From the depths of his own anguish, author Mario Bellatin, one of the most important figures in contemporary Latin American literature, presents an intimate and profoundly visual text on Mexico Cityâ€”a territory of many cultures and settings that photographer Janet Jarman, winner of important international awards and contributor to such publications as National Geographic and the New York Times, has brought deliciously to the language of light.
Whirling Around My Tomb
a text by Mario BellatĂn in response to the work of Janet Jarman
translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley
The oppression of knowing that you are lost in the middle of a relatively unfamiliar city is I think sufficient reason to choose it as a place to work. Periodically, I have intense, apparently unmotivated attacks of panic, of anguish. I have come to the conclusion that these states are necessary if I am to be able to write. Long nights of insomnia, imagining the most dreadful situations, hours of sleeplessness and interrupted sleep while life goes on about me. At such times, in my head there often appear images of obese men and women, naked, holding a political protest in the middle of the street, or I feel trapped in the midst of a wrestling festival in which the person whoâ€™s about to be demolished in the ring is none other than me. Itâ€™s when I imagine situations like thatâ€”when this sort of images come, one after anotherâ€”that I am driven to seek out my desk, the only refuge able to lessen the anguish. Sometimes the cure also consists in walking down anonymous streets filled with people, or taking the underground train with no assurance that the mechanisms allowing me to emerge once more onto the surface are going to work. Knowing that at the exact moment of my anguish, hundreds of activities are going on all around me is important. It is hard to consider Mexico City, D.F., as my city. I didnâ€™t grow up in it. I have hardly any memories of it. I left it when I was very young and only returned a short time ago. The perfect situation for feeling that I both am and am not a participant in its vortexes of activities. For thinking that I am both a resident and an explorer. Day after day discovering a series of unfamiliar customs, unknown streets, feeling as though I were breaking some rule in acting like a normal run-of-the-mill citizen. One of this cityâ€™s characteristics is that it is designed as an amalgam of layered villages. Each with its own customs, its own tempos. Thatâ€™s why it is possible, in the middle of the city, to suddenly see a group of charros doing deeds of daring on their horses, or people dancing in the middle of the avenue, not caring that trafficâ€”millions of carsâ€”has to be detoured or simply come to a halt, in a massive traffic jam, until the celebration is over. Those so-called â€ścoloniasâ€ť have, rather, the function of small villages, turned in upon themselves, self-sufficient. Thatâ€™s why often, their inhabitants donâ€™t venture far afield. All of this is possible to experience in a city like the D.F. It is no coincidence that I have chosen to live in a small early-twentieth-century house in one of the most centrally-located areas. A haven of peace, a corner overlooked in the midst of the hustle and bustle going on around it. I live in a group of houses called El Buen Tono. Here weâ€”my anguish and Iâ€”remain, far from most of the activities going on outside. No one has to witness my ennui. I, alone before the words I am to create. All the restâ€”the rush of human activity, the cultural developmentâ€”I perceive as some vague, distant murmur. From time to time I run into some other writer, we greet each other courteously, and then we continue on our individual ways. I watch him disappear along some wall plastered with texts and imagesâ€”plastered, no doubt, while no one was watching. Texts that often say things like â€śMy mother is my girlfriendâ€ť or â€śI wish I were younger and crazier.â€ť But this situationâ€”everything sounding like some vague, distant murmurâ€”does not, curiously enough, make me completely separate and apart. I run, despite my isolation, a Writers School. A sort of meeting-place where a series of creators spend several hours a week with a group of aspiring writers. That activity is what also allows me to put aside my anguish and depression and face the questions that arise out of literary creation. My involvement is such that my personal work is not affected. Or my emotional state. Or the anxiety which, apparently, enables me to create. Running the school is a kind of trick that frees me from the guilt that goads me to write. I know the sensation well, because it has been with me since I was very young. Somehow this guilt dissipates when I sit with a group of young writers and comment on their new creations or when I need to hire a new teacher and I have to discuss the schoolâ€™s rules of the road. But I can bear this whole situation, actually, because of the presence in this city of a series of friends. It is a city so huge that it allows the existence of many networks of friends of many different kinds. I am bound to them by ties of differing natures, and each one constitutes me as a person. I have my Sufi brethren, with whom I share my spiritual path; my intellectual friends, who nourish my hunger for culture; my friends who canâ€™t be defined by any characteristic in particular, with whom I wander in time and space. The particular characteristic that may, perhaps, define these friends is their varying degrees of eccentricity. They range from those who are uncontrolled lovers of dog survival to those who cross-dress with the secret desire to experience several lives at once. The dog loversâ€”around the city there are millions of dogs without ownersâ€”do everything imaginable to keep the animals from continuing to reproduce or from living in the street. More than once, Iâ€™ve attended one of these mass-sterilization activities, which are conducted almost as religious ceremonies. A single doctor, in the living room of a private house, operates on one animal after another in the presence of the animalâ€™s owner. The curious thing about the doctor is that he never puts down that eternal cigarette of his, which he smokes throughout every operation. With all these friends I share bonds of affection, yet curiously, they themselves almost never mix. The cross-dressers and transsexuals have their zone and schedule; the charros, theirs; the protesting naked men and women exhibiting the natural spillover of their bodies know when and where to appear. The urban space of layered realities allows this quite naturally. There appears to be room for the atavistic and the contemporary, for hate and love. For life and death, whose boundaries are often not easy to distinguish very clearly. I donâ€™t think thereâ€™s any other city that allows this in such a determined way. That holds out the possibility of making oneâ€™s way down a series of parallel paths that never, ever cross. This situation also makes it easy for me to keep my