Following the chance discovery of certain documents, a historian sets out to solve the mystery surrounding a murder committed in the building where he lived in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma in the autumn of 1942 when he was just ten years old. Mexico had just declared war on Germany, and its capital had become a colorful caldron of European émigrés: German communists, Nazi spies, Spanish republicans, Trotsky and his disciples, Balkan royalty, Jewish financiers, and secret agents from both Allied and Axis countries.
As the historian-turned-detective begins his investigation, he introduces us, chapter by chapter, to an eccentric parade of characters from Mexico City’s political, artistic, intellectual, and upper classes. Pitol constructs a novel that turns on mistaken identities, blurred memories, and conflicting interests, and whose protagonist is haunted by the ever-looming possibility of never uncovering the truth. At once a fast-paced detective story and an uproarious comedy of errors, this novel cemented Pitol’s place as one of Latin America’s most important twentieth-century authors. Winner of the Herralde Prize in 1984, The Love Parade is the first installment of what Pitol would later dub his Carnival Triptych.
The Love Parade will be available in January 2022 from Deep Vellum Publishing.
Chapter 1: Minerva
A man stopped in front of the gate of a red brick building in the heart of Colonia Roma, one afternoon in mid-January 1973. Four unwonted turrets, also brick, sit atop the building’s corners. For decades, the building has epitomized an architectural extravagance in a neighborhood of tranquil residences of another style. Truth be told, in the last few years everything has become discordant, as the entire neighborhood has lost its harmony. The hulking mass of the new buildings crushes the graceful homes of two, at most three, floors, built according to the Belle Époque style in Bordeaux, Biarritz, and Auteil. There is something sad and dirty in the district that until recently still maintained certain displays of elegance, of a once powerful class, wronged but not defeated. The opening of the subway station, the ragtag hordes that it regularly vomits, the countless stalls of fried foods, tacos, quesadillas, and elotes, of newspapers and secondhand books, the hawkers that sell dogs, cheap toys, and miracle drugs, have heralded the true demise of that part of the city, the beginning of a different era.
Dusk fell. The man pushed open the metal door, walked toward the interior courtyard, looked up, and surveyed the squalid spectacle of an edifice on the brink of ruin. Just as the building didn’t conform to the neighborhood, and, on second thought, to the city, its internal structure was inconsistent with its faux Gothic façade, with its mansards, porthole windows, and four turrets. The man surveyed the corridors that encircled each of the building’s floors, irregular oases created by clusters of flowerpots and tin pails of different shapes and sizes where palms, lilies, rose bushes, and bougainvillea were growing. The arrangement of the flowers breaks the monotony of the cement, creates an asymmetrical and ultimately harmonious ensemble, and evokes the interior of the city’s humble tenements.
“Palms with slender stems used to grow in the jardinières,” he told himself. He wonders if his memory might be laying a trap. His stay here emerges, fades, and reappears in his memories as if drawn in a palatial setting. At that moment, as he examines the interior with care, the spaces, despite their size, seem much smaller than how he’s stored them in his memory. A torrent of words spoken thirty years before rushes over him, echoes of conversations suggest elegance, the building’s social prestige, its Art Deco interior designed in 1914 by one of the most renowned architects of the time, precisely the year in which his book is set, a style superimposed on the original unfinished bricks, just as they appear on the exterior. What he sees at that moment are walls about to implode, crumble, before his eyes.
The man must be about forty years old. He’s wearing thick, dark-brown flannel trousers and a slightly marbled tweed jacket of the same color. His tie is made of woven wool, ochre. In that corner, and especially in that portico, his attire, as well as his particular way of standing, of bringing his hand to his chin, are absolutely natural, in tune with the tall, dirty reddish brick walls, like those of many London walls and porticos. Under his arm, he’s carrying the newly corrected proofs of his latest book and a treatise of the language of Machiavelli, which he just bought at an Italian bookstore nearby.
