And Let the Earth Tremble at Its Centers, Gonzalo Celorio (trans. Dick Gerdes). University of Texas Press. 158pp, $19.95.
A walking tour of Mexico City’s historic center provides the scaffolding for And Let the Earth Tremble at its Centers, an impressive first novel from Mexican writer Gonzalo Celorio.
We begin with a hangover. Dr. Juan Manuel Barrientos, a supercilious architecture professor, struggles through the morning. Recovering from a retirement party the night before, he faces the day with a flagging spirit and an aching skull, and when Juan Manuel manages to make it into the world, the metropolis’s occluded sky—”composed of toxic ingredients, haze, and desolation”—seems the physical embodiment of his state.
But he has an agenda. The night before he agreed to take a group of his students on a tour of the historic Centro neighborhood—containing the Cathedral Metropolitana, Palacio Nacional, and Templo Mayor—and of course famous bars such as La Ópera that offer libations along the way. Despite being the nucleus of the city—and, by extension, the entire country of Mexico—many of his students have never set foot there.
While being the historic hub of Mexico City, in the 1990s El Centro’s importance diminished as it was taken over by tourism and crime (Celorio’s book was first published in ’99). Like the hollowed-out downtowns of U.S. cities, the area became less relevant as Mexico City came to more strongly contradict traditional definitions of a city: it continually eclipsed its own borders, growing unchecked and absorbing neighboring villages into the metastasizing mass.
Geared up for a robust drinking session, and the indulgent monologues of an academic with ample self-regard, Juan Manuel is at a loss when the meeting never occurs. The students don’t show. But not one to be defeated, Juan Manuel embarks on the walking tour alone, speechifying in his head and feeding his languor with drink after drink while receding it’s the city’s past—and his own.
* * *
If time is simultaneous, as some physicists claim, then a city—seen truly—would be a series of overlayed exposures. A composite image of overlapping moments, elaborating both the past and its erasures, as a mazelike as the shadows of tree branches projected on concrete.
In some way, cities are already like this. One thing that makes living in a city interesting is that—unlike suburbs, which create spaces seemingly outside of history and its attendant dangers—in urban areas the past has left a physical residue. One only has to scan the skyline to see evidence of bygone eras, old structures put to new uses, façades preserved, interiors gutted. It resembles an old body whose scars tell a story.
Indeed, as Juan Manuel walks, he looks at the churches, cathedrals, museums, and mansions of the city with a historian’s excavating eye. His thinking goes several layers deep, and his observations range from lucid reportage to more philosophic reflections. While he traces the route by which San Francisco Convent became a Methodist church with a “Disney-like façade,” the Temple of Tenochtitlan “represents a wound that will never heal. It’s a fissure that swallows up the world, a black opening at the center of the Zócalo.”
Cities are always both functional and symbolic, organism and avatar. In this way they are like human souls; as the novel proceeds, the writing shifts dexterously from Juan Manuel’s route to his interior thoughts to memories and fantasies, even segueing into mini-essays about architecture, Mexican history, and making a proper martini. It’s all done skillfully in muscular prose that is elusive and exacting when necessary.
One of the more enjoyable things of the book, especially for readers who enjoy a drink, are the long passages dealing with various types of alcohol, their proper way to be consumed, Juan Manuel’s various theories on mixing beverages, and the digressions of the drunken mind and its various states: elation, self-pity, sentimentality, sadness, elation again, yawn (fatigue), impulsiveness, joy, idiocy.
At the book’s midpoint, Juan Manuel makes a tally:
So far today, you’ve had four beers, three tequilas, half a bottle of wine, and four brandies. But you drank half of the first brandy. Ah, yes, there was the sherry earlier that morning, not counting, of course, what you consumed last night, which continued into the wee hours of today. Amazingly, you still have a steady hand.
As you may have noticed, one of the peculiar stylistic qualities of the book is that it segues into extended passage in the second person as Juan Manuel plunges into the past. This isn’t merely a gimmick. It can have a powerful vertiginous effect, as during one of his drunken reveries, we go from ” his image . . . reflected in the mirror in front of him” to
Barrientos, you find true pleasure in sitting at the bar with that strange collection of bottles, the different shapes and sizes of glassware from shot glasses to beer mugs, and that mirror, that is to say, your conscience when you drink alone or, more likely, with yourself, who is as well the conversant that lets you look indirectly at other strangers sitting at the bar and carry on a conversation with them without having to look at them, that is to say, without having to expose yourself to their intrusions.
* * *
Does the book have a plot? Sort of. But I won’t make the mistake of Rubén Gallo who wrote a very nice Afterword to the book that, unfortunately, was written as the book’s spoiler-heavy Foreword. In any event, it’s not that important. The book’s pleasures are more along the joys of walking, and taking in the breath of a particular place.
A criticism can be leveled at the novel: at times it feels a little too prescribed. One has the feeling of an author who wants to talk about a particular set of issues and ideas, and so creates a character like himself to discuss them in the form of a novel.
And Let the Earth Tremble at Its Centers begins with a set path that it follows to the end. And as a character Juan Manuel can seem like a writer’s toolbox (family tragedy, check, middle-aged angst, check, painful love affair, check). Yet archetypes and rituals, like disasters, can be liberating. And it’s not surprising that a book that speaks in several modes and registers would need a firm structure, and a firm character, for its thematic and temporal wanderings.
In this way, it relates to the setting that is also the book’s subject: Mexico City. A city in abstract is really just a set of parameters, populated with variables—a sea of possibilities.
Robert Silva writes about film in New York City. His fiction has appeared in ZYZZYVA. Contact him at email@example.com.
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