Novelist Francisco Goldman was born in the US, grew up between there and Guatemala, and spent a decade reporting from Central America. The Art of Political Murder, his nonfiction investigation into the killing of Bishop Gerardi after his report on atrocities committed during the Guatemalan Civil War, won a number of international awards. His novels include The Long Night of White Chickens, The Divine Husband and the wrenching Say Her Name, about his wife, the writer Aura Estrada, who died in a surfing accident aged 30 in 2007. His latest book, The Interior Circuit, begins as a memoir of learning to drive in Mexico City, but soon becomes an inquiry into the Distrito Federal’s strange, shifting relationship with the rest of Mexico. He spoke to Lidija Haas from New York, a few days before escaping back to DF to finish his next novel.
Lidija Haas You’ve said that you “fell in love with the girl next door”: Mexico was your refuge from both the US and Guatemala, two places where you suggest it’s impossible to live and ignore the politics. Isn’t that an extraordinary thing to say about the US? Lots of people seem to manage the ignoring just fine...
Francisco Goldman I’ve always found it harder to ignore here. Maybe because of how intensely, at a certain time of my life, I lived everything that was going on in Central America, and how responsible for all that the US was. That made me more attuned to what goes on here. And Mexico was the bubble: I wrote all my books except one in Mexico; all my lovers were in Mexico; it was a place where I could be carefree. I don’t apologise for that – people live the way they need to live. But obviously, with this book, my eyes began to open.
LH That “bubble” effect: every big city has a certain exceptionalism, but with DF it seems especially extreme.
FG It’s a phrase you hear over and over: “We live in a bubble.” Yet that’s so paradoxical, because in the 1990s it was the opposite – Mexico City was considered the unsafe place. How can one of the world’s largest, most chaotic cities be a bubble? But it was, in contrast to the unbelievable nightmare going on in two-thirds of the country. Coinciding with the narco war, Mexico City went through what virtually everybody considers a golden age, becoming this super-cosmopolitan place. Charismatic, hipster Mexico City is only a small part of it, but it’s real – it’s the part I live in. The city had, in its best years, the same murder rate as New York. It’s still safer than Chicago or Miami. One reason why Mexico City is so culturally apart is that it has 50 universities, and of university-age people, something like 60 percent are in school. Lack of opportunity and education, that’s one of the big things that draw young people into organised crime. And the state is complicit at every level, that’s what’s heartbreaking. Since [President Enrique] Peña Nieto got in [in 2012], kidnappings and disappearances have gone way up all over the country. Every human-rights group says the authorities play some role in between half and two-thirds of all disappearances. It’s not like Peña Nieto puts out an order, “I want disappearances to go up,” of course not, but it’s his party, the PRI, that over 71 years built that incredibly corrupt, rotten institutional Mexico.
LH Do you see your writing as part of a specifically Latin American tradition?
FG There’s so much emphasis in US fiction on where you’re from and what your ethnicity is, and I felt confused about all that when I was very young, to the degree where I wouldn’t even give my characters last names. It didn’t make sense to me – a Jewish last name didn’t really reflect my upbringing – so I would call everybody John H., Mark F. I realised I had to break out, to get out of the US, and connect in some ways with my childhood, a lot of which was spent in Central America. So from age 21 to 31 I was there, during the wars, coming back to New York now and then. With that came a real education in literature. One wonderful thing about Latin America is that because of their marginalisation, their tenuous relationship to the West, young writers have always felt they have to know everything. Being schooled in Latin American literature is not nearly enough, you have to learn everything about the French, the British, the Americans. In college I loved Raymond Roussel, the Oulipo writers, Donald Barthelme, Italo Calvino, Borges, of course. But, much as I like writers who break with traditional narrative, I discovered, thanks to the counter-lesson of being in Central America and especially working as a journalist there, that clear narratives were necessary – and I began to find ways to merge those two kinds of writing. Even now, that’s what inspires me to write, those tensions, between conventional and experimental narrative, between the US and Latin America, Spanish and English. As much as that cerebral approach to narrative appealed to me, one of the things that most got me going was place. The Divine Husband centres on José Martí, one of the most revered Latin Americans in literature and politics. A lot of people would say, You, this punk who grew up in Massachusetts, how can you dare take on Martí? Well, it was because his formative places, once he leaves Cuba as a teenager, were exactly my places – Mexico City, Guatemala, 16 years in New York City, a lot of it working as a freelance hack – so that was my way into his character.
