“Books change you for the better”

Meet Mexico’s most acclaimed author – Juan Villoro

Juan Villoro header by Lisa Goldapple
A voice of resistance | image by TOPIA

Mexico’s most prolific novelist and journalist searches for the meaning of a better life with TOPIA editor Lisa Goldapple, discussing pleasure and pain, constitutions and chillies, and fathers and football

In TOPIA series My World of Good, revolutionaries imagine better

“It’s said you can never lead a country with more than 200 cheeses. In Mexico, we have more than 200 chillies.”

I am watching Juan Villoro open this year’s Diálogos de Cocina (Kitchen Dialogues) culinary congress in San Sebastián. “Mexicans don’t believe we can fully enjoy something if there is no suffering. We associate pain with pleasure – hence our football team.”

Invited onto the Basque Culinary Center stage because he has “good taste”, the renowned Mexican writer is dissecting the complexities of society – by drawing connections between food and culture. Did you know that Leonardo Da Vinci is said to have invented the napkin and Victor Hugo added mustard to his tea to prove his originality? The point of his talk, ‘Metaphysics for gluttons’, is that we need freedom of imagination and that is why we have gastronomy, literature and art; to stimulate our senses, help us feel alive and to make us think.

“Confucius used to say that we need a pound of flour to live, but I need flowers to know it’s worth living,” he laughs.

Born and raised in Mexico City in 1956, Villoro is widely known among intellectual circles and the Spanish-speaking literary scene as one of the most acclaimed, awarded and adored authors in Latin America – and one of its most important voices. He has written over a dozen prize-winning novels and short story collections. As a journalist, he writes about sport, music and literature. I am intimidated to meet him, but those fears are put to rest when he asks if the interview is changed from unfathomably early to “Mexican time”. ¡Gracias, México!

It’s no surprise to learn that the literary star grew up surrounded by books. The son of Luis Villoro, a Catalan-Mexican philosopher, and Estela Ruiz, a renowned Mexican psychoanalyst known for her “volcanic emotions”, his bedtime stories were works like Homer’s Odyssey and Plato’s Dialogues. But the bibliophile loves popular culture with the same intensity as deeply philosophical texts, believing that football may be the most effective catalyst for pan-global unity. Expect Gary Lineker, Andy Warhol, the Rolling Stones or Jane Fonda to be thrown into a conversation quicker than you can say, “Guilty!”*

Yes, that was a reference to short story collection, The Guilty. Villoro’s first book to be translated into English covered the absurdities of life in Mexico, from the semiotics of pet iguanas to the disillusionment of mariachi singers.

As a child, Villoro thought that his father, a left-wing activist, was a spy or a double agent. “Both my parents come from separatist traditions,” he writes in El vertigo horizontal (Horizontal Vertigo), “he from Catalonia, she from Yucatán”. The unparalleled portrait of a city in danger of growing past all reasonable limits provides an eye-opening tour of one of the great metropolises of the world. The title refers to the fear of ever-impending earthquakes that led Mexicans to build their carnivalesque capital city outward rather than upward. It is full of witty and sometimes absurd memories from the various chapters of Villoro’s own life.

In his latest book, La figura del mundo (The Figure of the World), the author looks into who his father really was – the intangible presence of a thinker, social fighter, Zapatista and author of a fundamental work.

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On stage, Villoro is reminiscing about the most delicious thing he has ever eaten – a simple pasta soup. It had been lovingly prepared by the women in his village as he collected rubble after an earthquake had devastated the area back in September 1985. “The best seasoning is sharing and there is no better seasoning that hunger,” he says, asking us to lick our fingers like cannibals, so we ourselves can be part of life’s stew. “We become seasoning when we recover our origins.”

In TOPIA series My World of Good, we ask a diverse bunch of revolutionaries to create a more positive world by imagining better. I knew that a conversation with Juan Villoro might veer across cultural, political and social history, but that his ideal world would always begin and end with books… and Mexico.

Juan Villoro: “In My World of Good…”

1. The wise seeks what they do not yet know

Juan Villoro and his father, Luis Villoro | Photo by Miguel Gener

When I was a child, it was difficult for me to understand my father’s work. I would see him on the sofa, reading. When I asked, “What’s your job?”, he told me, “I’m a philosopher.” In the schoolyard, when kids would say, “My father is a pilot, sells sofas, is a driver,” I replied that my father was… “looking for the meaning of life”. They thought he was a bum was in the cantinas, drinking tequila. Trying to understand the meaning of life at six years old is quite complicated!

I have written a book about my father as a memoir. It’s a love letter – my way of trying to understand him. I had a distant relationship with him, but also a fascination. Writing helps you gain perspective to deal with your feelings.

2. Reading is a way of life

Books change you for the better.

For me, the perfect reader is somebody who hasn’t ever read a book and discovered, in a rite of passage, that reading can create happiness. Books create a voyage that can take you wherever you want. The first time I realised that there was an alternative world was thanks to The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. A book is the best means of transportation.

