The Interior Circuit
Grove Atlantic, July 2014
Coffee House Press, May 2014
Reading Francisco Goldman’s The Interior Circuit and Valeria Luiselli’s Sidewalks is like driving down the same highway twice, but in different vehicles. The similarities between their work is striking, and when the two drivers are placed in conversation with one another—their passages juxtaposed, sentences overlaid—like magic, a rich narrative emerges, the story of a place. Goldman and Luiselli echo, reaffirm, expand and answer each other as they circle around Mexico City and the ideas that city evokes, namely, the idea of absence.
The Interior Circuit places the reader in Goldman’s car, listening from the back seat as he is given driving lessons in the front. Goldman is in the process of grieving the death of his wife Aura Estrada, who passed away five years prior in a surfing accident at the age of thirty. Mexico City and Aura are one to Goldman, and getting to know the city intimately by driving the streets he fears is a way of grappling with his loss, remembering, rediscovering, and taking control of his healing process. Goldman opens his Guía Roji road atlas, closes his eyes and points. Pulling into the city’s notoriously bad traffic on the Circuito Interior, he begins to feel the life and beat of the Distrito Federal, and with it, his own circulation begins to pulse.
A bicycle is Luiselli’s vehicle of choice; she prefers to navigate the sidewalks of her native Mexico City on two wheels. “The difference between flying in an airplane, walking, and riding a bicycle,” Luiselli observes, “is the same as that between looking through a telescope, a microscope, and a movie camera. Each allows a particular way of seeing.”
Luiselli’s essays are on a different scale than Goldman’s narrative, which ranges from his personal sorrow to the grievances of a nation—the last half of The Interior Circuit, while clearly fueled by his loss, is a political investigation into a mass kidnapping of thirteen young people from the After Heavens night club. To borrow Luiselli’s metaphor, Goldman begins by taking the reader into his confidence and hands them a telescope; Luiselli, a microscope. But while the writers may be in different orbits, at the heart of both circuits beats Mexico City.
Both Goldman and Luiselli evoke the city through the Guía Roji. Goldman uses the atlas to map his life in the city (always living in squares 168 and 169 of the grid) and to give his driving lessons a destination (“if not destiny,” he adds, admittedly using the atlas as something like the I Ching). Luiselli goes to the Map Library, trying to determine the city’s shape, but concludes that “the latest map we have of Mexico City (Guía Roji, 2013) doesn’t look like anything—anything except perhaps a stain, a trace, a distant memory of something else.”
Both describe the plazas in Mexico City and the statues that adorn them. For Luiselli it is “a small triangular plaza” just outside of Hidalgo metro station, where a statue of the nineteenth-century journalist Francisco Zarco “spits out mouthfuls of gray water.” For the journalist Francisco Goldman it is the Plaza Rio de Janeiro with a fountain at its center showcasing a replica of Michelangelo’s David. The statue, he admits, is misshapen somehow, so that the water only runs down the buttocks, making them gleam in contrast to the rest of David’s anatomy, but it can’t ruin the beauty of the square, which Goldman likens to a “tropical suburb of the Jardin des Plantes.”
Both writers describe the earthquakes that rock the Mexico City apartments they move in and out of. Goldman spends one 5.8 quake inside a doorframe, then runs outside to find Mexico City’s former mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, and his wife returning from the sidewalk in short white bathrobes. Luiselli describes one of her earliest memories standing under the frame of the door as her house “trembled and convulsed in rapid spasms.” Knowing it could happen again, she claims, made the city a “temporary, transient, ephemeral place” she always expected to fall or to sink. “It won’t,” she writes, “But it is full of holes and absences.”
And both Luiselli and Goldman describe the random death of a man on a sidewalk. For all the reader knows, it might be the same man.
“A man was killed on the sidewalk, near the door of our building,” Luiselli writes, “A single bullet in the back—at waist level. The head fell first. A sharp crack of the skull on the concrete—the sidewalk still damp from the afternoon rain…” And when, the following day the chalk outline appears, she wonders, “Did the hand of the person who skirted the coastline of his body tremble?”
Goldman comes upon the scene soon after the man has been shot. The corpse is gone, but “inside the tape, on the sidewalk, was a large pool of blood.” As he walks away, Goldman begins to weep along with the women of the apartment building.
Goldman does not skirt the scene. “For several days,” he tells us, “I made myself walk by the spot where our neighbor had been murdered, always pausing to put my foot down on the fading bloodstain left on the sidewalk, mostly scrubbed away but still visible.” He feels drawn to the stain—perhaps, just as Luiselli sees the city’s shape in the Guía Roji as a stain, Goldman sees the city in its fading outline. He calls the stain “a secret door into my own world…where only the dead are alive—one shared with the weeping women I’d seen on the afternoon of the murder.”
Through death, both explore grief, though Luiselli’s melancholy is a more distant, sweeter kind, closer to longing than loss, like the Portuguese saudade, reflecting her generation’s vague need of a homeland. Luiselli was born in Mexico City, raised in South Africa, lived in India, became a resident of Venice and currently dwells in New York City. While she has always thought of Mexico City as home, her perpetual lack of roots seeps into her writing. Luiselli’s father, she tells us, once had three palm trees planted in an urban space in the city, one for each of his daughters. When he finally took his girls to see the trees, Valeria’s was missing.
Goldman’s grief is a more specific, searing loss that has him so disoriented he must find his way through a fierce exploration of the loss of others. Though he gets some direction from his Guía Roji, it is ultimately through the After Heavens case that Goldman is able to explore absence. Several of the victims’ families refuse to bury their loved ones as a way of protesting the way the government handled the investigation. This refusal, Goldman writes, “left a void in the Heavens case, an emptiness that was an absence of answers and of truth, the emptiness engendered by the impunity that is destroying Mexico.”
On this note of absence, Luiselli, pedaling hard, may have caught up with Goldman. Her triangular plaza with the spewing journalist is situated in what is known as a relingo—Luiselli calls them “urban absences”— quadrangle plazas formed by a diagonal road and poor city planning. “An emptiness, an absence,” Luiselli writes of these gaps, “is a sort of depository of possibilities, a place that can be seized by the imagination and inhabited by our phantom-follies. Cities need those vacant lots, those silent gaps where the mind can wander freely.” Her missing palm tree was in a relingo; a gap within an absence.
During one of his drives along the arteries of the Guía Roji, Goldman finds himself on UNAM campus, where Aura once attended. Rolling along at the students’ walking pace, he is struck with “a mix of happiness to have suddenly found her, for Aura was surely somewhere in this crowd, and of saudade, for surely she wasn’t there, the presence of an absence.”
“‘Saudade is the presence of an absence,’” Luiselli writes, “A stabbing pain in a phantom limb; a crack that opens up suddenly in the asphalt; the rivers and lakes of Mexico City; sheets after lovemaking.”
By the end of The Interior Circuit, Goldman finds a relingo within himself. “Though I will never be able to comprehend Aura’s death,” he writes, “I do think I live with it now with less resistance, less corrosively, with less inner panic than before. Aura has her place inside me now…What is Aura’s place?—death and memory, never neat or orderly, always a forest and an ocean.”
“Spaces,” Luiselli answers, “survive the passage of time in the same way a person survives his death: in the close alliance between the memory and the imagination that others forge around it. They exist as long as we keep thinking of them, imagining them; as long as we remember them, remember ourselves there, and, above all, as long as we remember what we imagined in them.”
There is a blurry black and white photo on the cover of Goldman’s book of a young cyclist in the rain. If you squint you might imagine it is Luiselli, captured just outside his car window.