The truth is, I hadn’t even heard of a major earthquake in Mexico until I was already on my way there. My girlfriend and I were in the air en route to Mexico City in early September 2017 when she decided to flip through the guidebook I had bought for the trip. Near the back of the book the author had tried her best to condense the history of Mexico City into a handful of pages, an impossible task for any city, let alone one with its history stretching back before the Aztecs. It was in these pages that my girlfriend first read, in brief, about the September 19, 1985 earthquake.
This was the first hint of what I would later learn: that below Mexico’s surface are rivulets of fault lines, a jigsaw puzzle of tectonic plates, and that its capital sits on top of the most precarious stretch of land, the soft ground of a lakebed run dry. By the time our plane was descending into Mexico City, however, I had forgotten all about earthquakes. Instead, I looked out the window at the sprawl of buildings and wondered if this huge, populated expanse could really be a single city.
A week later, just before midnight on September 8, we felt an earthquake. This turned out to be Mexico’s largest earthquake in a century, with its epicenter just off the coast of Chiapas and measuring an 8.2 on the Richter scale. But I didn’t know all that at the time; I just remember the feeling in my body as I stood readying my toothbrush and the walls began to creak and sway, the light fixture above my head swinging like an illuminated pendulum. You can find videos from that earthquake online, captured on cellphones, the most frightening and most-circulated of which is probably one that shows the dramatic sway of the Angel of Independence monument. But what I remember most about the earthquake is the feeling that it was never going to end. Everything continued to rock like the hull of a ship: after I realized that I wasn’t just tired, that the walls were in fact moving; after I met my girlfriend in the hallway and she pulled me into another room to take shelter beneath a table; after the power went out, on and on and on. It felt as if Mexico City had transformed back into the giant lake it had once been.
Eleven days later, another earthquake struck much closer to Mexico City, on the anniversary of the great September 19, 1985 earthquake. My girlfriend and I were back home in the Bay Area. Because of the surreal times we live in, I happened to hear about the earthquake through Twitter, where Mexican writers and publishers were posting about it just minutes after, describing scenes of destruction, letting friends know they were safe, describing their location, and asking for help. And even in the days following the earthquake, these writers continued to be my main source of information, while news providers here in the US seemed to post iterations of the same general information, or else resorting to pasting Twitter posts into their articles to fill in details.
There were essays too, by writers I knew and admired. Alejandro Zambra wrote about experiencing the earthquake, as well as his previous experiences with earthquakes, for Harper’s blog. And his friend, the writer Francisco Goldman, gave his account in the aptly titled, “A History of My Mexico City Home, in Earthquakes” for the New Yorker. I thought of the Haitian-American poet Boadiba, who was asked to keep an “Earthquake Diary” for Counterpunch in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti back in 2010. Suddenly and violently, literature and reality collided. Boadiba’s Earthquake Diary includes everything from the visceral effects of an earthquake (“Because of the aftershocks, our bodies vibrate, our spines tremble.”) to the sharp details of on-the-ground reporting (“A big can full of lemons used to cost 20 HDs before the quake. Now it’s 50 HDs.”) to political reflections (“They have closed the airport to all but Americans. The food aid is blocked. Political power games are being played at the expense of the quake victims.”).
This collision of literature and reality continued to overwhelm me. When the second earthquake struck Mexico, I happened to be in the middle of reading Valeria Luiselli’s book of essays, Sidewalks (translated by Christina MacSweeney). Through a number of pieces in the collection, Luiselli examines—poetically, philosophically—the landscape of Mexico City. She rides her bicycle through the city’s streets, and in one memorable passage she describes the strange sensation she has every time she descends into the city from an airplane, as I had done only a few weeks earlier. It was in this book that, only a day or two after the September 19 earthquake, I came across something that startled me, as if the barrier between life and literature were crumbling: “one of my earliest childhood memories is of standing under the frame of a door, while my house trembled and convulsed in rapid spasms.”
