Free retellings of a few days in Mexico.
Texts by Carlos Ávila and photographs by Agustina Triquell.
Tijuana. Artaud arrived in Mexico in the mid-thirties and said that he was on the road to the sun: «What must be pursued here is the secret of that force of light.» What did he mean? Nobody knows. As far as I’m concerned, the reflection of the sun in Tijuana, possibly that “force of light” pointed out by Artaud, gives me an intense headache: I get dizzy and my ears feel clogged the moment I leave the house; I have to walk all day between shadows, holding my hand up like an eyeshade, my brow furrowed and my eyes nearly closed.
What did Artaud mean to do to Mexico? He had gone to give conferences on the relationship between theater and the so-called civilization, but ended up inciting the Mexican people to no less than a new cultural revolution, based on what he called “the old ancient secret.” He immediately realized that the inability to represent these people led both to failure as well as to obsession. He did not look from an intellectual rationality, as Luis Mario Schneider points out in the “Introduction” to México y viaje al país de los Tarahumaras, but from a sort of carnal experience. In a letter to Jean Paulhan, dated 1935, Artaud says: «Culture is not in books, in paintings, in statues, or in dance; it is in the nerves and fluidity of the nerves, in the fluidity of the sensitive organs.» Does he exaggerate? It is possible, but nobody could deny that compared to the Mexican experience, the obsessions and sufferings of Artaud mean nothing.
I walk through the long streets of Tijuana; I join the march that runs through the city: today Trump is sworn in and all the roads have been taken. I have a headache. Welcome to Tijuana, I sing, no tequila, no sex, no marijuana. I look at the countless pharmacies that populate the city and remember Rober’s words: «The damn gringos cross over from San Diego to get a tooth removed because it’s often cheaper; to top it off, they use the opportunity to fuck some really hot chick for twenty bucks.» The phenomenon of pharmacies is owed to the fact that on this side they sell without prescription the drugs that on the gringo side are guarded with severity. The low price of medication is also projected on the cost of plastic surgeons, dentists, and dermatologists.
What would Artaud say? He celebrated here his 40th birthday, and made a long and stifling journey to the community of the Tarahumaras; there, he stayed in a house where he met a young indigen devoted to the rite of peyote: «From him I received marvelous explanations and very precise clarifications regarding the way in which peyote, in its trajectory through the nervous system, resuscitates the memory of those sovereign truths, through which human consciousness, according to him, recovers the perception of the Infinite, instead of losing it.» One bright Sunday morning, Artaud was anointed by the hands of an old man who, in his own words, opened up his conscience with a knife to the heart: «Be confident, he told me, do not be afraid, I will not hurt you (…) The tip of the sword barely touched my skin and only a small drop of blood surfaced (…) I did not feel any pain, but I did have the impression of waking up to something for which, until then, I had been ill-conceived and badly oriented, and I was filled with a light I had never possessed.»
I have tried sunglasses, a cap, pills. There is no way. Sometimes I think that a hidden monstrosity is devoting all day to reflecting the radiance of the sun on my face with a mirror. Luckily, it gets dark at five in the afternoon. Am I a vampire? The question does not make me laugh. Even in the dark, everything seems to be enveloped in a sort of starch or ash. It doesn’t matter if the sky is clear, if it’s cloudy or it rains: a pale flash tints the surface of all things with the same platinum patina. The result is this inaccurate, opaque, dim reality. I go to a bar and buy a beer; before I try it, I think someone has put drugs in it. Does peyote have side effects?
Three sorcerers performed a dance before Artaud’s eyes; their shadows looked enormous around the fire. The fantastic is of noble quality, he said, and he came to see the point where the universal unconscious is sick: «Its disorder is only apparent; in reality it obeys an order that is elaborated within a mystery and according to a plan that the normal consciousness does not reach and that constitutes the very mystery of poetry.»
I remember the light in the Caribbean, which is warm and yellow; I remember the light of Río de la Plata, which is weak and gray. I remember Bolaño, who often remarked this “dense air, like a stall nightmare” that characterizes the light in northern Mexico, and I long for moving, like his characters, towards a place where things regain the consistency of reality. But I must be contented with watching images of Trump’s inauguration on the bar’s televisions. I take a sip of my beer, «and from that moment on, the sky seems to crack like a paper scenery which, upon falling, reveals what is behind it: a smoky landscape, as if someone, perhaps an angel, was making hundreds of barbecues to a multitude of invisible beings.» Does the sun shine this way on the other side of the wall? Could this be a kind of eternal hangover? Would Reverón have painted these blazes? Do you also love the light of the word ‘day’?
After nine months in these lands, Artaud claimed to had lived “the happiest days of his existence.” Here he evidenced, far from any intellectual information, the existence of unique and eternal values that civilization does not recognize: «Peyote leads the self to its authentic sources. On leaving such a state of vision, one cannot again confuse, as before, lies with truth.»
