Mexico City is home to some 20 million people, spread out in 6,400 neighborhoods. Although it is plagued by numerous problems — pollution, traffic, overcrowding and the fact that much of the city is sinking — it has been somewhat insulated from the narco-violence that has plagued much of Mexico in recent years. The megalopolis, commonly known as the Distrito Federal, or the DF, is often called a bubble.
In his new book, “The Interior Circuit,” Francisco Goldman dispels this characterization as myth. Part memoir, part reportage, the book offers an insider’s account of a city of contrasts. In this kaleidoscopic telling, Goldman takes readers through Mexico City’s tree-lined plazas and maze-like streets. He shows us the fire-eaters soliciting donations at traffic lights, the people hawking pirated movies and counterfeit goods, the double-decker party buses packed with children of the elite. We feel the summer’s torrential downpours and the dread of frequent earthquakes. He writes about drugs in Tepito, a notoriously dangerous neighborhood, rampant government corruption and a culture of impunity.
The book is both an homage to the (albeit flawed) city he calls home and a meditation on the many residents — himself included — who have experienced loss there.
Goldman is a keen observer and an apt guide to Mexican politics and society. He has lived in Mexico City part time since 1995, and his connection deepened when he met Aura Estrada, his future wife, in 2002. The DF was Aura’s city — not only the city she was from, but also where she died after breaking her neck in a body-surfing accident in July 2007. But rather than fleeing Mexico City, Goldman decided to embrace it. In turn, the city “has nourished and invigorated” him, he writes, and “brought him ‘back to life.’ ”
Goldman deftly weaves the portrait of the city with his personal story. Even in the second half of the book, which could stand alone as an investigation into the kidnapping of 13 young people from an after-hours club in May 2013, Goldman manages to tie the story back to his own. Although the causes of their losses are different, he feels a connection to those grieving families. They, like the loved ones of some 100,000 others who have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico during the past eight years, go about their daily lives, he writes, enduring “the often silently riotous inner atmosphere of traumatic grief,” forming part of “an army of exhausted, lonely ghosts.”
While Goldman “felt a compulsion to draw closer to, to get to know a little better, this Mexico of violent death and trauma,” “The Interior Circuit” is fundamentally about his own loss. His story picks up where his acclaimed 2011 novel “Say Her Name” ended. Whereas “Say Her Name” movingly captures the pain Goldman felt immediately after Aura’s death, “The Interior Circuit” explores grief’s “listlessness, loneliness and withdrawal, its grueling duration,” and Goldman’s attempt to navigate his way through it and find a way forward.
In the summer of 2012, with the fifth anniversary of Aura’s death approaching, Goldman decided to take up driving in Mexico City, in hopes that learning to navigate the city’s chaotic streets — including the Circuito Interior, one of its main freeways — would help him navigate his own “interior circuit” and, according to his therapist, reassert control over his life. Finding his way turned out to be as tortuous as the roads he negotiated behind the wheel.
When Goldman finally did turn things around, it was in part thanks to a new relationship and the wise words of a friend who convinced him of the futility of searching for “a rock bottom that is more bottom than the one [he] lived a few years ago.”
The process of writing “The Interior Circuit” also proved therapeutic: It helped him come to terms with Aura’s death and the time since. Kneeling in a church on the sixth anniversary of her death, Goldman reflects, “It happened. Six years ago today, death altered my life in a way I had never imagined anything could alter it. . . . There’s no shaking you, Death. I’m not who I was before I met you, and now we go everywhere together.”
Goldman still thinks of Aura every day. “She’s a permanent part of me,” he writes. But he has also managed to forge ahead. “Though I will never be able to comprehend Aura’s death, I do think I live with it now with less resistance, less corrosively, with less panic than before.”
Goodman is a Miller Center national fellow and graduate student in history at the University of Pennsylvania. He lives in Mexico City.
Francisco Goldman will be at the National Book Festival at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
THE INTERIOR CIRCUIT
A Mexico City Chronicle
By Francisco Goldman
Grove. 337 pp. $26