I, too, could still feel spasms in my body, moments when I thought for just a fraction of a second that I was experiencing another earthquake. And so, while it’s incredible that Luiselli, who must have been only two or three years old at the time, recalls the 1985 earthquake so clearly, I’m not surprised. Memory inscribes in the body those events that make the greatest impressions on us. Like a seismograph, our bodies tend to record and measure only that which is a change from the daily baseline of our existence. But what was the likelihood of my coming across such a description of Mexico’s 1985 earthquake at this moment, just days after another deadly earthquake had struck the city?
More than her brief description of the earthquake itself, I was struck by Luiselli’s description of its aftermath, of the precarious existence led by the inhabitants of a city on such precarious land. Luiselli published this collection in Spanish in 2010. Reading it today, I get chills:
We grew up knowing it could be repeated, at any time. The city could fall apart all over again. It was a temporary, transient, ephemeral place. It’s hard now not to look back on Mexico City without awe—hard not to wonder how it is that the city has really not fallen, imploded, sunk, plummeted, shifted.
It hasn’t. It won’t. But it is full of holes and absences…
In the months since September 2017, we’ve all seen pictures of Mexico City, of the rubble, the spaces where buildings used to stand, the crowds of people too afraid to re-enter their homes, the names of the missing written on sheets of paper, then photographed and posted on Twitter. Holes and absences everywhere.
As I reread Luiselli’s description of that earthquake, however, something began to trouble me. I began to wonder if I would have even noticed Luiselli’s description of the 1985 earthquake if it hadn’t resonated so clearly with these most recent disasters. The truth was, probably not: when reading international literature in translation, it’s easy to read descriptions for their lyrical beauty or else digest them only as metaphors, symbolism, or character development when you aren’t versed in the historical and cultural references, and in this way these scenes fade into the fabric of your reading experience. Yes, I probably would have enjoyed the passage, but I doubt I would have understood its full significance, the weight it carried. I would not have felt those “rapid spasms” as I did now. This fact distressed me, and I began to wonder if I had missed references to the 1985 earthquake in other books I’d read over the years, much in the same way that we often comb through our memories, albeit fruitlessly, for traces of having crossed paths with someone who is now a significant part of our lives years before we ever met him or her. Just knowing you lived in the same neighborhood at the same time is enough to send you obsessively searching for memories that don’t exist.
Then one day, I had an idea. I grabbed my copy of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives off the bookshelf and rifled through its pages. A large portion of the Chilean author’s novel takes place in Mexico City, where Bolaño himself lived for a while before moving to Europe. What’s more, the second section of the novel is arranged chronologically, spanning from the 1970s through to the early twenty-first century. So, I reasoned, there might be some reference to the earthquake—all I had to do was find that historical date within the timeline of this fictional work. And then there it was, dated September 1985: a passage from none other than Joaquín Font, the mentally unhinged father of two female poets.
The passage is fairly brief, a scant three pages in which Joaquín Font describes experiencing the earthquake from within the La Fortaleza psychiatric hospital. He has a vision at the moment the earth begins shaking: the young, dead poet Laura Damián appears in order to tell him everything is fine. I couldn’t believe it: slipped into the unreliable narrative of a delirious man was an account of a real historical disaster. And, what’s more, this madman is the only one in the book to describe it. Bolaño takes this opportunity to turn the earthquake into a symbol for Mexico and, at the same time, insanity, as Joaquín reflects, “I thought about the earthquakes of Mexico marching toward us out of the past, trudging on beggars’ feet, straight toward eternity or Mexican nothingness.” I wonder if on my first reading I believed that the earthquake was real or if I thought the whole thing was the hallucination of a deeply disturbed man, invented for purely literary purposes. I wonder if I forgot the whole scene immediately after reading it.
So what was the reality of the 1985 earthquake? Because it occurred before Twitter, before cellphones that could take videos and transport us to the epicenter of the disaster, it is hard to grasp the full impact of that now-distant earthquake on the people who lived through it. Comparisons are often helpful, though in this case there is no easy corollary here in the United States. Even the legendary 1906 San Francisco earthquake caused a fraction of the destruction: an estimated 3,000 people died as fires broke out across San Francisco in the quake’s aftermath, whereas the Mexican government’s official death tally in Mexico City after the 1985 earthquake was 10,000, and many organizations claim that that number is far too low, that the number of casualties was closer to 60,000. But numbers on their own can’t capture the reality of disasters; quite the opposite: they often make disasters feel even more remote, unfathomable.
