So far, this has been the city which has added the most titles to my TBR and I borrowed more library books than I could read before I flipped the page to the next month.

Even before my reading officially started, I was reading Eduardo Galeano’s Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World (Illus. José Guadalupe Posada 1998 Trans. Mark Fried, 2001). There, he discusses the 1985 earthquake—the undisclosed numbers of deaths, the first wave of which covered the floor of a local stadium—and the “perpetual environmental emergency”. And he refers to these statistics for Mexico City from 1997, that it’s “80 percent poor, 3 percent rich, the rest in the middle”.

The same Mexico City that, in the 1990s, spawned more instant multimillionaires than anywhere else on earth: according to the UN figures that Galeano cites, one Mexican has as much wealth as seventeen million of his poor countrymen. How much that’s changed, I don’t know—my first official read was quite another type of book—but certainly we still inhabit the upside-down, looking-glass world that Galeano exposed.

Nick Caistor’s Mexico City: A Cultural and Literary Companion (Revised, 2019) offers a visually rich experience of the city, with historical and contemporary information in eight shortbut dense chapters, followed by visitors’ information for sites discussed therein (to suit actual travellers, not armchair travellers).

Interspersed are double-spread layouts with a photo and single-page focus on key locations. In a couple hundred pages, it’s a decent overview with enticing images, but I chose it because Caistor’s name was familiar to me as a translator (of Isabel Allende and Carlos Maria Dominguez).

This seemed an excellent opportunity to delve into Roberto Bolaño’s fiction, with The Spirit of Science Fiction (2016; translation by Natasha Wimmer, 2019), set in Mexico City.

The characters ride their bikes at night through the empty neighbourhood of El Mofels, sit on terraces, marvel at the network of public baths throughout the city (including those at the Gimnasio Moctezuma in Chapultepac Park), smoke cigarettes under clotheslines, tapdance up the escalator in the Metro, steal books (!) and count how many poetry journals exist in the city.

My favourite part, however, are the letters that Jan writes and sometimes sends to science fiction writers. In the one to James Tiptree Jr, he includes a picture postcard with a view of the city from the Torre Latinoamericana, and describes the rain falling while he writes:

“It’s night and it’s raining: the city spins like a shiny top, but some areas are opaque, emptier: they’re like flickering dots; the city spins happy in the middle of the deluge, and the dots throb.”

Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s ’68: The Mexican Autumn of the Tlatelolco Massacre (1991; Trans. Donald Nicolson Smith, 2004; Afterword, 2019) is a work that was in progress for a long time before publication, while the author processed his experiences in the student revolution in Mexico City. It reads as much like poetry as history.

Even with my cursory knowledge of the city, I was struck by the militarization of the spaces, like the UNAM campus, where there are murals by Orozco, Revueltas, Siqueiros, and Rivera. By the scene in October 1968, of two hundred thousand students marching into the Zócolo, the largest public square in the world. By the movement of tanks “from the gates of the National Palace” to the square, the reports of protestors’ bodies quietly discarded, offshore. “Heroism at that time was closely akin to madness,” Taibo II writes. “Today even the liars know the truth. But there is little consolation in the fact that the version of the survivors has finally triumphed over the official story.”

As yet unread, but still looking fine:

  • Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s debut novel Signal to Noise (2015), which opens overlooking the federal district, where the air is sticky and grey;
  • Laia Jufresa’s Umami (2014; Trans. Sophie Hughes, 2016), which begins with an epigraph from Carol Ann Duffy and has five narrative voices all centred around an inner city mews;
  • Ignacio Solares Yankee Invasion (2005; Trans. Timothy G. Compton, 2009), which is set in the American-Mexican War of 1847; and,
  • Elena Poniatowska’s Here’s To You, Jesusa! (1969; Trans. Deanna Heinkkinen, 2001), which blends documentary and fiction and considers the lives of women in early twentieth-century Mexico City.

Previous travel destinations this year, inspired by my desk calendar, have included Copenhagen, London, Havana, Kyoto, Paris, San Francisco and Marrakech.