The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle
When I reviewed Francisco Goldman's 2011 autobiographical novel, SAY HER NAME, the story of his love affair and marriage to Aura Estrada and her death in a bodysurfing accident, I described it as “distinctive for the unrelenting candor of its journey through the twinned emotions of love and grief.” That tragedy remains a preoccupation of THE INTERIOR CIRCUIT, but this is a much different book, one that abandons the veil of fiction and takes up the mantle of memoir and journalism. Goldman successfully negotiates that transition because he retains his gifts of incisive observation, flashing wit, intense curiosity about his interior life and the lives of those around him, and his ability to express himself in vivid prose.
Goldman describes the summer of 2012 he spent in Mexico City (more precisely the Distrito Federal, or DF, the name by which Mexico City proper is known) five years after Aura's death, as one "when it turned out that I didn't get to where I'd hoped to arrive quite by following the plan I'd laid out." In this non-chronological account, what he calls his "circuitous route," refers both to his struggle to emerge from the "lonely realm of grief" he continues to inhabit following Aura's death and his quixotic plan to take driving lessons, hoping they’ll help him overcome his unease about coping with Mexico City's chaotic traffic, most notably, its Circuito Interior, the "inner ring expressway --- packed with dense traffic at almost any hour and freewheeling nevertheless, unless bottlenecked to a complete stop."
"[Goldman] retains his gifts of incisive observation, flashing wit, intense curiosity about his interior life and the lives of those around him, and his ability to express himself in vivid prose."
Even with the aid of a driving instructor (hired, to avoid embarrassment, on the pretext that he wants to learn how to drive a stick shift), Goldman's project turns out to be largely a fool's errand. With subtlety, he links the futility of that effort to grief that was, with the approaching anniversary of Aura’s death, "unsurprisingly, resurgent, weighing on me in a new and at times even somewhat frightening way that I didn't know how to free myself from."
Goldman's turmoil plays out in behavior that's noteworthy for its inclination toward self-destruction (an "alcohol-fueled relentless march to the bottom”) and a willingness to place himself in situations where violence may be imminent, while at the same time surpassingly tender, as when he (an unbeliever raised by a Catholic mother and a Jewish father) pays for Aura's name to be read at a mass on the anniversary of her death. Somehow, out of this swirl of chaotic emotions, “the combination of will and chance, of getting lost in order to unexpectedly find, had brought me close to Aura in this new way, one in which she was both present and absent, both asserting a permanence and letting go.” And without yet fully freeing himself of his sorrow, he connects with a new woman, Jovi, who offers the possibility of reawakening his ability to love.
The linchpin of the book's second section, only marginally linked to the first, is an incident that occurred at the after-hours club Heavens on May 26, 2013. On that morning, 13 people between the ages of 16 and 34 were kidnapped, never to be seen again. Goldman's effort to unravel the mystery of that evening's events takes him into the barrio of Tentito, a Mexico City neighborhood that teems with illegal activity and conjures up visions of the seamiest precincts of Dickens's London.
If, in his painstaking (at times labyrinthine) account of the abduction and its aftermath, Goldman has set out to persuade us that Mexico's drug-stained political culture is a cesspool of corruption that may reach to the highest level of its government, he has succeeded. He makes no attempt to conceal his contempt for “Ken doll” lookalike Enrique Peña Nieto, the man whose election as president in 2012 provoked the massive student-led protest #YoSoy132. Peña Nieto was the candidate of the PRI, the “institutionally corrupt, murderously repressive” party that had ruled Mexico without interruption for more than seven decades until its reign interrupted in 2000.
Goldman's sympathies clearly lie with the leftist PRD, but he's equally unsparing in his criticism of its effort to govern the DF and, in particular, the fecklessness of its pursuit of the Heavens kidnappers. The prospect that this incident signals the spread to the DF of the so-called narco war that has killed tens of thousands of Mexicans looms over Goldman’s narrative.
"For all its idiosyncrasies and seemingly apocalyptic problems --- pollution, crime, the ills of the water supply, traffic, crowding, buildings sinking into the soft unstable earth and so on --- the DF is a great twenty-first century city,” Goldman concludes. The vibrant life of Mexico City makes for a compelling story in its own right, and not merely as the backdrop for Goldman's personal quest, as absorbing as that continues to be. In either of its incarnations, this is a story about love, whether for a person or for a city, in all the complicated, rewarding and painful messiness that emotion entails.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on August 1, 2014