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Carlos Monsivías — containing multitudes

11 July 2010

There are Many Mexicos (as the title of one of the best books on this country had it) and an infinite number of ways to “be Mexican”.  Trying to reduce the overwhelming varieties of human experience the country offers, we — and Mexicans themselves — are reduced to analogies to better known foreign models.  Sometimes it works, but not always.

John Ross (Counterpunch) — writing on the deaths of both José Saramago and Carlos Monsivías — of course focuses on their political identification, although — with Monsivías — those labels were as twisted and sinuous as his writing:

Carlos Monsivais was a self-confessed addict of “lost causes” (a Mexico City university once honored him with a Doctorus of Lost Causes), a Quijote-like figment who embraced every social movement to flex its fist from the 1959 railroad workers strike to gay liberation. A disciplined, stylish writer whose baroque syntax sometimes confounded critics, Monsivais authored 50 books in 50 years, many defending popular culture against the MacDonaldization of post-NAFTA Mexico – read his final judgment in the just-published “Apocalipstick.” Untranslated and virtually untranslatable because his chronicles are so focused on the little things, Monsivais remains largely ignored north of the border.

Like Saramago, Monsi was fascinated by the Zapatista rebellion, penning the prologues to five volumes of EZLN documents but later quarreled with Marcos over the Sup’s gung-ho support for “ultras” who took over the 1999-2000 UNAM strike. Although once a member of the Young Communist League, Monsi was mostly a Groucho Marxist.

Appearing in today’s Los Angeles Times, Reed Johnson writes a”An Appreciation” of the writer who, asked to describe himself, said he was a cross between Albert Camus and Ringo Starr:

Carlos Monsiváis wasn’t a “pundit,” although he spoke and wrote with biting irony and insight about politics. He wasn’t a “talking head” either, although he regularly appeared on TV shows in his native Mexico to offer erudite yet unstuffy thoughts about pop music divas, movies, gay rights, globalization and, of course, to skewer the follies of the nation’s ruling elites.

Technically, the famously rumpled and feline-loving man of letters, who died June 19 at age 72, was an “intellectual,” a vocation that in Mexico isn’t merely descriptive. It’s an occupational category as formally circumscribed as doctor, lawyer, priest or bricklayer…

His closest U.S. equivalent might be the novelist, essayist and social critic Gore Vidal. But unlike Vidal, Monsiváis was practically as recognizable to Mexico City’s cab drivers and taco vendors as he was to presidents and belletrists.

A connoisseur of the capital’s vida cotidiana, or daily life, he was attuned to the strivings and sufferings of ordinary Mexicans, on whose behalf he wrote, talked and advocated tirelessly. He accepted pragmatically his role as a mass-media personality, albeit with a typical touch of sardonic humor. “They don’t tell me, ‘You are a writer, I have read you,’ they tell me, ‘You are a writer, I have seen you on television,'” he told one interviewer.

As the writer and critic Cuauhtémoc Medina put it in a 2001 interview, “In Monsiváis’ texts Roland Barthes and Bertolt Brecht meet Cantinflas, and the Beats, Warhol and McLuhan frame his readings of Bolero songs and the 1968 Mexican student movement.” …

But in ordinary speech, he was direct, funny, always epigrammatic, even when being telephoned at any hour of the day or night for a quote about the latest political fallout, a witty critique of a public utility meltdown or to deliver a remark about a colleague who’d passed away.

I remember calling him a couple of years ago while working on an obituary for Andrés Henestrosa Morales, a poet and essayist who’d traveled across Mexico in the pre- World War II era, collecting stories about the country’s indigenous people. “It was a great time for travel,” Monsiváis remarked, “before tourism.”

Carlos Monsivías was compared to Ringo Starr, Albert Camus, Groucho, Brecht, Gore Vidal… none quite correctly.  Why not Oscar Wilde?  Or why not that other great chronicler and celebrator of the urban, Walt  “I contain multitudes” Whitman?

Why not indeed?   Because Carlos Monsivías was, is, and always will be, simply our Monsí.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 12 July 2010 1:36 pm

    Thanks for this posting.

    The first book I read in Spanish was by Carlos Monsivaís and vaya- when I had finished, I figured I’d be able to take on anything! His writing introduced me to the depth and convoluted precision of the language.

    But the technique meister was José Saramago. His essay, “El Viaje del Elefante” is 14 pages long and there are only three paragraphs – It is full of dialogue but has no quotation marks or other way of discerning changes in voice. But I never got lost – his writing is THAT clear and concise. Both of these amazing writers will be very missed; the consolation is that both left an impressive collection of work…

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