As primarily a reader of fiction, I am wary of non-fiction that attempts to encompass an entire city in a single book. I can’t help but begin with a maximally heightened sense of caution; a complete image of a city seems so unlikely as to dissuade attempts in the first place. Usually, I am far more interested in how an author tells a fictional story in a real place: the London of Zadie Smith’s novels, Piglia’s Buenos Aires, Sebald’s English coast, or Pavese’s Turin. In these kinds of stories, the components of the city we are shown often become vital to the plot, yet in non-fiction, I find I am more distracted by the book’s omissions; the details and places left out catch my attention far more than what is included. The generalizations that are common in city-encapsulating works—think “this city will punch you in the stomach” or “I can cry on a street corner and no one will notice”—also contribute to my unease around these kinds of books. All of this is to say that I began reading Horizontal Vertigo by Juan Villoro with a decent amount of trepidation, though I rather early on discovered that it was a work of a different nature, one that goes about accomplishing this Herculean task through a diary-like form, a form that acknowledges the limited nature of an individual point of view.
Horizontal Vertigo is Villoro’s first work of nonfiction in English (translated by Alfred MacAdam) following the recent translations of his novel The Reef as well as his story collection, The Guilty. Horizontal Vertigo is part history of Mexico City, part personal history, part diary. Villoro notes that the title refers to the “fear of ever-impending earthquakes that led Mexicans to build their capital city outward rather than upward.” The book employs a scattershot method of actualizing a vision of one of the most populous cities on Earth, and is broken up under recurring topics and themes, such as “Living in the City,” “City Characters,” and “Shocks, Crossings, and Ceremonies,” among others.
Though the book is billed as a guided tour of sorts through Villoro’s own past in the city with a focus on the exploration of “the sum and juncture of different times and places, a codex simultaneously physical and one composed of memories of crossed destinies,” Villoro more often looks to the symbolic importance of everything around him, extrapolating out from personal anecdotes to encompass larger questions. Dating back to 1993, the entries in this diary of a city mostly veer away from the catchalls used commonly when writing about metropolises, and stand as Villoro’s own illustrations of an unfathomably difficult task, placing oneself in the context of a world like Mexico City.
Villoro, a prolific writer of novels, short stories, children’s books, periodicals and articles in Spanish, has only recently become known to English-speaking audiences. In some entries of Horizontal Vertigo, Villoro details his past, his father’s childhood in Belgium, his mother’s work in a Psychiatric Hospital, or his own schooling and memories. Mostly, the more personal memories serve as an entryway into digressions into how his past, and Mexico City’s history, can be symbolically attached to nearly anything. But he goes to lengths to remind the reader this is own perspective on the city:
“Plans are not for us; our task is to decipher a mystery that is already in place. Horizontal Vertigo is part of that extended tradition, but it derives from a rigorously personal point of view. Martin Scorsese praised Woody Allen’s vision of New York because, among other things, it’s so different from his own. I’m putting forward an interpretation among millions of possible interpretations.”
The contents of this book are difficult to encapsulate, if only because they are as wide-ranging as they are detailed. At alternate junctures, Villoro dissects the history of statues or churches and their misremembered origins, the prevalence and necessity of cafes for life and culture, the lives of kids on the street, political histories both local and federal, his own work on Mexico City’s constitution when it became a state, wrestling films (“Wrestling is all about hyperbolic scale: its psychology rejects small size”), his time working for the Mexican Worker’s Party, the Earthquakes of 1985 and after, and even an uncannily prescient account of the President of Mexico’s handling of the influenza epidemic, and the quarantine, mask-wearing and aftermath that followed.
This conglomeration of Villoro’s memories and writings does not necessitate reading from beginning to end; the book could be opened at any page and the story will exist outside of the rest of the accounts told, connected in no other discernible way to each other except that they both exist in the world of Mexico City. The 1985 Earthquake, which “taught us a basic lesson, as old as the first human settlement: we are not the owners of the city,” according to Villoro, resides in close proximity to a humorous investigation of the role of the sign-in book at hotels and businesses, and why it still remains used though it’s so clearly of little use.
A story Villoro tells about a church originally dedicated to Hippolytus, who in 217 was nominally declared the “antipope” because he preached to those excommunicated, seems to get at the themes coursing underneath much of this book. Villoro fixates on churches and sculptures as a way to explain the religious and symbolic resonances of the city and how they coexist with all the rest of the city’s history:
“It’s almost always a matter of decorative fragments that mix with other historical references. In this way, ornamental nationalism unites forces that are historical enemies: Aztec foundations, the three crosses of Golgotha, statues of revolutionary leaders who fought among themselves.”
It should come as no surprise that the church originally named for Hippolytus is now named for Jude the Apostle, the patron saint of lost causes. The ironic twist is that Villoro would confidently claim that he, and most residents of the city, are not surprised by this in the least, that this is just how the city operates, extending outwards and outwards, the edges of it ambiguously forming; in the end defining it is a lost cause, but someone must try.
I’m not so sure that the task taken on here by Villoro was achievable, but amidst the cacophony of noise and sound and memory that a city can produce, Horizontal Vertigo stands as a remarkable example of an author who so clearly understands the city he lives in. This is no small feat; the previously mentioned generalizations of metropolises can so easily influence our perceptions of place, and yet Villoro manages for the most part to transcend this tendency towards hyperbole. The picture painted here is distinctly Villoro’s, but this is beneficial in the end. As a way to make meaning out of creations like the “urban metropolis”, narratives of the cities are created, making every individuals’ story a fragment, and just that, and Villoro understands this, and this is what ultimately endows his work with such meaning; his awareness that his experience is a only fragment of the whole world around him, and that that still constitutes something worth exploring.
by Juan Villoro
Published March 23, 2021