Authors: Juan Villoro
I'll admit I stuffed Katzenberg full of clichÃ©s and vernacular flashiness. But it was his fault. He wanted to see iguanas in the streets.
Mexico disappointed him, as if the whole country were some ceremonial site, commercialized and in ruins, full of peddlers hawking tanning oil to sun worshippers.
I introduced him to an expert on Mexican art and Katzenberg refused to talk with him. I should have quit right then; I couldn't tolerate working for a racist. Didier Morand was black, from Senegal. He had come to Mexico when then-President Luis EcheverrÃa decided that our countries were deeply alike. Didier wore beaded necklaces and beautiful African tunics. He was a Commissary
of Mexican Art, and very few people knew as much as he did. But Katzenberg was annoyed that he'd honor so many cultures at once.
“I don't need an African source.” He looked at me as if I were trying to sell him the wrong ethnicity.
I decided to cut him down to size: I asked for double the money.
He accepted, and so I tried my best to find metaphors and adjectives that would bring out the essential Mexico, or something that could represent it in his eyes, so hungry for “genuine” disasters.
That's when I introduced him to Gonzalo ErdiozÃ¡bal.
Gonzalo looks like a fiery Moor from 1940s Hollywood. He radiates the hyperdignified elegance of a Sultan who's lost his camels and has no plans to get them back. Or at least, that's how we see him in Mexico. In Europe, he seems very Mexican. For four years in the 80s, he managed to get himself worshipped in Austria as Xochipili, a supposed descendent of the Emperor Moctezuma. Every morning, he'd go to the Ethnographic Museum of Vienna dressed as an Aztec dancer, light copal incense, and ask for signatures supporting the repossession of Moctezuma's headdress, whose quetzal feathers were languishing there in a glass case.
In his role as Xochipili, Gonzalo showed the Austrian populace that what they thought of as a charmless gift from Emperor Maximilian was actually a piece of our identity. He gathered enough signatures to bring the issue to Parliament, raising funds from NGOs and winning the boundless devotion of a shifting harem of blondes. Obviously, it would have been a disaster if
he'd actually repossessed the headdress. His cause only prospered so long as the Austrians postponed handing it over. He was able to enjoy his “Moctezuma fellowship” without being defeated by the generosity of his adversaries: it was nostalgia that forced him to come back before he could claim the imperial plumes (“I miss the reek of pork rinds and gasoline,” he wrote me.)
When Katzenberg doubled my salary, I called Gonzalo and offered him one third. Gonzalo cobbled together a fertility rite on a concrete rooftop, and took us to the shack of a splotchy-skinned clairvoyant who made us gnaw on sugarcane so she could read our destinies in the pulp.
Thanks to Gonzalo's improvised traditions, Katzenberg found the local color he needed for his story. On our last night together, he had one too many tequilas and confessed that the magazine had given him an expense account fat enough to live for a month, like a king. Gonzalo and I had made it possible for him to “research” everything in just one week.
The next day, he was back to scrimping. He decided the hotel shuttle was too expensive so he flagged down a parrot-green VW. The taxi driver took him down an alley and held a screwdriver to his jugular. Katzenberg was left with nothing but his passport and his plane ticket, but his flight was canceled because PopocatÃ©petl started erupting and ashes had clogged the planes' turbines.
He spent one last day in Mexico City, watching news reports on the volcano, too scared to even go out into the hallway. He called and asked me to come see him. I
was afraid he was going to ask me to give him back the money, and even more afraid I'd offer it to him. I told him I was busy because a witch had put the evil eye on me.
I felt bad for Katzenberg, long distance, until he sent me a copy of the story he'd written. The title's vulgar pun wasn't the worst of it: “There She Blows: Frida and the Volcano.” I was in the piece, described as “one of the locals.” Somehow, though he hadn't deigned to dignify me with a name, Katzenberg had included every word I'd said, unhampered by quotation marks or scruples. His story was a pillage of my ideas. His only originality consisted in having discovered them himself (and only when I read the story did I realize all I had come up with). The story concluded with something I'd said about green salsa and the painful chromatics of the Mexican people. For half the price, they could have gotten the same article from me. But we live in a colonial world, and the magazine needed the august signature of Samuel Katzenberg. Plus, I don't write articles.