Perhaps his greatest fault—as Schneider points out in his “Introduction”—was forgetting the terrain he was on, that is, not to consider that the Revolution pursued the fusion of Mexico with the idea of contemporaneity that he so abhorred. How did those demonstrators manage to stand in the middle of the street with their banners without being affected by the phosphorescence of the sun? Is all light political? What would happen if, like the lens of a magnifying glass, this brilliance ignited a sacred fire through our eyes?
CDMX. Like pieces of a complex mechanism that manages all bureaucratic and mercantile operations of the city, the image of streets crowded with people remains fixed in my memory. Where are they going? Where do they come from? I am only certain that one same mandate levels them out.
With the vivacity of this portrait I visit Memorandum, Héctor Zamora’s installation that was on view until a few days ago at the Museo Universitario del Chopo: Three large “offices” assembled on five-story scaffolds, occupied by fifty uniformed women—white shirt, black trousers—typing non-stop on typewriters. Who do they work for? I wonder. The answer is not in the air but in one of the darkest seals of bureaucracy: its immateriality. The high-ranking bureaucrat is incorporeal: in his organizations, we find no one to complain to or to exert pressure on; within them, it is impossible to hold men accountable. Not in vain did Hannah Arendt herself so adequately define these processes as “the rule of Nobody”.
The memorandum is an emblem of paperwork, so it doesn’t matter that computers have replaced typewriters since the purpose for which these women use them is still the same. They do not affect times, do not affect advantages or disadvantages, their political outcome remains intact: the filtering of the authentic sources of power. That is why the dry and continuous rattle of the keys exerts such an emphasis, like a sound from another time, in the intervention.
Arendt sees in bureaucracy the last and perhaps most formidable form of domination, and also one of the most powerful causes of the current unrest in the world: its chaotic nature and its dangerous tendency to escape all control symbolize a form of political violence. No more no less. The greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater the risk of madness. We get frustrated, we get bored, we become powerless at the repeated and stubborn hammering. Who hasn’t uttered a curse to an option-dictating prerecorded message? Whose teeth haven’t clenched at hearing the phrase “the system does not allow it”? The anger is aggravated upon noticing that our annoyance is against emptiness: being angry is worth nothing if we have no one to be angry at.
Zamora also alludes to the misogynistic aspect of work in capitalism: it suggests the form of sweatshops, factories, workrooms, spaces of impetuous presence and symbolic weight here in Mexico. Models that have insisted on women’s liberation have emphasized, among other things, women’s right to decide on their bodies or gender roles, but they have highlighted, above all, the persisting social struggle of women workers, insisting on the two aspects that their freedom requires. This installation shows, precisely, that dual emancipatory character: the woman’s dedicated attempt to free herself from exploitative work and the notion of man as representing authority. Sadly, over time, these forms of power have been arranged in such a way that they intervene and regulate each and every one of the activities that comprise our dynamics of food, work, language, education, sleep and wakefulness, activity and rest. Who is in possession of our physical and moral faculties? This question, in our era, is repeated with fatal continuity.
I turn to the installation before leaving: sheets fall from above like strange paper tongues. I read in the strokes they make up in the air the vertical hierarchy of authority, the imprecise task division, the corruption, the elusiveness of responsibilities, the rigidity of processes, the endless creation of new rules. And I wonder: What is the lesson here? That bureaucracy is bad? You tell me. Because, in the meantime, it continues to flow immeasurably and relentlessly, and we get lost in interpretations of its journeys, among more or less hostile officials who shift their responsibilities to more or less hostile officials. Where is the final version? The primary author remains impalpable and continues to mock us from his black labyrinth.
Oaxaca. I came to Chacahua because they told me that magic was here. Rober told me so. And I promised to come see it as soon as I could. I remember Morillo’s boat, and him, on the night I arrived, in the middle of a bender by the beach, asking me if I wanted to earn a few pesos. I said yes, of course. Then Morillo got up and entered the murky night of Chacahua. We bordered the lake for a while: he lit the road with a small flashlight that he fitted to his head with a garter. I followed in silence. Sometimes we zigzagged as if we were walking with our eyes closed. When the water began to wet our feet, we stopped at an old boat called El Zorro.
I couldn’t help remembering Monterroso’s short story, of course: One fine day, a gaunt fox decides to start writing. His first two books are received with much enthusiasm by critics and academics, but after a while, the fox writes no more. Then colleagues and journalists begin to wonder about the fox; when they come across him at cocktails and presentations, they approach him to tell him that he must publish another book since the previous two were very good, marvelous.
Many have been able to read the figure of the fox as writer Juan Rulfo himself, who, after the favorable acceptance of El llano en llamas (1953) and Pedro Páramo (1955) never published anything else. More than twenty years passed before his second novel—his third book—saw the light. El gallo de oro is the result of the intimate and deep contact that Rulfo established in those years with cinema and photography; in fact, by the 60s, García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes had already adapted it.
