“Así, creo yo, es como empiezan las mejores religiones.” (“This is the way, I believe, the best religions begin.”)
Yesterday we made tacos at home. We bought corn tortillas, jalapeños, and black beans at El corte ingles, and chicken, cilantro, avocados, red peppers at the Pakistani store nearby. While I was stir-frying the chicken pieces with sliced onions and red peppers, Mónica made some salsa and guacamole. I also cooked some yellow rice and put the canned beans on the stove for a few minutes. Once everything was ready, we warmed up the tortillas on a pan and filled them with thick layers of rice, beans, chicken, salsa, guacamole, and some jalapeños. Then, we wrapped them up as much as we could and sat at the table. They were delicious. Really.
Today, I made another taco for lunch using the leftovers from yesterday. I told Mauricio, my Mexican friend, about my lunch. I just had this huge taco, I said. I put like thirty jalapeños on it, and, man, it was great. Mauricio listened to me and after a pause he said: Well, that sounds good, but, you know, they certainly weren’t tacos, because real tacos, chaval, don’t have jalapeños, only salsa. Yours were, actually, more like . . .
Probably, my tacos were really burritos; so what, I like them that way. After all, these are my tacos. I have never been to Mexico and the closest thing to The Mexican Experience™ I’ve had was grocery shopping at a Mexican supermarket in Chicago. They had carnitas and a taquería corner and sombreros hanging from the walls. The experience felt quite real while it lasted.
That’s something very Mexican, if you think about it. That “No, you don’t really know what Mexico is” speech, I mean. Mexicans don’t even say “You have to experience it, you have to live here,” no. The Real Mexico™, it seems, is unreachable to foreigners. Whatever you believed about Mexico, forget about it, it’s not true. Actually, you don’t want to know the truth: you can’t handle the truth.
Conspiracy Theory (The Truth)
The Mexican Conspiracy Theory™ claims that Mexico, The Real and Mero Mexico™, exists in a parallel universe, somehow independent from ours, and that the country we know as Mexico, that upside down triangle located south of the U.S., is an elaborated Aztec illusion. Furthermore, all things we consider traditionally Mexican are simply a facade intended to hide and protect Mexico from uninitiated and ignorant foreigners, like us. Real Mexicans, I’m told, don’t wear sombreros. Nor sing rancheras. Nor carry pistolas. They don’t even like chimichangas.
Don’t think I’m ordering these entries alphabetically for the heck of it
Since we are unable to reach the true essence of Mexico, we have the right to appropriate the fake pseudo-mythology they offer us and do whatever we want with it. We can make it true, in a way, defining what we would like Mexico to be. We could—and we should—compile a methodical glossary redefining every possible word related to that unreal Mexico. Everyone could have, in fact, her own (alphabetically ordered) private version. Rodrigo Fresán’s version, for instance, would be called Mantra.
In 1993, when he was 30, the cultural journalist Rodrigo Fresán published his first novel, Esperanto, and in his natal Argentina everybody liked it. His prose was sharp and sexy and different. He was young and he was proud of it. His books were full of pop references and music, he was fond of American and British writers, and he was also widely read, which is pretty rare these days. In this fast novella, he told the story of this poor guy who only wanted to be understood and of the week when his miserable life finally broke down. Five years after Esperanto, Fresán published La velocidad de las cosas (The Speed of Things), a novel about dead people, intersections, fragments and monsters, and by that time he was more or less well known in the whole Spanish-speaking world as one of the hot new novelists.
Then Mantra came.
Mantra Mission (or You didn’t believe I was going to go letter by letter, did you?)
Mantra was actually a mission assigned by Mondadori Editorial. They chose seven Latin American writers and assigned each of them a specific city. They didn’t let the writers pick one—that would have been too easy. The series of books was called Año 0 and it was published during 2001 and 2002. Roberto Bolaño was assigned Rome and wrote Una novelita lumpen; José Manuel Prieto wrote Treinta días en Moscú; Santiago Gamboa, Octubre en Pekín; Héctor Abad, Oriente empieza en El Cairo; Lala Isla, Londres Pastel; Gabi Martinez, Hora de Times Square; and Rodrigo Fresán wrote Mantra.
Mantra is a novel about a Mexico City that doesn’t exist and about a man called Martín Mantra. Martín Mantra, the cursed boy genius, the son of a soap opera star and a pathetic melodic singer, the only heir of the Mantra Media Empire, the young director of the Mexican “total film” Mondo Mantra, the hypothetical mascot of a group of masked luchadores, the late revolutionary-terrorist leader also known as Capitán Godzilla (a.k.a.) Mantrax. Martín Mantra, the stereotypical citizen of that fictional . . .
I am, of course, oversimplifying. Mantra is also:
- one continuously expanding inventory of all things we thought were Mexican but were only dreams. My humble taco with jalapeños is certainly there.
- a TV show non-Mexicans watch over and over again when they dare to die in Mexico City. A punishment, I suppose, for breaking in.
- the story of Jesús Nazareno y de Todos los Santos Mártires en la Tierra Fernandez (a.k.a.) Black Hole (a.k.a.) Mano Muerta, the masked and later on one-armed luchador who stole Mexican relics kept in museums all over Europe, and brought them back home.