3. Indigenous people are in the political arena

It is important to have an Indigenous Indian presidential candidate. Many people in the cities say, “This is going to be good for the Indigenous people of Mexico.” No. This is going to be good for all of us, we need them.

More than 25 million Mexicans (21.5% of the population) identify as Indigenous – ‘Marichuy’ has been providing herbal remedies for decades and is the first Indigenous woman to run for president

I have been involved with a political project called Camino al Andar, who help develop a more secure, peaceful, ecological and just world. We tried to help a candidate from the original people from Mexico – a woman called María de Jesús Patricio Martínez, better known as Marichuy – but it was difficult. In order to be a candidate, you needed to collect signatures with an app. Cell phones are expensive for the Indian communities, who often also have no connection. It was technological discrimination. The device was meant for a country like Sweden, not Mexico.

The best keepers of tradition are the original people from Mexico. We can all benefit of a better life if these people were in charge of the territory.

There are more than 60 different original peoples in Mexico.
Our role is to bear witness, not to lead them.

4. We respect nature

The Mayans did not destroy nature, they lived with it.

Sacbe at Dzibilchaltun in the Yucatán

Sacbé means ‘white roads’ in Mayan. When you see extremely white sand, you know they will lead you to a sacred place.

Mexico City used to be a floating city, with an ecological equilibrium between the city and the lake that surrounded it. The conquistadores (conquerors) came to Mexico from Spain. As the city grew, the lake drained and now we live upon the former lake, which is terrible. Horizontal Vertigo chronicles the story of the dreadful, desertification of one of the most formidable landscapes that ever existed.

5. Reality is more ‘Italian’

Italy is a paradise on earth. I love its small towns because art is part of daily life; you can find beautiful paintings, churches, architecture and gastronomic tradition at its best. I also love the way Italians handle emotions. You don’t have to go to the opera or theatre. All of Italy is a stage.

I like neorealist Italian cinematography like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. He has been instrumental in shaping my ways of discovering the hidden magic within reality. Because I don’t think that I am a fantastic writer.

I used to live in East Germany, working at the Mexican embassy. The winter can be trying there, especially for a Mexican. After three years, I went to the aquarium in West Berlin. I was fed up of the cold and couldn’t relate to the language anymore. Suddenly, I heard an Italian woman speaking with her small child: “Guarda che meravigliosa varietà di pesci!” (Look at the marvellous variety of fish!). That phrase brought me back to life.

6. Everyone has read De Perfil (In Profile)

Coming of age books are important because they change the way you look at reality. José Agustin’s De Perfil was instrumental in my life because the main character was exactly the same age as me when I read it – 15 years old. Set in Mexico City, he lived in a neighbourhood similar to mine. His parents are divorcing, my parents were divorced. Everything resembled my life but he was quicker, funnier, smarter. I thought if I could resemble this character more, my life could be as interesting as his. This book inspired me to write. The English equivalent would be the deeply philosophical The Catcher in the Rye.

7. We appreciate that life is interesting

In hindsight, my life growing up was more interesting than I thought. As a teenager, everything was a menace as I was insecure and confused. Now I realise that I had everything in front of me and it was a wonderful time!

Photo by Daniel Mordzinski

I don’t like reality as it can be boring; it’s not stimulating all the time. But even the most disappointing things can become interesting if you use your sense of humour, or through irony, poetry. You can either complain about this world of ours not being perfect – or find another way of looking reality.

8. Everyone gets to see the Mayan pyramids

Chichen Itzá

Being from Mexico, I think all the Mayan pyramids are extraordinary. Our sacred works have an incredible delicacy. Everything in these pyramids is symbolic – the number of the stairs, the orientation towards the sky – giving it cosmic meaning. These citadels were meant not only for a religious purposes, people lived there; the combination of the sacred and the profane is wonderful.

It is difficult to achieve something like this in stone, surrounded by the jungle. If you look at the citadels closely, you can see they resemble the branches of the jungle. This dialogue between stone, human beings and nature is formidable.

9. People notice what is not there

I love the Museum of Libeskind in Berlin. In this Jewish Museum, you have the sense that you have to pay attention, not only to what’s there, but what is not. There is a mise-en-scène of a void, something missing. It’s meant to make you think about the absence, and that’s the Holocaust. You can have this extraordinary experience without belonging to any religion.

I can say something similar of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, in which you see abstract paintings with colours positioned in a way that gives a special sense of introspection. There is a possibility to meditate through art.

Meditation and modern art meet In Rothko Chapel

10. Everyone has access to art

Not everybody has access to art, especially in poorer countries like Mexico. We have a subway station called Bellas Artes in Mexico, near our Opera House. For most people in my city, Bellas Artes is just a subway station. They don’t know what it means and that’s sad. We have to fight for a better society in which everybody can enjoy art.