Frankly, he could characterize as disappointing the last two days, which he spent revising the proofs of the book he’d worked on over the last few years: a chronicle of the events that took place in Mexico City, from Victoriano Huerta’s departure to Carranza’s arrival. He found the style crude and presumptuous. At times, it seemed incoherent and pedantic; at others, overly affected. But what was worse, the spirit of the book began to slip away from him. Did it really make sense to have spent so much time buried in archives and libraries, breathing stale air, coating his hair and lungs with dust, to achieve such mediocre results? It seemed as though during each of his past vacations in Mexico, he’d done nothing but search for, classify, and decipher papers. Suddenly, as he poured with fatigue over those pages, now free of typos, awaiting his final approval, he felt that his work could have been done by any scribe who possessed a modicum of instruction in the technique of evaluating and selecting the information scattered in letters, public and private documents, and the press of a given era. His book was called The Year 1914, although the action also took place during a large part of the following year. He had used 1914 in the title because it was the year of the Convention of Aguascalientes, which was critical to the basis of his work. The story of a city without a government: the capital that, though in the hands of the different factions, is controlled by none of them. During such disarray, in the heart of chaos, anything can happen: Vasconcelos improvises a Ministry of Public Instruction; outside his door, from time to time, soldiers shoot their rifles into the air, obeying who knows what reflexes, etc.
It was necessary to leave that now-distant Mexico to find peace. If there was anything that kept him going for the moment, it was a deep interest in studying a series of materials that aspired to be a new book. A few months before, while still in Bristol, he’d discovered the correspondence between the administrator of an English oil company in Mexico’s Huatesca region and its headquarters in London during the oil conflicts that led to the expropriation of the companies and the subsequent break in relations between England and Mexico. He extended his curiosity to the continuation of these difficult relations, the resumption of which was made possible by the war, to the visits paid by prominent British intellectuals and journalists to General Cedillo (Waugh, no less!), who insisted on seeing him as the noble savage in whom the seed of catechism had indeed taken root. The man necessary to defeat chaos. The world press expressed itself without the least sentimentality: If Cedillo refused to lead the rebellion, or if he was defeated, the only way forward was armed intervention. To quell the disorder. He took some notes at the time; he’d reviewed and expanded on them in Mexico. And just two or three weeks earlier, just before the end of the year, he met a fellow student, Mercedes Ríos, with whom he discussed his readings at the time and some still vague research projects. Mercedes lent him some photocopies of a bundle of papers dealing with the more or less clandestine activities of certain German agents active in Mexico during that same period. These documents had belonged to an uncle of hers, a high ranking official of the Secretariat of Home Affairs during the war, and she imagined he might find them interesting, since they were in some way linked to his topic. He had thought about doing more focused research: the actions taken by oil companies against Mexico, the outbreak of the Second World War, the country’s participation in the Allied cause; de facto solutions to the problems created by expropriation, etc., but reading those documents made him aware of a thousand other possibilities. He decided to broaden his scope, to study Mexico’s situation in relation to the international one, and not just in regard to the countries to which the expropriated companies belonged. An extremely stimulating period. Elsewhere he began to find materials that renewed his interest in that critical period, which, despite its proximity in time, seemed as remote as that in which José María Luis Mora attempted to plant the ideas of the Enlightenment in the country and to bring Mexico closer to the Age of Reason. Mercedes had been right about the interest that such documents would arouse in him. He plunged into them one weekend. A bitter perfume of mystery emanated from those scant biographical notes. In a way, they recreated the atmosphere of certain films, certain novels, that one is accustomed to finding in Istanbul, Lisbon, Athens, or Shanghai, but never in Mexico. There were just over fifty pages. He read them on a Saturday night and was so excited that he couldn’t sleep. On Sunday he studied them again, took notes, and reflected on the information they contained. It was thanks to them that he was there, in the courtyard of that bizarre red brick building, and he looked indecisively at a corner of the second floor, where he supposed, without being entirely sure, that his bedroom had been thirty-one years before, during the months he lived with his Uncle Dionisio and Aunt Eduviges. Dionisio Zepeda and Eduviges Briones de Díaz Zepeda, as she liked to point out.
The bundle of papers that had excited him consisted almost exclusively of this: a dry collection of biographical notes, almost completely without glosses in the margin. The majority of these synoptic biographies were devoid of apparent interest, at least for the time being. As a historian, the only thing he’s learned for certain is that there is no point in time that doesn’t lend itself to the juiciest revelations. There was the possibility that once the names included on that list and the information that accompanied it, for the moment neutral, began to be linked to others, to the corresponding persons and institutions, they would expand, branch out, and lead the researcher to broader areas, some truly significant.
Translated by George Henson