A reading list for anyone travelling to Mexico City.

Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

The allure of North America’s most populous city, and its oldest capital, is timeless. Mexico City might still be informed by its ancient origins – its elegant Palacio Nacional, where the Mexican President and Parliament are still seated, has stood on the same site since the Aztec Empire – but the capital continues to be known for its ever-evolving culture.

The city’s food, art, film, and gorgeous climate have attracted the literary likes of D. H. Lawrence, Anita Desai and Jack Kerouac, but the sprawling metropolis boasts a book scene responsible for some of the greatest literary achievements, in fiction, philosophy, poetry and otherwise, of the past century. If you’re headed to Mexico City, this reading list will immerse you in the city's past and present before you even step foot on its soil.

The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz (1950)

Perhaps the most famous name in Mexican literature is that of Octavio Paz. Born in Mexico City in 1914, where he died 84 years later, Paz was a prolific poet whose Spanish language work won him the Miguel de Cervantes Prize in 1981 and, in 1990, the Nobel Prize in Literature. His poetry has been translated into English by the likes of Samuel Beckett and Elisabeth Bishop.

Yet, one of his most famous works is not a poem but a book-length essay, titled El laberinto de la soledad, or, The Labyrinth of Solitude. Published in 1950 as a nine-part epic, the book’s central essay explores Mexican identity, positing that Mexican people hide behind masks of solitude. He writes that humankind’s “nature – if that word can be used in reference to man, who has 'invented' himself by saying 'no' to nature – consists of his longing to realize himself in another. Man is nostalgic and in search for communion. Therefore, when he is aware of himself he is aware of his lack of another, that is, of his solitude.”

It’s a perfect place to start learning about Mexican people and culture, and one of the most important works from Mexico City, the country and, according Harold Bloom, Western literature itself.

Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis (2020)

Mexico City’s thriving contemporary literature scene offers no shortage of incredible novels, the latest of which is Chloe AridjisSea Monsters. The winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2020 tells the story of 17-year-old Luisa, who leaves Mexico City spontaneously one day to wander Oaxaca and, ultimately, travel the Pacific Coast in search of a troupe of escaped Ukrainian dwarves she read about in a newspaper.

Part coming-of-age story, part spiritual quest, Sea Monsters is a gorgeous novel that evokes Aridjis’ own teen years spent in Mexico City while searching endlessly for an enigmatic someone who’ll ‘promise, no matter what, to remain a mystery’.

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (2015)

One of the city’s most exciting contemporary authors is Valeria Luiselli, who since 2010 has been publishing novels and essays that, just last year, won her a MacArthur Fellowship. While her list of works offers plenty of enticing points of entry ­– her 2011 novel Faces in the Crowd and essay collection Tell Me How It Ends, which draws on her experience working as an interpreter for Central American child migrants, are just two – it’s her 2015 novel The Story of My Teeth that best demonstrates Luiselli’s electric prose. Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez is an auctioneer who sells his own teeth at exorbitant prices by lying that they originated in the mouths of celebrities. His quest – to replace his own teeth with a set purportedly from Marilyn Monroe – is Luiselli’s inventive way of questioning the nature of art and value in a global, corporate world.

Hatchet / Hamartia (o Hacha) by Carmen Boullosa (2020)

One of Mexico City’s finest writers, Carmen Boullosa has published 12 volumes of poetry and 18 novels. Her latest to be translated is Hatchet / Hamartia, a collection that draws both on Boullosa’s personal life and mythology, its themes recurring across her short, sparse poems until they accrete and coalesce into a book-length narrative of life and death.

Of course, translating poetry presents its challenges: “One of the biggest problems that presented itself in translating the collection”, writes translator Lawrence Schimel, “stems from the final word of the title: ‘hacha’, which in Spanish is both a blade (hatchet or axe) and also a long, white ecclesiastic candle (the use that we’re missing in English).” Yet, thanks to his work with Boullosa, the verse’s richness and music remains, so that English-language readers can revel in her poetry, too.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano

Image: Pan MacMillan

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño (1998)

No, Roberto Bolaño isn’t Mexican, but a list of essential literature from the country’s capital feels incomplete without the single most famous work set there. Bolaño’s recent epic ultimately spans the globe and takes on the viewpoint of myriad narrators, but it begins in Mexico City with Juan García Madero, who falls in with a roving gang of poets who call themselves the “visceral realists”. It’s a literary classic that, at over 600 pages, will also ensure you don’t run out of reading material as you’re exploring the city.

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