Everything you’ve ever heard about Mexico City is true.
The city contains roughly the same population as the whole of Australia and twice as many cars as people. They say that one day walking in the streets of El DF is equivalent to smoking a pack of forty cigarettes.
I was there for a week a few years back to promote a book I had written about the conquest of Mexico. I had not read the book myself on anything except my laptop and the Australian edition was still in editing.
So it was slightly surreal to fly halfway across the world and discover it has been a bestseller in another country for weeks.
The central figure of my story was a Mayan princess called Malinali (better known in the west as Malinche), Hernan Cortes’ lover during his ‘entrada’ in the early sixteenth century. My book speculated about her life, her motives, her role in the defeat of the Aztecs and most especially, the precise nature of her relationship with the great conquistador.
Well. You wouldn’t think the Mexicans would care any more, would you? The woman has been dead for half a millennium and her name is almost unknown outside of Mexico.
But they do care; they care a lot. It was why almost every newspaper and magazine in the city wanted to talk to me.
They care so much, in fact, that at times I was being interviewed by three journalists at a time because there was not enough time to schedule everyone.
Not all of the journalists liked the book; halfway through one interview a journalist threw his manbag at me.
He said he was offended by my interpretation of Malinche, a woman he and many Mexicans regard as a traitor of the first rank. She is responsible for selling out Mexico and consigning her nation to catastrophe and slavery, he said. Well, perhaps. But there’s two sides to every story.
Finally he stormed out of the office.
I didn’t read the review but I got the impression that I wouldn’t be able to use any quotes on the cover of the reprint.
My interpreter for the duration of my stay was a very attractive young woman by the name of Beatriz, publicity director for the large publishing house that had bought Spanish rights to my book. When I was invited onto a popular daytime television show she found out half an hour before my appearance that she would be required to accompany me in front of the TV cameras as my interpreter.
She had never been on television before and was very nervous, especially as the show’s host was the notorious Victor Trujillo, Mexico TV’s shock jock. Her husband was away on business in Guadalajara and she was afraid that he might see the program; she was also nervous that her mother, a very strict Catholic who disapproved of our host, might also hear about it.
Victor’s particular schtick was to have his guests lie down on a psychiatrist’s couchwhile he sat behind them and asked them personal questions, like a therapist.
Sometimes he would have a babe in a black leather bikini stride onto the set and sit on his guest’s lap to distract them
– so really, it was more like a kinky interrogation session than a sombre literary interview.
Fortunately Beatrix had warned me about this.
So when this knockout in a thong came on set, I was prepared. Disappointed at not catching me off guard, Victor raised the stakes. He brought on his second surprise – a male model with a six pack (make that twelve) in a bulging g-string who came and sat on Beatriz’s lap. I don’t know who was more surprised; my blushing interpreter or her husband, watching from his hotel room in Guadalajara.
On the way back to the car afterwards Beatriz was busy fielding phone calls from her mother and her other half. After she hung up the phone she told me she would not be acting for any more Australian authors. I protested that it really wasn’t my fault but she told me I was a no-good gringo and I could get my own lunch. So there.
Wow, this was really working out well.
The next morning I woke at six o’clock to the sound of bugle and drum, as the Mexican flag was raised in the Plaza Major. It is a big flag, a monster that takes a dozen soldiers standing at arm’s length to furl and unfurl.
I then spent the morning with more journalists (no man bags thank God) and then Beatrix took me to an early lunch and invited me to sample one of the local delicacies, chilli chicken in chocolate sauce. It tastes exactly like it sounds, like chicken covered in spicy chocolate sauce.
She then drove me back to the television studios for an interview that was to be syndicated throughout Latin America, South America and the US.
I was happy enough with this but did not discover until a minute or so before we went on air that it would last for the better part of an hour. I also discovered, to my chagrin, that my interviewer, who could speak perfect English, would instead ask me his questions in Spanish, and these would be relayed to me through my earphones by an interpreter – at about a split second delay.
Now if you’ve never had this experience you may not appreciate how disconcerting this is. You have no idea what to do with your eyes for one thing; if you look at your interviewer’s face, the lip movements are out of synch with what you’re hearing and you end up staring at your interlocutor like an imbecile and going “Huh?”
Or if you look away and just concentrate on what you’re hearing through your earphones you look like someone who’s lived with their bedridden mother all their life and has lost any ability for social interaction.
To compound my panic the chocolate chicken I had eaten for lunch had come back to haunt me.
Montezuma took his revenge on the latest author to slur his name and not only could I not look my interviewer in the face – I also began to sweat, wriggle and cross and uncross my legs every few seconds. I was told afterwards I looked like a serial murderer being interrogated by the cops in a basement.
I survived the interview with seconds to spare. Was it Beatrix’s revenge? I suspect so.
Would I go back and do it all again? If I could get another book on their bestseller; lists, you bet. I’m a writer – it’s okay to be shameless.
But next time I’d pass on the chili chocolate chicken.