creative space intact, without much interference. The very fact of overpopulation generates the possibility of seeking out a series of solitudes that are simultaneous and mutually separate. Despite the disorder and the immenseness, the D.F. is the city where I have been able to find the most silence, that silence magnified because I know the peace may be shattered at any moment, giving way to immersion into a dynamic involving millions. Because of the possibility of swinging almost instantly from one extreme to the other. With respect to my books, this sense of being not-alone in the midst of the emptiness has made it possible for my writing to increasingly question itself. Because the worlds portrayed in the books obey with increasing strictness the laws that the writing itself has, over time, created. So many things happen all around me which my books turn into a kind of reflection of a space that can only be reproduced through words. To portray a reality in constant change, there seem to me to exist much more effective means of expression than writing. It might be more effective to enter a temple whose enormous letters Cease suffering induce one to believe that all reality is simply a simulacrum. Or that we are in a space that includes the option to choose that kind of service. Or includes the ability to nourish with dead people my surrender to death, with the strange objective of forestalling my own death. I think these circumstances make it possible to more fully comply with the premise that a book should exist because what it expresses cannot be communicated through any other medium. Literature as a necessary space, not as a resource that is exists to be chosen to reflect some particular situation. In Mexico City, everything is arranged for belonging and not-belonging at the same time. For believing that you can emulate a universe only through words. I sense that I will wind up annihilated by my own worlds. This happens mainly when anguish tinges everything around me. When my fears grow and grow and when I feel that the monster that surrounds me is truly ungraspable. At those times, it only takes walking a few steps to find myself inside the market down on the corner of my street. Or to visit the building in ruins, what seems to me to be the most invisible place in all invisibility, where dozens of families liveâ€”those people whoâ€™ve invented the Fiesta del Gran Vidrio, the Big Glass Festival, an annual celebration they hold to raise funds in order to support the eternal eviction proceedings. What they havenâ€™t been able to do is prevent the ruins of that building from being made even more invisible by the installation of large printed advertisements. Now, in order to speak to one of the people who live inside, you have to speak directly to the bottle of Coca-Cola on the sign. Or I decide to walk a little more and I find myself inside one of the cityâ€™s busiest metro stations. I go directly over to where a blind man has set up, in a corner of the station, a little massage area. Itâ€™s a tiny space whose glass wallâ€”which is in a station used every day by almost two million peopleâ€”is covered, badly, by a torn and tattered curtain. In the space there is barely room for the blind man and a table covered with a sheet that reminds me of the bed with that woman stabbed dozens of times lying on it, the man at her side saying It was just a few little pricks. The blind man, sensing my misgiving, tells me not to worry, the stains are made by the oil he uses on his clients. Itâ€™s odd that something as good as oil should produce a sensation so unpleasant to the sight. Lie down, sir; the oil is good for everyone. I strip naked less than six inches from thousands of people in constant motion. I lie on the sheet covered with stains and begin to watch, through the rips in the curtain, the infinite comings and goings of the people outside. I also see that the blind man is a kind of leader of the legion of blind men who, organized by this man, spend their lives on the metro. The bizarre massage is interrupted constantly by CD vendors, who slide their earnings under the door. Because of the complaints of aggression inflicted on some of the members of clan by the subway guard. My masseur, who has told me that he learned this trade in order to free himself from singing in the metro cars and rise to a place of regard within the ranks of the blind men who live underground, has a solution to almost every request. I realize then that there is no error possible. That despite the shadows within which my words are sometimes immersed, in their apparent lack of sense, reality is always present. I confirm this with the hundreds of people whoâ€”Iâ€™d like not to think about itâ€”have been surrounding me all this time. Words, textsâ€”itâ€™s not true that they are born in the midst of the most absolute solitude. More than once I have pictured myself writing in some other city, or under other circumstances. In fact, Iâ€™ve actually done that. I remember the disastrous experience when I attempted to withdraw into a totally isolated cabin. Soon there began to appear a series of physical symptoms, a persistent asthma among others, that forced me to abandon the hut with everything Iâ€™d written still inside it. I never dared return. During my reclusion in a series of writersâ€™ residencies, or during my stay at a live-in film school, my main interest was finding ways by which to arrive as soon as possible at a place that was urban enough to allow me to compare the relatively strange worlds reflected in my texts against everyday reality. That wayâ€”living in the midst of highly populated societiesâ€”I can see that my work somehow seeks to find the non-evident point that lies in any concrete behavior. Despite the discomforts of this city, its unsafeness, its deceptive friendliness, the ethics of horrorâ€”charged with behaviors that, the more honorable they are, the more inhumanâ€”with which situations tend to present themselves, despite often not being able to communicate with others even to resolve the most trivial matters, my decision to work in Mexico City is not a mistake. I have even prepared my funeral and chosen where I will be buried. Although it seems like a geographic displacement, around my body a series of dervishes will whirl for infinite hours; I will be wrapped in a green fabric covered with flowers, and my farewell will be the jubilant chant that accompanies the Mystical Wedding. Surely many of the figures that are everyday people to me will be at that wake. In attendance, I assure you, will be the fat naked men and women, the veterinarian that neutered all those animals, the wrestlers, the charros with their hats over their hearts, the cross-dressing and transsexual friends of mine, the romantics, the writersâ€”in a word, all those who allow my life to mingle in the layers of times and spaces. All this will take place in the heart of Mexico City, D.F., my place of work, where, since the beginning of time, and not in vain, death has been transformed into a ritual of celebration.