There any only a finite number of ways to find out what’s going on around you: observe, listen, ask, participate, guess…or read. Me, I like newspapers and detective fiction. Adopting a newspaper is my standard operating procedure when trying to get to grips with a language and a culture. Except when I lived in China, where, exiled from the written word in terms of my interaction with the society around me, I mostly used guessing to work out what was going on — not a foolproof procedure when dealing with a culture and society as complex as China’s. I did ask questions, but with hindsight they weren’t very good questions. Not that I knew that at the time. While in China, knowing that for me it was a stopping-off point on the way to Spain, I fought my way through an original language copy of Cien Años de Soledad, not so much a whodunnit as a whatthefuckisgoingon, especially given my copy had no árbol genealógico. Since I was already trying to cram my head with Chinese and rescue a clearly doomed relationship I needed to read something simpler which did not feature literally hundreds of characters who were seemingly all called Aurelio or Rebeca Buendía.
Around that time I discovered that Subcomandente Marcos, the (ahem) Leader of the Zapatista army, had written a crime novel with another writer and it was being serialized in what was evidently Mexico’s primary daily left-wing newspaper, La Jornada (the newspaper I’ve now been reading assiduously since we arrived in DF). From that experience came the few bits of Mexican Spanish which don’t basically mean f*ck yer mum. I can’t claim to have finished the novel because it was a written in dense literary Mexican Spanish, so I interspersed my adventures with Melquíades and the gang by reading a tacky French crime novel from an American crime series presented by someone who turned out to be some sort of a catholic fascist. I didn’t really mind at the time because, what with my French being essentially shit, all I was trying to understand at the end of each chapter was who’s dead? Who killed them? Who’s going to die next? By the time I got to the end I had a lot of passive vocabulary for describing various sorts of murders, which I would say made my French about 2% better, but given that in China I didn’t know anyone else who spoke rudimentary French, and certainly not anyone I wanted to murder (in French), it was all a little bit whatever-the-French-word-for-moot-is.
Crime fiction is a great way of learning about a city, about the urban texture but also what might be going on beneath its surface. If I was going to live in Edinburgh I’d be sure to gem up on the work of fellow Thomas Pynchon enthusiast Ian Rankin. Yesterday, looking for Mexico City policiacas, the name Paco Ignacio Taibo II came up and, recognising him as the co-author of the novel by El Sup I’d struggled with ten years ago, I immediately identified with his particular absurdist take on crime fiction, particularly given his politics and his comments on living in Mexico City:
“In DF (everyday you’re) forced to deal with complexity, economic inequality, corruption, environmental destruction and pollution. The only way to survive (is) to accept the chaos and become one with it.”
“Mexico City is the safest city in Mexico. Everybody says that. I even believe it. And it’s true. Why? The narcos have created paradise here…they can live here but [they don’t] work here. It’s the resting city of the narcos. What is this? Very complex city, I love it.”
From his twitter account I learnt that, somewhat serendipitously, he was giving a talk round the corner yesterday connected with the election. We went along, or at least we tried to, as we ended up getting horribly lost somewhere en route, and given that the event had already started, it was taking place in a park, and the Aztec gods had just unleashed yet another mind-bendingly intense thunderstorm, we were forced to give up and go home. This felt appropriate as I’m sure that even had we managed to find the place we would have ended up even more lost in the infinitely complex thoroughfares of Mexican politics and history. It’s the names which cause most problems, whether I’m reading the paper or trying to find a particular place — names of places and people, plazas and politicians — not by coincidence, as a cursory knowledge of Mexican history confirms that most streets take their names from past presidents or revolutionary adventurers.
Getting lost in a city is like getting lost on the page. It hurts nicely in the head and even though you may not get where you originally wanted to go, you end up discovering things that, to mildly paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you didn’t even know that you didn’t know. The first thing to do in a new city is get lost, and use the few clues you have to help you identify where you might be. On the first page of Taibo’s first novel his Detective Belascoarán sits in his office staring at newspaper pages spread out on the floor, looking for clues to no crime in particular. Anything at all could come in handy one day. Nunca se sabe.