- a potentially infinite love letter to María-Marie, yet another member of the numerous Mantra clan, who was born in France, went to visit Mexico, and (naturally) disappeared.
- a lost episode of The Twilight Zone with pyramids, human sacrifices, and time travel.
- an ethological study of sea monkeys in captivity (their natural habitat).
- the dreams of the man who went after María-Marie, his wanderings through the city, his memories of those days when he was a kid and he met Martín Mantra, his tragic death in La Arena Tepito, and the TV show he watches in hell, aleph-zero times.
Mantra, as its title suggests, is a reiterating novel. Fresán takes a random path to cover the vast land of his own private Mexico, and, in doing so, he meets again and again the same spaces, events, characters, and words. Time does not flow in Mantra, it wanders. “To the old Mexicans,” we read in the TIEMPO (Mexicano) entry, “time was a divine substance that was pictured in calendars and ordered in concentric cycles. Time was not a straight line. Time had curvature. I already told you. It bit its tail. It licked its legs.”
“A long time before everything that had to be finished started, before that horrible and magnificent Day of the Dead on which I traveled to and arrived to leave for the first and last time to Mexico Distrito Federal (Mexico City is known to Mexicans simply as Mexico—pronounced ‘MEH-kee-ko.’ If they want to distinguish from Mexico the country, they call it either ‘la ciudad de Mexico’ or el DF -’el de EFF-e’), when there was still time before I turned myself into what I am and I never wished to be, I met Martín Mantra or, to put it in better terms, Martín Mantra met me, he offered me his hand, and in his hand he had a revolver.”
—the first page of Mantra
Divided into three clearly delimited parts, Mantra is told, or compiled, by an anonymous narrator/lexicographer who, it turns out, is pretty much dead. We don’t know the circumstances of his death, but we suspect he is not among us anymore. This man is a non-Mexican who, during his early childhood, was introduced by Martín Mantra himself to the Mexican Mantraverse during the projection of a movie the Mexican kid had made. Although Martín Mantra only stayed a few months in the place where he lived, the memory of this exotic child haunted him forever. He could not forget that movie. Then he grew up to be the creator of Guadalajara Smith, a comic book heroine, went to Paris, and, accidentally, met María-Marie, the French cousin of Martín Mantra. María-Marie left him for Mexico, and he went after her. And then he died, so he could start defining things.
Palabras (Which means Words)
The Argentinean writer José Rodolfo Wilcock in his hilarious La sinagoga degli iconoclasti (The Temple of Iconoclasts) (1972) dreamed of a novel-dictionary. “Once the reader is done with it,” Wilcock explained, “he has not only learned the correct use of each of the voices that compose the language, but also has had fun following the intricate development of a plot both emotional and charming, espionage-pornographic flavored.” I guess this is also true about Mantra: Its dictionary (the core of the book) both introduces an artificial or even fake, I have to insist, culture-language, and serves as a channel for several knotted plots. It could have been confusing (like Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars (1985)), but Fresán manages to build something structurally compelling as well as readable. His prose is clean, made out of short paragraphs and phrases. Each entry connects easily with the rest without sacrificing its natural independence. It goes from ABAJO (Inframundo) to ZONA (Crepuscular). The Spanish edition lacks words starting with r. The French one doesn’t, and this is not a problem of translation.
Translations (and Versions)
Fresán makes a whole new book out of each new edition. La velocidad de las cosas has suffered, so far, four mutations since it was first released. With each edition, entirely new chapters are added. “Books are never dead matter,” he told me when I asked him about it in an interview a year and a half ago for a Colombian magazine. In the case of Mantra, Fresán decided to expand the book when it was published in France. “I added the letter R,” he told me. “It was missing. Nobody had noticed it.”
As of today, Mantra has not been translated into English, but last year Natasha Wimmer translated Fresán’s latest novel, Kensington Gardens, and it received good reviews, so there is still hope. I wonder what new terms will be added in that hypothetical edition.
Words and Worlds
Mantra, in short, explores the way words recoil back when they are shot. It experiments with the mechanisms that allow each word to summon a moment, a memory, a place. We never leave the past behind, we keep everything encoded. Anything (one city, one woman, one country, one life) can be recovered (or built) out of words. At the time of death, I read somewhere, we listen to our voice pronouncing all the words we have ever said. This novel is a case study of this phenomenon, if you want, with a dreamed Mexico City as its subject. But, actually, any place would do. More details to follow.
X (Represents the Unknown)
“This is what I think, my friend, my travel companion: the plot can be the hero and the hero can be the style. Can’t it? Here we go, Martín Mantra told me . . . and then he added: Mexico in Náhuatl means in the navel of the moon, and I, traveling toward that x, traveled toward me, from the screen, and I didn’t dare to ask him what Náhuatl was because I was afraid of getting lost forever and, not having reached anywhere, find out I would never find the way back to everywhere.”
Javier Moreno lives in Barcelona. He is part of the editorial team of Hermano Cerdo, a regular contributor to Pie de Página and Ocho y Medio, and the author of La balada del elefante azul, a blog about elephants and mathematical logic. Read his essay on Roberto Bolaño from Issue 8 of The Quarterly Conversation.
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