Furthering my sometime theme on the representations of space in Mexico City, I want to continue my interest in the work of Paco Ignacio Taibo II (or PIT) and this time his novella De Paso (1986), published subsequently in English as Just Passing Through with Cinco Punto Press (2000). Readers may recall my earlier discussion of PIT’s preceding novel Sombra de la sombra (1986), or The Shadow of the Shadow. The subsequent novella Just Passing Through picks up the same theme of the earlier book by deciphering spaces of post-revolutionary Mexico in the 1920s. In this case it follows the exploits of Sebastián San Vicente (aka Pedro Sánchez or the Tampiqueño), a Spanish mechanic and boiler repairer, as well as anarcho-syndicalist, that arrives in Tampico in 1921.
As ever, PIT is blurring the boundaries between fiction and history in writing the biography of this historical figure through literature. He playfully notes that by drawing from original documents, police files, archival sources, newspapers, and secret service reports it would be difficult to describe the work as a novel. Yet, he also playfully notes that it would equally be difficult to describe the work as a documentary, given its reconstruction from the author’s imagination; hence it is obviously a novel. How is PIT chasing space and shadows of revolution in Mexico in Just Passing Through?
The narrator of the novella is PIT himself, 29 years before he is born, searching for intertextual references to Sebástian San Vicente, in FBI records during the Wilson era, in anarchist records, newspapers, and other documents. San Vicente was a founder of the Confederación General de Trabajadores (CGT), a revolutionary syndicalist union, illusively organising labour strikes against the emerging bourgeois forces shaping the Mexican state. As PIT narrates about San Vicente, ‘There are not any streets around named after him. Even now he is just a blot, a piece of mist. “The Shadow of the Shadow”, I am going to call him and some other friends in a future novel’, explicitly referencing The Shadow of the Shadow. As PIT adds: ‘Why do I chase shadows? Is it so I can talk to them?’.
Later the same theme is narrated. ‘Maybe shadows have a certain density about them, but as for shadows of shadows—those elusive, misty and faint traces I find here and there—there is very little of the human warmth left that brought them about. Just scraps of news picked up from his friends over the years, mere scraps of scraps of scraps. Faint shadows’.
In chasing the shadows of Sebástian San Vicente, PIT’s aim is to review and extend the Left’s pantheon of heroes in Mexico, especially following the difficulties that the ’68 generation faced in appealing to wider referents (see ’68). But PIT is also chasing space in this literary work: trying to grapple with the interrelations, the multiplicity of trajectories, that shape the spatiality of Mexico and its capital city, thereby conceptualising space as multiple, relational, and unfinished in configuring the politics of the state.
References throughout the novella are made to Mikhail Bakunin, Errico Malatesta, and Élisée Reclus and later also Peter Kropotkin, Jean Grave and Ricardo Flores Magón, as prominent anarchists, while the novella weaves in correspondence from Charles Phillips, a Marxist organiser (aka Manuel Gómez). In one letter, dated May 1921, the United States national reflects on how in his own country, after world revolution, ‘the skyscrapers must be preserved as they are monuments too, after all’.
In conversation with San Vicente, after their May 1921 arrest and during possible deportation, Charles Phillips (aka Manuel Gómez) reflects on the cause and process of revolution, an echo of similar reflections in The Shadow of the Shadow. He states: ‘The revolution is science, brother. As long as you don’t understand that simple idea, you won’t be able to put yourself in the right place, the right course . . .’ By contrast, San Vicente declares that: ‘The revolution is an act of will. What the bleedin’ hell has science got to do with it?’ He continues: ‘The main problem as I see it, getting down to brass tacks, has to do with this dictatorship of the proletariat business’, which he views as neither temporary nor to do with the proletariat but based on an eternal dictatorship of the Party. In response, Phillips states: ‘But the Party represents the best of the class’, and that the working class cannot take power without organisation. The two then consider the role of the soviets, granting room for all political organisations, from the grassroots, from the workers’ assemblies. But even in Russia, San Vicente concludes, the anarchists and social revolutionaries have been persecuted and excluded for acting against the Bolshevik dictatorship. Phillips’ rejoinder is that: ‘The revolution can only prevail with centralisation’. Coordination, not centralisation, is the key for San Vicente in realising the initiative of the producers in shaping the new society and not the strengthening of the state.
In a long passage constituting a single chapter, PIT again returns to the theme of the production of space constituting and reconstituting, creating and recreating Mexico City:
The city nowadays is not what it was back then. The city back then was not what it is now. Seventy-five years have not gone by for nothing. That is not the problem. It is nothing to do with trying to find the 1923 Mexico City in today’s monstrosity. Nor am I going to get caught up in nostalgia for things I never saw, things I can hardly imagine. It has all to do with a professional problem. Once you realise that that city is not this one, you are left with the problem of finding that city. Newspapers have etchings in them, they talk about tramlines, of open spaces with maize ripening in them with nothing but a narrow road cutting across with the odd Ford or Packard wheezing along. Newspapers can supply the décor, the scenery—two patches of wasteland here, a street there, a man selling birds carrying ten cages piled up on his back like a tall pillar, a colonial building, ten trams in a depot, two men on horseback halfway down the Paseo de la Reforma. It’s not that. It’s more, that’s just the danger—the temptation in believing the city is not the same as its décor. It’s me that needs the pulse, the heart of the city, that feeling in the air which the Sunday music just hides, those provincial smells the big city has yet to blot out. And so San Vicente moves around on a large stage set, a soulless city. And that is my problem, not his.
In chasing spaces and shadows, the process of revolution is regarded by PIT as part of a series of connective jigsaw puzzles that are lodged in many cities, moments, and organisations. The spaces of Mexico that are also shadows recounted are those of the Buenavista Railway Station (pictured), originally constructed by Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México but then first remodeled under President Adolfo López Mateos in 1961; the old San Lázaro railway station (featured in the set image to this post), once the main terminus for the Interoceanic Railway linking to the port of Veracruz and, since 1969, a metro station and Mexico City’s eastern bus station; and Colonia Hipódromo, an old horse racetrack of the 1920s created from the hacienda of the Countess of Miravalle that was redeveloped into La Condesa, a modern suburb of Mexico City, and now Parque México.
However, it is Sebastián San Vicente that exits these spaces, on the run he is eventually captured and transported to Veracruz where he is due for deportation. Eventually, leaving Mexico at border control in Veracruz, he is asked if he entered the country illegally. San Vicente indicates that he does not believe in legality or borders. ‘There was no difference between Mexico and Guatemala’, he states. ‘Just from one tree in the jungle to another. Trees don’t recognise borders either’. Thereafter, from 1923 onwards, San Vicente dissolves and vanishes into thin air, in that thing we call history and space with him possibly seen in La Coruña, Spain, and then Bordeaux, France.
After Just Passing Through, it is to the political economy of state space, geopolitics, and the labyrinths of the city form that PIT returns in Retornamos como sombras (Returning as Shadows, 2001), which will be picked up in my next blog post on chasing space in Mexico City.