Art also teaches us to see nature in an artistic way. You can say that nothing compares to nature or a sunset, but we think in this way because we have art. You can see the aesthetic power of a mountain because you’re trained to see landscapes in paintings. It’s not that art substitutes nature, but enhances it. That’s rewarding, because in this world, there are many things that are going to disappoint you. Art is a form of critical reconciliation with an imperfect reality.

11. Everyone has read a Calvino

Italo Calvino is one of my favorite writers. He was born in Cuba but his parents called him Italo so he would always remember the land of his forefathers, Italy. He also spent time in Mexico. He was a wonderful writer of fantastic literature, but also wrote essays about the Second World War and politics. I am rereading all of his books to celebrate 100 years of the prolific author.

Italo Calvino helped define magical realism

12. And watched a Buñuel film

I am a huge fan of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel. He had started off making provocative films with Salvador Dalí in Europe and had an extraordinary way of finding surrealism within daily life.

Luis Buñuel by Salvador Dalí (1904- 1989)

Then he moved to Mexico and became a realist filmmaker, depicting what he saw as unfair and unsafe. But he still found a way of conveying the mysteries of life. For example, in scenes in which you don’t expect to find eroticism, like milking a cow, suddenly drops of milk fall between the legs. And that’s quite erotic, without being obvious.

Buñuel was fascinating for me when I was a child as he used to live close to my neighbourhood. I would see him in a coffee shop almost all every day. I knew that this old man was a visionary. He had huge eyes as if he was capable of seeing more than any other people.

The surrealist silent creation known as Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog) was created by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí in France in 1929

13. People are not afraid of art

Some people are afraid of going into a gallery or bookstore because they fear they are not going to understand it and it will make them feel ignorant.

There is a museum for abstract art in Zacatecas, a small colonial city in Mexico City with extraordinary buildings. It was founded by an interesting painter called Manuel  Felguérez. Most of the people in this rural town have sombreros and are like cowboys, but the man in charge is a ‘gatekeeper’ who talks to everybody. He asked me, “Do you know what abstract art is?” I said, “Please tell me.” I wanted to hear him. And he said, “Well, you have to understand that in this museum, the most important thing is not what you see, but what you think, while you’re seeing it.” It was a very simple, yet deep explanation of abstract art. You don’t need training to find something interesting. 

14. There is no snobbery

I was once talking with a well-known musician called Jordi Savall, in Barcelona. He plays classical ancient music with the viola. He told me that the best review he has ever received was at an open-air concert in a small town in Mexico. Someone said to him, “When I hear your music, I feel that I love my child more.” We have a snobbish tendency of trying to complicate our so-called achievements with theories to make them seem more important. The best commentaries have to do with a feeling.

 Jordi Savall is largely responsible for popularizing the viol family of instruments

15. Mexico is a place of welcome

Mexico City was made by migrants, so it has to be a place of welcome. In 2017, it became an independent state, previously having been controlled by the President as the capital. I was involved in the writing of the constitution of my city. The draft was written by 28 citizens. The first thing we decided was to define who is considered a ‘citizen’ of Mexico City? According to the constitution, anybody who is in the city is a Mexican citizen. So, if you’re there for two minutes, you belong to the city, you have the rights of the city, and you have to react according to the city. Although it was changed in Congress, it remains an interesting piece of work.

Constitutions have to be utopian as an ideal.
Reality is always imperfect.

16. We are Moved. The End.

One of the most difficult things to write about is situations that are both tragic and comical. My short story collection, The Guilty, brings humour to the depiction of my country. Writing is a way of conveying beauty and happiness, because the paradox is that sad stories make you happy. And this is the meaning of art. You can be happy reading extremely sad Russian stories, knowing poor Anna Karenina is going to die. The paradox is that you understand her suffering and the beauty. This is a way of enjoying life, to relate to the other – even if it’s sad.

At the end, it’s a way of saying: “I was moved by the world and what I saw here.”

Juan Villoro lectures at Yale, Princeton and Stanford universities
Video by Sofi Grivas, 2019

What’s so good about this?

Juan Villoro believes that our purpose is to allow our life stories their wild lives. In his YA book, The Wild Book, the books themselves are wild creatures living in a library that is a tangled forest. For more from Juan Villoro’s library, check out: jvilloro.com and follow @juanvilloro56.

TOPIA met Juan Villoro at Diálogos de Cocina (Kitchen Dialogues), a congress at the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastián, Spain. The unique two-day event offers a journey through gastronomic transformation.

Meet the writer

Lisa Goldapple is the creative brain behind the world of TOPIA. The magazine’s Editor-in-chief has been creating shows for MTV, BBC, Vice, TVNZ, National Geographic and more since the noughties. Then created social good platform, Atlas of the Future. Today her desk faces the trippy side of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which might explain a few things. To understand how TOPIA came out of this rare brain, read ‘Mind Blown’. As she puts it: “If life splinters and you hallucinate triangles, make a kaleidoscope.”

Follow @lisagoldapple on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. (Open to freelance collaborations.)

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