The star reporter's return to Mexico tested both my patience and my dignity. How dare he call me?
I told him I had no aspirations to protagonism; I was just sick of Americans taking advantage of us. Instead of translating MonsivÃ¡is or MejÃa Madrid, they sent a cretin who got the Madonna treatment just because he wrote in English. The planet had turned into a new Babel where nobody could understand anybody else, but the important thing was to not understand anybody else in English.
I thought my speech was patriotic, so I went on and on until I got scared I was sounding anti-Semitic.
“Sorry I didn't mention you,” Katzenberg said politely on the other end of the line.
I looked out the window, towards the Parque de la Bola. A little boy had climbed up the enormous cement sphere. He spread his arms, like he was on the top of a mountain. Everyone around him clapped. The Earth had been conquered.
At night, I like to look at the middle of the traffic circle we call the Parque de la Bola, the Ball Park. The ball is a globe made out of concrete. People lean out over their balconies to look at it. The world as seen by its neighbors.
My eyes wandered to the computer, covered with Post-its where I jot down “ideas.” At this point, the machine looks like a domesticated Xipe Totec, the Aztec flayed god. Each “idea” is a layer of skin from Our Flayed Father. Instead of writing the script about syncretism I'd already cashed an advance on, I was constructing a monument to the topic.
Katzenberg was trying to win me over.
“The copy editors obliterated crucial adjectives; you know how cutthroat journalism is. Editors over there are not like the ones in Mexico, they're vicious with the red pen, they change everything on you. . . .”
While he was talking, I was thinking about Cristi SuÃ¡rez. She had left an indelible message on my answering machine. “How's it going with the script? I dreamed about you last night. A nightmare with low-budget slasher effects. You behaved yourself, though: you were the monster, not the one who was chasing me but the
one who was saving me. Don't forget we need the first draft by Friday. Thanks for saving me.
Listening to Cristi is a delectable destruction. I love her proposals on topics I don't like. For her, I've written scripts on genetically modified corn and Brahman cattle ranching. Even though the work is a pretext to get closer to her, I still haven't taken the final step. And it's because up until now, unlikely as it may sound, my best quality has been my scripts. She met me when I was horrendously drunk, but even so, or maybe because of it, she considered me capable of writing a documentary exposing the dangers of transgenic grains. Ever since, she's talked to me as if our previous project had won an Oscar and now we were just gunning for prestige at Cannes. The latest episode of her enthusiasm led me to syncretism. “We Mexicans are pure collage,” she said. It's hard to believe, but spoken by her, it sounded sublime.
I'd disconnected my answering machine because I wasn't sure I could handle another message from Cristi and her magnificent nightmares. Sometimes I wonder what I'd have to lose by telling her once and for all that I couldn't care less about syncretism and the only collage I'm interested in is her. But then I remember she likes to take care of people. She thinks of herself as a nurse. Maybe the scripts are the therapy she's assigned to me and all she wants is for me to take my medicine. But the good monster thing sounds racy, almost pornographic. Although it would be more pornographic if she congratulated me on being the bad monster. The soul of a woman is a complicated thing.
Yes, I disconnected the answering machine to erase any record of the voice that obsessed me. When the phone rang twenty times, I couldn't help wondering what kind of psychopath was trying to get hold of me. That's how I ended up talking to Katzenberg again.
He was still on the line. He had run out of polite phrases and was waiting for my response.
I looked in my wallet: two green 200-peso notes, with traces of cocaine (not enough). The sight alone convinced me, but Katzenberg still made an emotional appeal:
“This isn't the first time they've asked me to come back to Mexico. Believe it or not, the Frida story was a hit. I didn't want to come back, and a colleague, an anti-Semitic Irishman who was trying to fuck my girlfriend, spread the rumor that I didn't want to come back because I'd done something dirty. It wouldn't be the first time a gringo reporter got into trouble with the narcotraffickers or the DEA.”
“You came back to clear your name?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered, humbly.
