What role does the Monumento a la Revolución in Mexico City play in the literature of Mexico? Reflecting on this question, my assumption was that no better source to turn to would be Carlos Fuentes and his first novel La región más transparente [Where the Air is Clear, 1958]. The novel, set in Mexico City in 1951, carries a panoramic list of characters and traces the plight of the rising bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia, and the downtrodden working class. Against this backdrop, the real protagonist of the novel, however, is Mexico City itself that was once given the moniker of the City of Palaces by the geographer Alexander von Humboldt. So, what does the City of Palaces reveal to us in this work by Carlos Fuentes about the Monument to the Revolution? Surprisingly little. My re-reading of the book revealed not a single reference to this architectural landmark, which surprised me. Although the shadow of the Monument does appear in Carlos Fuentes’ La voluntad y la fortuna [Destiny and Desire, 2008], published exactly fifty years subsequently, this novel would be a very different book to rely on in terms of its literary economy. This is because ‘place’ in the latter novel is very much here a deliberately fictitious construct. My question in this post, then, became instead: how does La región más transparente offer a snapshot of the rise and rise of the monster that is Mexico City and the production of space?
The re-publication of the book in English by Dalkey Archive Press carries a fascinating new introduction by Ignacio Padilla who notes that La región más transparente has no main character in it but Mexico City itself. As a result, my commentary will be limited to just four characters that play a key role in representing what I recognise as the liminal condition of uneven development shaping the context of Mexico and its capital city. Of course, these issues are examined more fully in my book Revolution and State in Modern Mexico, including a focus on the literary economy of Carlos Fuentes.
It is noteworthy that at the centre of the novel are the bourgeois characters whilst farther out on the periphery are representations of the suffering and toiling masses. The novel is a portrayal – as well as a critique – of the bourgeoisie and the nuevos ricos in Mexico but one significant character is Gladys García, a cabaret worker. On Puente de Nonoalco, a bridge frequently referenced throughout the novel and reproduced in the set image for this blog post entitled ‘Nonoalco 6’ by Octavio Olvera, she reflects on being the ‘lowest of the low, sister to peddlers of cheap tourist junk, vendors of lottery tickets, newspaper boys, beggars and cabbies, river of oil-stained undershirts, shawls, corduroy pants, broken sandals plodding the great street, wearing tracks in it’. For commentators such as Ryan Long, Gladys García is one of the ‘commoners’ – referred to elsewhere in the book in Nahuatl under the heading ‘Maceualli’ – that always remains outside the representative identities deemed constitutive of the nation. Gladys García is the ever-excluded marginal figure that is a representational microcosm of the much broader denigration of Mexico’s popular classes evident in the novel.
Contrasting with the Mexico City of anonymous sexworkers, such as those crossing Plaza Nezahualcóyotl with their knees wrapped and their heels muddy, or the newspaper boys who share ‘a skimpy evening meal’ before searching for a doorway bed, is the bourgeois parvenu Federico Robles. This revolutionary-cum-millionaire banker disdainfully surveys the wretched of the earth from his safely remote skyscraper environment and captures the disdain for the marginalised working class characters.
From Robles’s high window, Mexico City spread itself like a fanned deck of playing cards . . . the Ace of Spades at Calle Santo Domingo, the three of hearts in Polanco . . . from the dark tunnel of Mina, Canal del Norte, and Argentina, mouth open, searching for air and light while coughing up lottery tickets and gonorrhoea carriers, to the straight but not strait propriety of Reforma, indifferent to the crowded minor voices of Roma and Cuauhtémoc’s brittle-faced rising walls. From his office Robles looked down upon ungainly cluttered rooftops and thought about pointless awakenings: bleary-eyed tubs, rickety flowerpots. Robles liked to lean out his window and smell the flea circus hopping below without being bitten by all the necessary nobodies and all the nonentity weavers of life who passed oblivious to skyscrapers and to Federico Robles. Two worlds: clouds and excrement.
Yet, as much or more than some of the other characters, it is Robles that is caught between two worlds that refuse him, given that as a member of the rising bourgeoisie he persistently attempts to disguise the Indian within himself with cashmere and cologne.
