Five years after his wife, Aura Estrada, died in a surfing accident on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, the writer Francisco Goldman began taking driving lessons in the labyrinth of Mexico City. It was 2012, and although he had a driver’s license, Goldman confesses, “The seemingly anarchic chaos and confusion of the city’s traffic had always intimidated and even terrified me.”
The wife he lost is painfully near as this riveting book gets underway. Goldman is writing his way through grief as the narrative turns to a political anatomy of his adopted city—and a brilliant one at that.
Goldman has long divided his time between Mexico City, New York, and Hartford, Conn., where he teaches creative writing at Trinity College for a semester each year.
Say Her Name, a 2011 autobiographical novel on his wife’s death, might have served as a eulogy, coda, or corner turned on personal tragedy. But The Interior Circuit deals with the heavier materials of life, as the author alludes to sessions with a therapist: one cannot simply “move on” and “get beyond it” when the memory of love exerts its own continuation of life.
Passing an apartment where he and his wife once lived, near the neighborhood Colonia Condesa, he recalls the bamboo shoots he planted next to their patio that became a “soft solid mass of rich jungle green that completely hid the patio wall and rose well into the view of the apartment above us … They’d grown so tall that whoever now lived in the apartment above ours must look out their own window and see little else but our bamboos.”
Mexico City is the great metropolis of Latin America, a magnet over many generations to North Americans and Europeans for its baroque beauty, before the skyrocketing growth, as a place of business and culture. The city had another pull in the last century as a shelter zone for people from other countries on the continent fleeing civil wars or economic calamities.
Gabriel García Márquez re-imagined his early years on the Caribbean coast of Colombia in One Hundred Years of Solitude, which he wrote in the mid-’60s in Mexico City after settling there. Roberto Bolaño, exiled from Chile, portrayed a ’70s Mexico City avant garde in his iconic novel The Savage Detectives.
Today’s crisis of refugee children at the U.S. border, fleeing the murderous drug gangs in Mexico and Central America, has made the human cost of geopolitical breakdown a cynical wedge issue for Republicans against President Obama. And yet, Mexico has a rate of economic growth twice that of the U.S., according to Goldman, “with some 70 percent of the economy said to be tied up in one way or another with narco money.”
A line of tension builds in The Interior Circuit as Goldman transcends the personal, transmuting the role of memoirist into that of city chronicler. Mexicans refer to their capital as DF—short for Distrito Federal. Despite the numbing reports of young women kidnapped and murdered in Juarez, and the beheadings and gruesome killings at the hands of drug cartels in Sinola, Acapulco, and Nuevo Leon, life is, or was, different in the metropolis of 20 million people.
Goldman writes: “‘We live inside a bubble,’ I’m always hearing people in the DF say. People sense the entire country collapsing, even vanishing around them, becoming, as one friend put it, an ‘anti-country.’ The plague of terror, chaos and murder is as close as the city’s borders.”
But the bubble has its fortifications. A city that added 16,000 security cameras reduced car thefts from 163 per day in 1998 to 45 daily, as of 2013, “the lowest number in thirty-five years.” That may seem scant progress to people who can afford to live in serene Manhattan, where the soaring price of real estate has been the biggest deterrent to crime save for the most lucrative brand of larceny as practiced on Wall Street. Goldman’s surrealistic portrait of DF gives due weight to the city’s layered complexities.
Marcelo Ebrard, the mayor who installed the security cameras, is one of Goldman’s memorable minor figures. After his election in 2006, President Felipe Calderón of the center-right party called PAN escalated the “war on drugs” by sending army troops against narco-terrorists and cartel lords. Avoiding a ground war in the conventional sense, drug militias targeted civil servants—small-town officials and police not otherwise bribed, even schoolteachers—for extortion. “But here there is no war,” Mayor Ebrard tells Goldman, referring to DF, before the end of his term.
“You don’t have the army here. If we’d said to the narcocomenuedeo, the street trade in drugs, ‘We’re going to kill you,’ there would be a worse war here than the ones now going on elsewhere.” He also said, “We have a different culture here. This is a city where people’s values have been changing more rapidly than in the rest of the country over the last forty years. Why? Because here you have the largest and most universities, and that changes everything. It increases the number of people who think, criticize, discuss. They become more sensible and tolerant.” In the DF, he told me, 61 percent of young people of standard eligible age are enrolled in one sort of university or another. Nationally the rate is 28 percent. To keep public high school students in school and relieve them from the humiliation of having to beg their strapped parents for pocket money, the city provides $50 monthly stipends in bank cards; as a reward for good grades, the amount can go up to $90.
The plague of narco-terrorism reaches DF, in Goldman’s telling, when a dozen young people partying hard in a Zona Rosa nightclub are herded at gunpoint into three vehicles and disappear. As the brazen crime leads to the discovery of several bodies, media coverage feeds a sense of security imperiled.
The police in DF “constitute, and long have constituted, an autonomous culture,” writes Goldman, “and the police there, especially the notorious judicial/investigative police, are organized crime. The police are what the DF has instead of aggressively operating cartels.”
Goldman’s reporting on the lives of several of the young people abducted, and the beleaguered barrio where they lived, manages to avoid sentimentality while giving a human essence to the deceased and their survivors, including a father locked up far away in prison.
But with so much at stake in Latin America’s leading city of international banking, commerce, tourism, not to mention a seat of national government, the storyline unspooled by police was that two low-level gangs caused the crime, an aberration in the bubble. “We’re not talking about any cartel, or organized crime,” a prosecutor insists. But the nine families with murdered love ones refuse to collect the bodies, hold funerals or bury them to protest the failure of law enforcement, “an emptiness that was an absence of answers and of truth,” writes Goldman, “the emptiness engendered by the impunity that is destroying Mexico.”
Goldman lays a good measure of the blame on the Institutional Party of the Revolution (PRI) that controlled Mexico for decades before Vicente Fox, a conservative, won the presidency in 2000. PRI with its larded system of patronage and cronyism controlled Mexico as the drug cartels there began amassing power two decades ago. PRI regained power in 2012 with the election of President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Goldman makes reference several times to the 27,000 kidnappings in recent years as sign and symptom of Mexico’s eroding rule of law. “Clearly, the restoration of the PRI was leading to a full restoration of the top-to-bottom culture of institutionalized organized crime that this political party has long been associated with.”
Goldman’s scalding portrait of Peña Nieto is impressive political reportage but not a hammer-stroke brief for impeachment. As the writer who comes to us in mourning for his lost wife in the opening chapters moves into the depths of his beloved, if menacing city, Aura, as embodied memory, slowly recedes. In searching for some essence in the city Goldman finds an inner territory beyond personal grief. As the urban story overtakes him, he finds a human depth in the barrio families who lost their loved ones in the nightclub kidnapping—a powerful transfer effect. What rises in the viewfinder is a police bureaucracy rotting in its gangster capitalism, leaving huge questions about the fate of Mexico City in a country floating on oceans of drug money. Goldman, wisely, does not raise a raft of questions that drown a writer in the answering. Instead, he makes a spiritual turn in solidarity with the families whose people have been murdered or disappeared, survivors who “will mostly have to endure alone, through that place without solace where the dead often seem more alive than the living.”
Jason Berry is the author, most recently, of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.