Monday, December 31, 2018

Roma, Mexico, Me

Though I admired the earlier films of Alfonso Cuarón I didn’t know anything about Roma going into it.  Within a couple minutes I knew I was in Mexico City in the early 1970s.

I knew this because in the early 1970s I was twice in Mexico City, the second time for about three months.

Roma is loosely autobiographical and much of it takes place behind the gates of an upper-middle class family home.  Most of the residences in Mexico City lie behind these gates and when I was there I was acutely conscious of having no access to the lives inside them.  Thus the intimacy that Cuarón reveals now felt like a late and unlikely gift.

The Mexico that Cuarón shows us outside the family’s gate felt very familiar: the strange random musical paramilitary parades in the city streets, a casket business on a roadside, the vague threats of violence from protesters or policia, the low lying fog below the mountains in the countryside.  These details might have been drawn from my own memories.  I look forward to watching the film again to absorb more of its rich atmosphere, now that the story is known to me.

Thinking about my own time in Mexico, the winter of 1973–’74, I realized that I was only inside of two homes.  One was the home of the long-time ex-pat and mountain explorer, Otis McAlister, the other was the home of a young American couple who worked as teachers.  They kindly invited me to spend a few days recuperating at their house after I became sick high on Iztaccihuatl, the eighth highest summit in North America, an occasion marked by severe dehydration, mild frostbite, and brief hospital stay.

The rest of my time there I stayed in one-star hotels or slept in the mountains.

The occasion for me being in Mexico was my idea to write a guidebook to climbing the volcanoes of Mexico.  This plan was foiled by two facts, not the least of which was that I did not know how to write.  The other consideration was that the pleasure of my travels was precisely in not having a guidebook on which to rely.  If future mountain travelers needed a guidebook, maybe they should go elsewhere.  Or so I thought.  A guidebook in English would be published about ten years later.

What I never lost was the feeling that I wanted to write about the experience.  But I didn’t know what I would write and I would wildly underestimate the amount of time it would take to shape the experience.  And, when the book, Forty Crows, actually got written, almost forty years later, it was not a book I was capable of imagining when I was twenty years old.  It’s as if I shot a few rolls of film and they sat for decades in developing trays waiting for resolution that may or may not . . . develop.

Roma is described as loosely autobiographical.  Who knows what that means, exactly?  And whether it matters.  My own novel is probably exponentially more loosely autobiographical.  About twenty of its 400 pages might have been written as nonfiction.  And certain details of the protagonist’s past, told in flashbacks, are stolen from memory.  It’s not me in any literal sense.  In a figurative, what if? sense, it’s all me, in the way that all fiction is an answer to the question what if?

I look forward to my next viewing of Roma.  Forty Crows is not my Roma, but it is my Mexico.

Shameless self promotion:

Sunday, December 30, 2018

John K. King Books, Detroit 2018

I check the mountaineering section first.  Often it doesn’t change between my yearly visits. I find a copy of Scrambles Amongst the Alps, sixth edition, hardcover. Sixth edition is 1936.  The book had been in print 65 years at that point.  This edition has a dust cover (tattered) and the six foldout maps.  Since my only copy of this is cheap paperback, it’s a no-brainer to pick it up.   The story culminates in Edward Whymper’s tragic first ascent of the Matterhorn, its last paragraph remains among the truest observations ever made about climbing, oft-quoted and easily found, if you’re interested.
            In the “new” introduction, added to the original by Whymper in 1900, he observes: “The pleasure they [these scrambles] cannot be transferred to others.  The ablest pens have failed, and I think, must always fail, to give a true idea of the grandeur of the Alps.”

I wander around, aimless. John King  holds over a million books on its four floors, an abandoned glove factory in its previous incarnation.  A clerk sporting a black leather jacket adorned with patches and messages which I can’t casually inspect well enough to actually read, asks if he can help me.  I ask if he has any Wittgenstein, realizing immediately that I had meant Benjamin.  He strides ahead vigorously toward the Wittgenstein, as if to demonstrate that, of course, Wittgenstein is always at one’s fingertips.    
“We have Zettel,” he announces victoriously.
"You have Zettel,” I parrot back, as in disbelief.  I have never heard of Zettel, but try not to betray this suddenly embarrassing fact.
“Yes,” he says, “Zettel” and he takes it from the shelf and thrusts it into my hands in one quick motion.
I cannot hide my admiration for a person who in a building holding one million books knows the exact location of Zettel.
Zettel contaiuns the collected fragments found in a “box-file” after Wittgenstein’s death.  The text is in German on the left pages, translated to English on the right.  I turn randomly to entry 160: “The way music speaks.  Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.”
I decide instantly to acquire Zettel.
“Do you have any Benjamin?” I remember to ask, remembering also to pronounce Benjamin correctly.
“No,” he says, “we cannot keep Benjamin in stock.”  He pronounced Benjamin even more correctly than I had.
Somehow I find this a reason for hope, not just for the city of Detroit, but for the world in general.  The market for Benjamin has never been stronger!

I wander about, pausing to inspect a copy of Unter dem Vulkan.  I guess a have a strain of the German language running through my mind today, unbidden.  Even though can’t read German I desire this for some reason, even though I have five copies of it in English. I exercise a smidgen of self control and pass.

Being in John K. King Books is one of my life’s greatest pleasures. You could go to Detroit for two days and spend half your time at the Detroit Institute of Arts and half the time in John King.  Two of the richest days you could ever have. You should do it.