LH You’ve said before that Martí’s political stature almost eclipses him as a literary figure…
FG Yeah, they call him the Statue. But probably in the Spanish language, there’s never been a more exciting nonfiction writer. You feel the pulse of the 19th-century city in his prose. One of the sad things about American culture is that we are so devotedly monolingual that we don’t realise this guy left behind 2,000 pages of the most intoxicating prose about life in New York. At a time when you had Henry James – I love Henry James, don’t get me wrong – going into a Lower East Side café, turning up his nose at the Jewish immigrants there and saying: “I realise I am witnessing the death of English as a literary language.” And then you have Martí practically doing opium with the Chinese in Chinatown, getting into every immigrant community. But the miracle is the famous war diary he writes in Haiti and Cuba. A couple of decades before they did, he made the exact same discoveries about concrete prose and pared-down description as Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein. It’s astonishing, the beginning of modernist prose in Spanish. Plus, his love life was such a fucking mess. He’s really a contemporary of any of us in our youth, drinking too much, doing too many drugs, married to the wrong woman, feeling alienated by his editors. Reading about it made me fall so in love with him, and that’s the Martí nobody pays attention to.
LH You’re often mapping territory between fiction and nonfiction. Why did you decide to write Say Her Name as a novel, for instance?
FG Because I think – like a lot of people nowadays, apparently – “novel” doesn’t necessarily mean “made up.” I just think of it as the freest form, and I don’t like the way memoir asserts itself as completely factual. I said, I’m going to write this as though I’m working on a poem or something, I’m going to say whatever I want. And of course, most of it’s absolutely true. In my original plan, halfway through the book I was going to disappear as the narrator and the Mexican-French psychoanalyst who was Aura’s alter ego in her novel was going to take over. I was going to sort of disappear into her novel. It was part of recognising, finally, the otherness of Aura’s imagination. She was a genius, I think, and it wouldn’t be right for me to claim to know what she was going to do with that book. The character kind of has to acknowledge that at the end – that she’s gone, and he’ll never know.
LH A lot of your work involves sticking with some incredibly complex investigation, where you may never be able to resolve what actually happened.
FG That is a perverse speciality of mine. Obsessive personalities love anything we can attach our brains to for months – or years. There’s a masochism in it, but also, maybe my father’s engineering brain comes into it, the fascination with deep structures and how things connect. I think that’s why novelists are often so attracted to the work of detectives. It’s that process of trying to forge a narrative in time, a chronology that can only be transmitted by a story – and yet, not made of opinions, not subjective. You do it right: you don’t cherry-pick; you don’t speculate; you have to let actions speak for human psychology.
LH I guess that’s part of what connects your fiction and your reporting.
FG A good nonfiction narrator is somebody who can let his intuition take him to unforeseen places. In other words, don’t let the story be overdetermined, let yourself discover what it’s about as you go – when you’re a pair of feet moving around a city, try to be as intuitive as you would be when you’re sitting down working on a piece of fiction. Difficult pieces of nonfiction, like The Art of Political Murder, do take a novelist’s sense of architecture: it’s about building a structure out of rhythms and patterns and shapes and recurring images. On the other hand, there’s nothing like the terrifying, absorbing work of being deep down inside a novel, and being utterly responsible for every single thing that’s there.
The Interior Circuit will be published by Atlantic Books in April. §