Morillo motioned for me to get on the boat. He gave me a paddle and stood in front of me like a petty captain. He turned off the flashlight, propped the paddle on the ground, and with a blow propelled the boat. Row on this side, he ordered me. We sailed for the deep lagoon, under a starry night without a moon. We left behind the lights of the village. For a long time, I heard only our paddles pounding the water. When we least expected it, we entered a hazy mangrove; I felt shadows move by my side. We had brought a bottle of beer and drank from it from time to time. When he turned on the flashlight, Morillo became a Cyclops that lit up the black fish and pelicans and herons among the damp vegetation with his eye of light. I asked him if what we were doing was dangerous. The silence was severe and the darkness more and more veiled. Only once did a crocodile attack my cousin, Morillo replied.
The lagoon widened as we emerged from that natural corridor, and the surface became covered with a light sidereal light. Morillo stopped rowing and handed me the bottle. He stood up, took off his flannel and threw himself into the water. His sudden plunge surprised me, not so much because he threw himself into the lagoon in the middle of the night, but because of the millions of blue sparks that ignited his splashes: an enchanting electricity began to run around his body, its contours fluttering with a glow I never knew. It was plankton, the phenomenon of nocturnal luminescence. Impressed, I stood on the boat to appreciate it better. Morillo told me to jump. I doubted but felt no fear, so I counted to three and dove in. I tasted the salty water. Back in the boat, I experienced a new lucidity: the contact with the cold water had reduced my drunkenness. When I was about to ask Morillo about how we were going to make those pesos, we noticed some new lights.
The town was called La Boquilla. We landed and walked up a lonely, sandy street. A distant noise guided us, like a sound compass. We differentiated the form of the noise as we advanced: a ranchera, the animated cries of men. We arrived at a palenque; Morillo greeted the man at the entrance. People were grouped around a scene that, at least from where we stood, I could not distinguish. The screams—a veritable clamor of insults and protests—disturbed the scene: each scream made it more imprecise and murky, as if the racket distorted the sharpness of space. I saw a corral surrounded by wooden boards, the audience was seated on a dozen benches and planks supported by thick adobes. I also saw silhouettes behind a grille, up on a table and on chairs near the arena. When we were close enough, I noticed that it was a cockfight. We approached one of the groups. Morillo introduced me to his cousin. I wanted to shake his hand, but I noticed that he was missing an arm. I thought of Dionisio Pinzon. From that moment on, events began to unfold with a speed that prevented me from apprehending them: everything brought me mimicry and unknown terminologies. But no one seemed willing to explain anything to me: in answer to my questions, I received drinks. I drank innumerable glasses of hot mezcal, and each one I downed with the beer we were sharing.
I stopped wanting to know who won or what we had to do to get those pesos, so I set out to repeating with shouts what I understood. I went on a remarkable binge that put me to sleep among trays of soda. I dreamed of Agustina: we crossed the high sinuosity of the Oaxacan mountain range in a white car. I stared out the window at the agave plants and the pines. Sometimes we entered leafy tunnels and sometimes we just slipped through the curves. At some point, a donkey was crossing the road and we were forced to stop. Then we would get out of the car, stubbornly take our luggage on our backs, and continue our way by foot. The road suddenly became a ramp of broken ground. Two locals joined our march; they did not greet us but talked to each other. One said: “Look, let’s start from where we left off…” The other replied: “The land they have given us is up there…” Abruptly, it started to rain.
When I woke up, my face was wet and I felt dizzy. I deduced the sound of soft rowing of the paddle in the water, and I immediately understood that I was on the boat with Morillo. I raised my head and recognized his back against the dark mangrove. A black crab ran on one of the edges of the boat. Something moved between the foliage, I got up and saw that it was a fox: it was Rulfo, it was wearing a suit and it looked at me with innocent eyes. I wanted to make a joke, so I telepathically asked him when he would publish his third book. He smiled childishly and disappeared. The fox did not say it, but as in Monterroso’s story, he thought that what those people really wanted was for him to publish a bad book. And since I am the fox—he explained—I am not going to do it. And he didn’t.
About the author:
Carlos Ávila (Caracas, 1980) holds a degree in Literature from the Universidad Central de Venezuela and a Master’s degree in Spanish and Latin American Literature from the Universidad de Buenos Aires. He has published two books of short stories: Desde el caleidoscopio de Dios (Equinoccio, 2007) and Mujeres recién bañadas (Mondadori, 2009). He won the 20th José Antonio Ramos Sucre Biennial’s prize for Narrative (2015) with the book El giro animal.
About the photographer:
Agustina Triquell (Córdoba, Argentina, 1983) is a photographer and holds a Ph.D. in Social Sciences. She is a member of the Citizenship and Human Rights Program of the Institute for Economic and Social Development (IDES). She works with problems related to the photographic image, family archives and their public circulation. Her photographic production revolves around the relations between history, memory, and politics. She has published the photography books Estirarás la vocal anterior a la sílaba acentuada (2016) and Embalse (2016). Since 2013, together with Estrella Herrera, she coordinates NidoErrante, a residency for photographers.