I told him I was not “one of the locals.” If he wanted to refer to me, he'd have to use my name. It was a question of principles and the proper attribution of sources. Then I asked him for three thousand dollars.
There was a silence on the other end of the line. I thought Katzenberg was doing calculations, but he had already moved on to the subject of his story.
“How violent is Mexico City, really?”
I remembered something Burroughs wrote to Kerouac or Ginsberg or some other big-time addict who wanted to come to Mexico but was scared he'd get jumped.
“Don't worry: Mexicans only kill their friends.”
Those days, the only interesting thing in Mexico City was Keiko's farewell. On Sundays, divorced fathers depend heavily on zoos and aquariums. I got in the habit of taking Tania to Adventure Kingdom, the theme park that we thought of as a whale sanctuary.
I decided to spend the morning with Tania, watching the whale swim in powerful circles (my daughter, more accurately, referred to it as an “orca”) and in the afternoon I'd look for attractive, violent settings with Katzenberg. That wouldn't be easy. All the spots I've been mugged are too ordinary.
One thing was still unresolved: when would I write that first draft for Cristi?
While I tried to salvage some cocaine dust from a bill with Sor Juana's face on it, I came up with an ontolog-ical excuse for my block. What was the point of writing scripts in a country where the Cineteca Theaters exploded while they were showing
The Promised Land?
I remembered the problem we'd had with an extra who got beat up in a scene, and my script had him say
The union decided that since the victim had a speaking part, he should be paid as an actor instead of an extra. After that, my victims died in silence.
Anyway, I've never seen the slightest resemblance between what I imagine and the handsome stud or bottle blonde who garbles my words onscreen.
“Why don't you write a novel?” Renata asked me once. We were still married then and she was still willing to change me for my own sake, starting with imagining me as a novelist. “In novels, special effects are free and
the characters aren't unionized. All that counts is your inner world.”
I'll never forget that phrase. A time actually existed when Renata believed in my inner world. As she spoke those words, she looked at me, with the honey-colored eyes that Tania unfortunately didn't inherit, as if I were a landscape: interesting, but a little out of focus.
None of the accusations she hurled at me later nor any of the fights that led to our divorce hurt me as much as that generous expectation. Her trust was more devastating than the critics. Renata saw in me possibilities I never possessed.
In scripts, “INT” refers to the interior, and mine is decorated with sofas. That's as deep as I go. Anything else is the delusion of a woman who made a mistake searching for depths in me, and who hurt me by believing I was capable of plumbing them myself.
I called Gonzalo ErdiozÃ³bal to ask him to take care of the script. He doesn't write, but his life is like a documentary on syncretism. Before Vienna, he was a veteran of university theater productions (he'd recited Hamlet's monologues waist-deep in a very memorable swamp), he was involved in a freshwater shrimp farming project in RÃo PÃ¡nuco, he left a woman and two children in Saltillo, he financed a video about Monarch butterflies, and he launched a website to give voice to the 62 indigenous communities of Mexico. Plus, Gonzalo is a marvel of practicality. He fixes motors he's never seen before and makes delicious dishes with surprising ingredients he finds in my pantry. His zest for pioneering and love of
hobbies are a little annoying, but in times of desperation, there's nothing better. When Renata and I separated, he ignored my pathetic attempts to isolate myself and visited me habitually. He would show up with magazines, videos, and a very hard to find Caribbean rum.
I called Gonzalo and he said he'd never thought about writing a script, which meant yes. I felt so relieved that I got carried away talking. I told him about Katzenberg and his return to Mexico, but he wasn't interested in the journalist's news. He wanted to talk about other things. An old friend from university theater was producing one of Genet's plays in a gymnasium. When Gonzalo describes them, scenes run the risk of lasting as long as they do in real life. I hung up the phone.
I went to pick up Tania. The city was plastered with pictures of the whale. Mexico City is a wonderful place for breeding pandasâthe first panda born outside of China was born hereâbut orcas need more space to start a family. That's why Keiko was leaving. I explained this to my daughter while we waited for one of the goodbye performances to start in Adventure Kingdom's gigantic tank.