Francisco Goldman's "The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle" is so sneakily brilliant it's hard to put into words. Part travelogue, part memoir, part reportage on Mexican politics and the scourge of narco-terrorism, it is also, in the finest sense, a book that creates its own form.
"I could use words as my compass to map the route I'd taken," Goldman tells us late in the first part of this journal-like account, "and give it a narrative order, a sequence of incident and meaning, and rescue it from being something other than just circumstantial and ephemeral. … The stories one tells about oneself aren't necessarily true, of course, but I wanted this one to be as true as I could make it. This didn't mean that it all had to be factually true, but I decided that this story needed to be factually true too."
Coming, as it does, almost exactly halfway through "The Interior Circuit," such a passage functions as a mirror through which Goldman's narrative is refracted and refined. It's early 2013, and he is looking back at the events of the previous summer, which he spent, as usual, in Mexico City, where he has lived part time for many years. In that sense, the book is something of a follow-up to his autobiographical 2011 novel, "Say Her Name," which tells the story of his marriage to the Mexican writer Aura Estrada, who died at 30 in a bodysurfing accident in 2007.
For Goldman, the city is both refuge and challenge, a place where time slows, where he can write all day and drink at night, and yet an elusive landscape also, too vast ever to be seen. "From the air," he explains, "… 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.'" That's a vivid metaphor for what Goldman is up to, since "The Interior Circuit" functions as both map and landscape in its own right.
To some extent, this has to do with Aura, who is a presence in this new book, if the dead can be said to be present, which Goldman insists they can.
"Aura has her place inside me now," he suggests, "… though I hate that phrase, and its false impression of gardened cemetery neatness. What is Aura's place? — death and memory, never neat or orderly, always a forest and an ocean." The point, he continues, is that "[t]he consciousness of mortality is the most important truth we can engrave within ourselves in order to be able to live life to the fullest" — an idea that seems particularly emblematic of Mexico, with its "carnivalesque Day of the Dead and its popular iconography of festive skeletons and skulls."
Goldman, however, has something much more nuanced in mind, a synthesis of the personal and the political, as embodied on the one hand by his ongoing grief over Aura and on the other by the fallout from the narco wars. If the first section of the book, which takes place in 2012, is caught up with the former, it is in the second, which unfolds the ensuing summer, that these broader connections come into play.
The turning point is the kidnapping, on the morning of May 26, 2013, of 12 people at a club called After Heavens: the "sort of levantón, literally a lifting … [that] is carried out by the cartels every day all over Mexico; its victims are rarely seen alive again." The catch is that these disappearances "weren't supposed to happen in the Distrito Federal." (As the capital, Mexico City, like Washington, D.C., is not part of any of Mexico's 32 states.) The DF, rather, is a safe zone, a bubble in which, Goldman admits, "I'd for years maintained my own bubble" — until the Heavens case stripped away his sense of security.
Throughout summer 2013, he accompanies his friend Pedro, a reporter, in gathering information, tracing a line between the drug wars and the country's tortured politics.
"Too much violent death," he writes, "too much suffering, much of it directly caused by police empowered by government authorities. The squalor and cruelty and near hopelessness of the situation overwhelm. Maybe the Heavens case is nobody's cause now but that of the families. They, like tens of thousands of other families in Mexico, have been sent on journeys that they, individually or banded together, will mostly have to endure alone, through that place without solace where the dead often seem more alive than the living."
This is the genius of "The Interior Circuit," to link Goldman's grief for Aura to the grief of all these families and indeed of Mexico. It's an audacious move, but it works because of the offhand beauty of the writing, which shifts from individual to collective with the fluid grace of circumstance.
It is made explicit by his choice of title, which stands for both the city's main expressway and another, more internal passage — his emotional interior circuit — by which Goldman can finally reckon with his loss.
"Eventually," he writes, "I stopped exoticizing the city …, less like a photographer following an aesthetic compulsion than like a pretentious tourist. I no longer wanted or needed to frame the city … by distinguishing certain moments or images from all the other moments and images as being uniquely characteristic of the city, which they're not."
Over the course of these two summers, in other words, his life became re-grounded, through the pleasures and the terrors of this place. Mexico City may have once been where Goldman went to lose himself, but in the end, he admits, "[t]he DF is home now, whatever is going to happen here."
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The Interior Circuit
A Mexico City Chronicle
Grove Press: 338 pp., $26