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Books on Cities: Juan Villoro, Horizontal Vertigo

It doesn’t hurt to keep in mind a list of the cities to which you could relocate should everything fall apart where you are. That list need not be expansive: mine has only two columns, the Asia one headed by Osaka and the America one by Mexico City. (It has no Europe column as yet, but I’m told I’d like Milan.) That I live in Korea makes Japan the geographically convenient choice. But I’m also an American, and Americans have a time-honored (if not generally honorable) tradition of heading south of the border in troubled times. Though I can’t claim intimate knowledge of country of Mexico, a few visits to its capital have made palpable to me the allure of the city of Mexico. Not having been in nearly a decade now, I picked up Juan Villoro’s Horizontal Vertigo: A City Called Mexico to refresh my impressions.

I’ve taken note of Villoro’s name ever ever since my first visit to Mexico City, which I made to record interviews for my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. This isn’t because I interviewed him but because I didn’t: my failure to make contact placed him in the hall of “the ones that got away.” The more I learn about him, the more unfortunate this seems, since I can hardly imagine an interviewee at once as well-suited to the show’s sensibility and as well-placed to speak about a city. Born and raised in Mexico City, he’s also in his six-and-a-half decades “lived for three years in Berlin, three in Barcelona, and two semesters at universities in the United States”: just enough experience of everyday life in outside lands, as I see it, to grant him an at least partially objective perception of everyday life in his hometown.

As much memoir as city book, Horizontal Vertigo reveals Villoro to be an even more “international” figure than he’d seemed. “I had no ingenuity, no gift for telling jokes, but I said strange things,” he writes of his childhood self. “That came from my miscellaneous cultural influences. My father was born in Barcelona and grew up in Belgium. He would say whirligig instead of top and staff instead of cane” (details rendered nearly meaningless, if perhaps necessarily so, by the English translation). The young Villoro went to the Alexander von Humboldt German School, with the result that “at the age of six, I knew how to read and write, but only in German” — an experience that “enabled me to understand my own language as an elusive free space that I had to treasure at all costs.”

Read the whole thing at Substack.