit the leftover zones, the “relingos” of the essay’s title—“urban absences” uninhabitable by buildings. Over the course of the essay, these empty gaps come to stand in for modes of thought and feeling. The writer fills them in, Luiselli hypothesizes, before discarding that idea. No, the writer does something else, trims and cultivates a little garden—but that also isn’t right. The writer rather dynamites, drills and breaks, looking for the emptiness that underlies what’s there: “A writer is a person who distributes silences and empty spaces” (78). Writing means opening up new openings. Or uncovering old ones.

The empty, useless space; the bike ride that proceeds at a pace of one’s own willfulness; the trajectory that obeys the dictates of individual reflection—Luiselli’s map is full of aspirations to autonomous zones of experience. Her city isn’t Goldman’s city, though there is some relation. His is pregnant with signification, levels of experience that overlay one another, a multiplied DF, as hard to read as a palimpsest. Luiselli’s city is complex too, but through implication more than exposition. She filters experience through a subjectivity turned outward, porous to the streets and sidewalks, just like the writer she describes. Urban experience in her essays has the scale of a snow globe—or of many snow globes that don’t fit together (spaces between the globes: relingos). We don’t get broad strokes, but rather little illuminations. This is a cartography of joyfully exhausted efforts, a practice of mapping that can never encapsulate its object.


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