The intellectual Manuel Zamacona contests the vision that Mexico simply has to follow the one truth of capitalist modernisation. In acerbic dialogue with Federico Robles, Zamacona declares, with reference to the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, that:
Díaz and his collaborators thought that for us to become European, all we had to do was wear clothing cut by Auguste Comte, live in a mansion designed by Haussmann. The Revolution made us aware that the whole past was present, and that if remembering it was painful, trying to forget it did not destroy its power . . . I can’t believe that the only concrete result of the Revolution had to be the rise of a new privileged class, economic domination by the United States, and the paralysing of all internal political life.
The liminal context of uneven development therefore comes to the fore, as a space betwixt-and-between advanced capitalist modernity and backward underdevelopment, as defined by Federico Robles. ‘For me’, Robles states, ‘Mexico is a backward impoverished country which has struggled to become progressive and to join the stream of civilised nations’.
This liminality marks also the ‘similar’ but unexpectedly ‘different’ urban landscape of Mexico City and its built environment. There is reference to the modelling of Paseo de la Reforma, at the suggestion of the Empress Carlotta, after Brussel’s Avenue Louise. Constant mention is made of the mansard roofs, notably on Calle Hamburgo, that evoke the four-sided gambrel style of François Mansard that became popular during the Second French Empire (1852-1870). And then the vertiginous references to the architectural forms marking Mexico City begin to flow: the Monument to Independence; El caballito on the corner of Paseo de la Reforma and Bucareli – the equestrian statue of Charles IV by Manuel Tolsá, which sat there from 1802 to 1979 and was subsequently replaced by Enrique Carbajal’s El caballito; Avenida Revolución; Calle Berlín in Colonia Juárez; Balderas and the Hotel del Prado; Avenida Juárez and its ‘canyon of prosperity’; the Palacio de Bellas Artes; the Palacio de Correos de Mexico in Venetian Gothic Revival style; and the Zócalo; la Merced; Lomas de Chapultepec; Colonia Roma; Coyoacán in addition to the endless chain of coloured neon lights and advertisements that tie Avenida Insurgentes together.
There is also reference to the wider geographic scale of Mexico, which is indicated throughout the novel. Places that are name checked include Acapulco, Cuernavaca, Celaya, Uruapan, Paracho, Tingambato, Parangaricutiro, Guerrero, and Coahuila. Indeed, the ‘body’ of Mexico is represented through reference to the armpit of Puerto Isabel, the toepoint of Catoche, the thigh of Cabo Corrientes, the teat of Panuco, the navel of Mexico City, and the ribs of Tarahumara. A transitory character, Enrique, arrives by bus with his family in Mexico City, the City of Palaces, via Piedras Negras in Coahuila and, also, Culiacán. Wearing a provincial northern sombrero, standing at the intersection of Reforma and Insurgentes he declares “This is my capital!”.
But at no stage is there reference to the Monument to the Revolution, one of the foremost commemorative spatial sites of state power in Mexico City, other than the casual mention of nearby Calle Edison.
Instead, the landscape of liminality in Mexico City is left to the illusive character Ixca Cienfuegos who is both surveyor (judge) as well as conveyor (narrator) of the Mexican lives communicated throughout the novel, from the panoramic to the quotidian.
December’s cold wind pulled him along the avenue, across the city, and his eyes, living and light, absorbed homes and sidewalks and men and rose to the centre of the night until he became, in his stone-eagle, air-serpent eyes, the city itself, its voices, sounds, memories, presentiments, the vast and anonymous city with its arms crossed from Copilco to Indios Verde, with its legs open from Peñon de los Baños to Cuatro Caminos, with its brown twisted belly button at the Zócalo; he became the tubs and roof tops and the dark pots, the glass skyscrapers and the mosaic domes and the stone walls and the mansard roofs and the huts of tin and adobe and residences of concrete and red tile and iron gates of the great heavy unbalanced valley, all tombstones, and above all, voices, voices.
Significantly, one of those voices to return at the end of the novel is Gladys García’s. She stops on the Puente de Nonoalco and lights the last night’s cigarette while letting the match drop on tin roofs to breath in the city’s dawn and the dust of the ghost of Ixca Cienfuegos. What is marginal becomes central as some of the exploited and impoverished are left to survive on the streets of Mexico City. But it is the streets of Mexico City and the everyday landmarks of Puente de Nonoalco (and not the Monument to the Revolution) that remain.