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Breathing Fecal Dust in Mexico City


Carlos Fuentes, the acclaimed Mexican author of "Where the Air Is Clear" (1971), now looks at Mexico City in the muted light of the almost unthinkable pollution of that megalopolis and the worse pollution that is to come. Recently Fuentes met with Nathan Gardels and Marilyn Berlin Snell, editors of Los Angeles-based New Perspectives Quarterly, to discuss his new novel, "Christopher Unborn," to be published in English translation by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in August.

"Mexico City is an omen," Carlos Fuentes told us recently in Tepoztlan, the Mexican village where he was finishing the English translation of "Christopher Unborn," his surrealistic novel about Mexico in 1992. "That jammed city of toxic air and leafless trees may be the first to know asphyxiation by progress," he said. "One of the world's oldest civilizations suffers mankind's newest affliction. Mexico City warns the rest of the species of all that has gone wrong with modernity's promised millennium of happiness."

Indeed, Mexico City is the world's most polluted and populous megalopolis. Twenty million people live in the Valley of Mexico, work in 35,000 industrial installations and drive 3 million cars, belching 5.5 million tons of contaminants into the air yearly. Industry contributes about 15% of the pollution, and the uncontrolled emissions of the cars, whose combustion engines are only about 60% as efficient at Mexico City's one-and-a-half-mile-high altitude as at sea level, contribute about 80%. The rest of the air contamination comes mainly from fecal dust, which results from a sewage system that barely manages to treat one-third of the urban population's body wastes.

Anyone visiting Mexico City will experience the nausea, breathing difficulty and eye irritations. And they will see how acid rain is eating away the once-lush foliage of Chapultepec Park at the heart of the city. Already schoolchildren are known to faint at recess. During January, the worst month of the year, when thermal inversion traps and holds pollutants in the valley, schools are closed.

The real horror of Mexico's ecological disaster, however, is not in the present, but in the future. The most alarming projections came to light recently: A Harvard medical researcher, testing newborn infants between March, 1987, and 1988, found that 50% had toxic levels of lead in their blood; a World Health Organization study recently found highly toxic lead levels in the blood of 70% of fetuses tested. Lead levels like those found in the blood of Mexican infants are expected to reduce IQ levels as much as 10%. According to the Harvard researcher, for Mexico City that means the number of people with IQs below 80--mentally retarded to some extent--would reach 20%, or 4 million people.

The kind of future promised by Mexico's present trends challenges the literary imagination. "The task of literature," Fuentes mused in Tepoztlan, "has always been to remember and re-present the constant truths of our civilization. In modern times, ruled by the linear thinking of Progress, literature has had to remember the tragic perspective. In the tragic cycle of change, though every law and every order perishes by man's action, those very actions create the foundation for a new world built on the ruins of the old. The tragic hero suffers, warns and restores the community. The tragic conflict is not fatal to the living community in any final sense; neither is it free. It is necessary."

Now, perhaps we are discovering that the chronic denial of the tragic perspective, despite the warnings of literature, does have fatal consequences for the living community, indeed the whole planet. "Progress has lacked the capacity to amputate its errors as it discovers them in the bosom of success," Fuentes has written. "As it could not shed its errors tragically, it did so criminally: The century of material freedom has also been the century of criminal calamity and ecological catastrophe."

As a result, literature is faced for the first time with the fact of the Earth's fragility and the task of imagining a time beyond tragedy. "At long last," Fuentes says, "the hubris of the Homeric hero can be satiated: We are now capable of destroying Nature. Nature, like the hero, can now know death."

In "Christopher Unborn," Fuentes takes up the new challenge of literature, hoping his novel sounds an alarm that will help exorcise the future he imagines.

The author of "The Death of Artemio Cruz," "Where the Air Is Clear" and "The Old Gringo" searches for images of times to come through the perspective of a child still in the womb--Christopher--to be born on the same day, 500 years later, that Christopher Columbus discovered America.

From the spring, 1989, issue of New Perspectives Quarterly, 11500 W. Olympic Blvd., Suite 302, Los Angeles, Calif. 90064; (213) 312-4548.

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