The star of the show at the Ciudad Nezalhualcoyotl soccer stadium was the revered Juan Gabriel, Mexico's foremost author and singer. But when the crowd realized that Carlos Monsivais was in the audience, a murmur spread across the vast field: "Monsi, Monsi, Monsi." In minutes, more than 10,000 voices had joined in the call for Monsivais to share the stage with his friend. Cornered, the shy writer and journalist had no choice; he ascended the stage and bowed humbly to the crowd.
No other Mexican writer can boast such public acclaim among his or her countrymen. There are some who sell more books and some who are talked about more in literary salons, but no one else is as much a public hero as Monsivais.
His fame, however, has not extended beyond his native land. In the United States, he is known mainly in those cities where modern Mexican culture is alive. To introduce him to the broader English-speaking audience, a British publishing house, Verso, has compiled 13 of his chronicles in "Mexican Postcards." Selected from five of his published books and journalistic essays, each postcard provides rare and lucid insight into Mexico's soul. "Mexican Postcards" offers a rare opportunity for an American audience to grasp the real nature of things Mexican, sans cliche and stereotypes.
The essays deal with seven topics about which the author has written extensively and which represent some of his major concerns. There are pieces on modern Mexican history and the troublesome issue of Mexican identity. There are chronicles about some fundamental beliefs of national life and profiles of people who subsist at the margins of society. There are essays that deal with the essential attributes of three movie idols, a literary giant and bolero music. At the end of the book, there is, as the icing on the cake, an exercise in baroque literature that demonstrates how economic and political power takes precedence over metaphysics.
In some enigmatic way, this Mexican intellectual, often compared to the late American gadfly I.F. Stone, has become a key player in the current Mexican transition to democracy by advancing the cause of free and critical journalism in Mexico. Curiously, Monsivais' books have never been bestsellers; they tend to be difficult works that intimidate common readers. Even though his writings draw heavily from popular language and culture, many of his pieces are deceivingly complicated. In addition, his unique, and highly recognizable, style often calls for repeated reading.
Monsivais' secret weapon lies in the moral fiber of his words, whether they appear in newspaper and magazines or are heard on radio and television interviews. Watching his bits--promotional videos--on TV with famous artists, like rock star Gloria Trevi or crooner Luis Miguel, has become an element of urban life. More important, perhaps, is that people see in him a person who tells the truth. In a country where many public practitioners have turned lying into an art form, Monsivais tells the truth in an unassuming and funny way. Devoid of sentimentality, his chronicles mock the solemn attitudes and stiff speeches of government and private business officials. The "official" version is his target.
When asked which of the two Carloses--Marx or Monsivais--had had a bigger influence on him, Subcomandante Marcos, the masked revolutionary who led the Chiapas revolt in 1994, answered: "I don't know, but I am sure I read Monsivais before I read Marx."
Back in the late 1950s and early '60s, when Monsivais began to carve his niche in cultural life, he concluded that both Mexicans and Mexican institutions suffered from mental sclerosis. To break that condition, he decided to write literary pieces ridiculing the acts, gestures and language of corrupt and inept politicians, entrepreneurs, policemen, lawyers, union leaders, etc. He laughed at them for a serious purpose: to expose to the public and to themselves their foolishness and pretentiousness.
As a keen witness to his time and place, Monsivais has the happy ability to question mores while avoiding the tone of a moralist. It is that quality in his joyful chronicles, perhaps more than anything else, that has won him Mexico's embrace. He is an incorruptible, unrelenting man whose eye lets nothing escape.
"Monsivais," says Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, "is the only human being I know who is truly a specialist at everything. I don't understand how he has the time to read so much about so many things."