If you really want to get a sense of the effect of the 1985 earthquake on Mexico City, there is no better source than Elena Poniatowska, Mexico’s renowned journalist and novelist who, among other things, is noted for having documented the government-sanctioned massacre of students in Mexico City’s Tlatlolco square in 1968. So it is no surprise that Poniatowska wrote unflinchingly and meticulously about this major natural disaster. In her book Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake, she gives an exhaustive account of the earthquake and its aftermath, beginning the book by recounting her own experience that fateful morning in 1985, in thirty second intervals, as she slowly recognizes the gravity of the situation and waits for the violent crashes—her building smashing repetitively against the fourteen-story building next to it—to stop.
She continues with the same attention to detail, tirelessly collecting other people’s stories and the destruction to the city’s infrastructure, as well as exposing the government for its incompetence and corruption in the disaster’s aftermath. The details are overwhelming at times and may mean little to someone who has never visited Mexico City, and yet Poniatowska seems determined to record everything, to offer another resounding version of events, other than those being reported by the government. As Rebecca Solnit once commented in an interview about her book A Paradise Built in Hell, “For me the insurrectionary possibilities of disaster are what make them really interesting and sometimes positive—Mexico City’s big 1985 earthquake brought a lot of positive, populist, anti-institutional social change.” I guess you could say the same thing about literature. Disaster—writing about disaster—brings about these insurrectionary possibilities. That explains why, despite Poniatowska’s systematic approach to documenting the physical destruction across the city, from building to building and neighborhood to neighborhood, there is an energy that refuses to settle, that refuses to contain itself within the usual literary conventions.
This insurrectionary experience of reading Nothing, Nobody reminded me of another memorable reading experience I had years earlier, that of reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Perhaps the most widely-discussed section of Bolaño’s massive novel is “The Part about the Murders,” in which Bolaño details a series of violent femicides in Mexico over a span of hundreds of pages. Anyone who lived through the 1990s and early 2000s will recognize in these fictional murders an allusion to the very real murders of an unprecedented number of women in Ciudad Juárez between 1993 and 2003, most of them factory workers at the maquiladoras. Both Bolaño and Poniatowska are walking a fine line between fiction and journalism in these two works, Bolaño veering toward fiction and Poniatowska toward journalism. Both authors attempt to capture events more disturbing than we can possibly fathom. The images may initially shock—a half-naked body left to rot in the desert in one, babies crashing out of windows of the maternity ward in another—and yet we are not given enough time to mourn each lost life before we are almost immediately confronted with another. Dead bodies pile up on the page.
The experience of reading about disaster—both natural and unnatural disaster—is exhausting and difficult, and I’ve talked to plenty of people who couldn’t make it through “The Part about the Murders.” As they rightly point out, so much senseless violence numbs the reader. What is more disturbing, the brutal murder of a woman or our lack of outrage in the face of it? And yet I can’t help but feel that these books accomplished what conventional journalism and fiction do not and cannot accomplish. They depict tragedy in its entirety, not merely as a set of numbers or single instances to be digested bit by bit. Instead, we as readers are forced to take in the horror in full, something that journalists are taught we cannot metabolize.
Similarly, these works have an effect beyond that of conventional fiction. The idea is not to inhabit a separate world but to grapple with our own reality head-on. In the case of both books, I struggled against being both a passive reader and a passive citizen of the world. This struggle—the constant back and forth between outrage and compliance—is now more than ever something we must reckon with, as we face a ceaseless onslaught of news from around the world, with more natural disasters than we can count and more tweets from our president than is healthy, overlapping and overwhelming us. I can’t help but think that literature, or at least this insurrectionary kind of literature, has been preparing us for this moment all along.