Tony Wood talks to Guillermo Fadanelli

Portrait by Yolanda M. Guadarrama

Mexico City-born Guillermo Fadanelli is one of the few contemporary writers who can convey the whole variety and texture of urban life in DF – the high rollers and the lowlifes, the streets, hotels, bars and drug dens, all pulsing with ambition, fear, desire and laughter. Since 1991 Fadanelli has published some two dozen books, including 10 novels – from Rock Hudson’s Other Face (1997) and Mud (2002) to Hotel DF (2010) and My Dead Women (2012) – and seven short-story collections. See You at Breakfast, the first of his books to be translated into English, will be released by Giramondo Publishing later this year. He talked to Tony Wood about pessimism, gravity and why DF’s urban landscape causes anxiety.

Tony WoodThe narrator of your latest novel, El hombre nacido en Danzig, has imaginary conversations with figures like Seneca, Montaigne, Magic Johnson and Schopenhauer. Do you like to imagine yourself in that kind of company, too?

Guillermo FadanelliIf I had to choose someone to spend an afternoon or a night talking to, it would definitely be Montaigne. He’d be the most open to conversation, and to making a real night of it. We’d talk about women and laugh at everyone who thinks they know the truth, whether it be religious or political. I don’t know if Seneca would be willing to talk to a pleb like me. And Schopenhauer was more or less impossible to get along with. He would probably look at me like I was some kind of louse. I prefer to read him; he’s my favourite philosopher.

TW Some critics have described you as a “nihilist”, an “apathetic realist” and a “portraitist of the post-human”. Do these descriptions strike you as fair?

GFI think of myself as a common or garden pessimist, even a fatalist. “Things won’t ever go so badly for you that they can’t go worse,” [Peruvian writer Alfredo] Bryce Echenique used to say. At the same time, I don’t hold out much hope as far as the goodwill of human beings is concerned. For me, man is a dangerous, predatory beast until proven otherwise. And what matters to me about people is not their ideas, thoughts or feelings, but their actions. For me, what they do is the proof of what they are. What they are for themselves is their business.

TW How does that philosophy come out in your writing?

GFI’ve written essays about conversation and the literary imagination as ideal forms for arriving at more intelligent kinds of social interaction, of understanding each other. I’d like people to organise themselves in a nice and civilised way so that they can leave me in peace, and that way I can have the privilege of solitude. It’s a utopia, of course. I rebel against any kind of attack on individual freedom. I hate authority. Hopefully anyone who reads my novels or essays will feel a little freer, a little less prejudiced – that would mean the books have some value.

TW Aside from your writing, you’ve also been an editor, through the magazine and now the publishing house Moho (“moss”). Tell us about the thinking behind the project.

GFSome friends and I set up Moho magazine 25 years ago, and the publishing house 19 years ago. The principle was to declare war on everything, to be a Dadaist protest that would laugh at language and all certainties. Everything was up for grabs. It was a kind of moral and literary suicide. The magazine was a mirror for underground culture in Mexico; it was an urban, playful, sensualist and paradoxical magazine. There was more literature and graphic art in it than essays and journalism. None of the issues even bore a date. Today only the publishing house is still going. We – my partner Yolanda Martínez and I – put out very few books. Small is beautiful. We don’t think about literary novelties that are dead as soon as another one appears. Our books find their readers sooner or later. We’re content to publish authors we like, who have an original voice. It doesn’t matter if they’re just starting their careers. Our only requirement is that the book shows evidence of a literary will that exceeds the author’s intentions. We’re not interested in refined, considered projects, but in creative explosions.

TW You’ve worked a lot of jobs in very different places – selling Christmas trees in New York, working in a cake shop in Madrid, as well as spending time in Berlin, Bogotá, Havana. How have those experiences affected the way you write?

GFI’ve been a wanderer, taken from one place to another by youthful curiosity and enthusiasm. The jobs were temporary. I never had enough money to travel comfortably. To start with I slept in parks or train stations, though sometimes I met someone who would put me up. I made a lot of temporary friends – and some definitive ones. Berlin was the last place where I lived for a year, and I consider it home, though I can also get around Porto, Madrid and Oaxaca with my eyes closed. Writing itself is a kind of wandering, like moving through rough terrain and never being totally safe, except for a few moments. I wasn’t wandering those other cities looking for subjects for a novel, but out of a desire to be someone for myself, maybe also to flee the limits of my social class, of university professions, of any authority that might lay down the path I should follow.

TW The narrator of El hombre nacido en Danzig says that “returning to the city when you could be going away from it in the opposite direction” is “the gravity that Newton didn’t discover”. Did you think something like this on returning to DF, after spending so long away from it in the 1990s?

GFI can’t spend much time in only one place. I leave and come back to DF all the time. It’s a prison for me, a prison full of adventures and misfortunes, of pleasures and social disappointments. So when I travel I feel like a prisoner who’s out on parole, and at some point I have to return to my city to pay tribute. A tribute to the Aztecs: a bit more of my blood so that the city can carry on surviving.

TWMexico is going through hard times at the moment. What do you think the role of writers, artists and critics should be, faced with tragedies like the ones we’ve seen in the last few months?

GFTheir role comes down to that of being critical citizens. In Mexico, the very idea of the state or of a social pact is shattered. We’re defenceless before criminals of all kinds. The government’s famous “war against the narcos” has caused around 80,000 deaths and 20,000 disappearances in recent years. We’ve got our own Iraq. Meanwhile politicians are getting rich, and the accumulation of wealth in just a few hands is scandalous. I don’t see a solution to this in the short term. Artists and writers are also citizens, and each of them will have ideas about what path to take. I’ve written articles criticising weak institutions, bad politicians, monopolies and financial speculators. But I’m a pessimist; I know nothing will change. Citizens have turned into zombies and consumers. They prefer entertainment to creative reading; they have no way to put criticism into practice. In short, Mexico is a paradise for fatalist thinking.

TW You’re very much a Mexico City writer – your work has been described as “inseparable from DF”. In your view, which writers have best captured the city’s character in their work?

GFThe city recounted by Carlos Fuentes in Where the Air Is Clear – his most ambitious urban novel – has been gradually disappearing. Ricardo Garibay, Rafael Pérez Gay, José Agustín and Fabrizio Mejía Madrid are some of the many writers who have tried to chronicle DF, each of them adding their own particular vision to the general view. Between us, we know it all. But there are no longer any works that represent DF as a totality, as both geography and substance. I tried it in my novel Hotel DF, but probably failed.

TW Do you think DF presents different challenges for fiction than other cities? Does its sheer size alone, for instance, make representation difficult? Or is that a general problem of modern urban life?

GFAlmost all cities have one thing in common: they’re large gatherings of strangers. Walter Benjamin called them the “asylum of outlaws”. The lack of intimacy, the constant movement takes away some of their human quality. It’s a strange paradox that Mexico City was built on top of a lake and yet there is no water anywhere in the landscape: it has no lakes or rivers; all of them have been paved over or hidden. The absence is harmful because it throws us headlong into the artificial, into stone and anxiety. Water calms the spirit, but here that’s not possible. Though the metaphor has been much abused, DF really is an urban jungle; it’s one of God’s bad jokes. Living in it is an adventure and a misfortune. It has everything good and bad that a person might encounter.

  • Guillermo Fadanelli