By Jeremy Ray Jewell
In Home Reading Service the literary and the illiterate rub shoulders, and we are given a vision of people tentatively emerging from behind walls.
Home Reading Service by Fabio Morábito. Translation by Curtis Bauer. Other Press, 240 pages, $15.99.
Fabio Morábito’s novel El lector a domicilio has been acclaimed in Mexico, where it has won the nation’s highest literary award. Born in Egypt to Italian parents, the author’s relationship to his adopted nation began when he moved to Mexico City at age 14. It has become an intimate literary relationship — he has developed a voice of impressive vernacular depth. Tellingly, before El lector a domicilio, Morábito had published a collection of Mexican folk tales based on oral traditions (Cuentos populares mexicanos, 2014).
The oral storytelling tradition means a lot in Mexico. This is not only true because Spanish remains a relative linguistic newcomer. The country’s adult literacy rates were below 80 percent as recently as the ’80s. This may account, in part, for the prominent role played by writers with immigrant roots, such as Elena Poniatowska (Polish-French parents) and Jaime Sabines (Lebanese father), in Mexican literature. Even today, the foreign-born population remains one-fifth the size of the nation’s domestic illiterate population, which suggests that Spanish fluency in Mexico may be more indicative of foreign birth than descendancy from the crucible of Indigenous and Iberian “contact.” Of course, perhaps the outsider is best positioned to look around the walls erected by a repressive society … or at least read the writing on them.
Among its other merits, Home Reading Service dramatizes the collapsing barrier between literacy and illiteracy in Mexico. The most poignant question asked by the novel may be what form contemporary Mexican literature might take once the restraints are removed. The novel is set in Cuernavaca, a location that serves as the perfect metaphor for this inquiry. The word Cuernavaca meant “surrounded by trees” in Nahuatl; it was dubbed the “City of Eternal Spring” by a German Romantic in the 19th century. A short trip from Mexico City, the city has been a playground for the pampered over history: it was the favored site of Aztec emperors’ summer retreats before the Spanish conquerors took it over for a similar use. Maximilian, the Austrian emperor of Mexico, also took up residence there, as well as an Italian princess, the Shah of Iran, numerous gringos, and, to be sure, Mexico City’s upper crust.
For the narrator of Home Reading Service, Cuernavaca is not a place of pleasurable escape but a city of walls. The protagonist, Eduardo, leads a modern Mexican existence: he takes care of his aging cancer-stricken father with the help of his sister Ofelia and caregiver Celeste. He is also struggling to keep the family furniture business afloat against the pressures exerted by cartel extortion. His only solace to date appears to be frequent visits to his favorite Sanborns (a national restaurant/department store chain founded by two brothers from California — it has become a prominent symbol of Mexican consumer culture). The plot is triggered by an accident that costs Eduardo his driver’s license; a community service obligation forces him into the city’s home reading service program.
Managed by a gringo priest with suspiciously strong affection for Eduardo’s sister, the program takes the protagonist into the homes of others, where he is tasked to read aloud (nominally) for the benefit of the city’s underprivileged. There he meets a retired colonel, a disabled mezzo-soprano, a deaf family, and others. Eduardo is rejected by his listeners for not understanding what he reads, while the program inspires him to undertake a quest to understand his father’s love for Mexican poet Isabel Fraire. Over the course of the novel, his storytelling excursions bring down the walls around him and his neighbors — and it exposes everyone’s limitations. Eduardo is not alone in failing to understand what he reads. Ironically, only the illiterate caregiver, Celeste, shows signs of true comprehension, perhaps because she does not expect to gain anything from the meaning of the written words that elude her — or the walls that exclude her.
It is through the stark contrast between Eduardo and Celeste that Morábito explores Mexico’s potential for transformation. Eduardo only sees a “desolately uncultured community” filled with swimming pools rather than souls — speaking, of course, more to his middle-class ambitions than to the cultural qualities of swimming pools. But Celeste and others suggest that the dreams of the city’s residents amount to more than either swimming pools or “culture,” and that the strength of these aspirations lies in the people’s attachment to language. Eduardo is stunned to discover that the illiterate Celeste has memorized poems that he could not, and he is disturbed that his father may have been the clandestine lover of either an illiterate or highly literary woman. Which is more desirable or shameful, he cannot tell.
That the criminal and the sanctioned or the pious and the sinful rub shoulders in this book is nothing out of the ordinary for Mexico. That the high and the low do so as well is not news either. The intimacy of the dominant and dominated has always been there — celebrated, for better or worse, in the acclaimed 2018 film Roma as well as in your run-of-the-mill telenovela. That the living and the dead mix … well, that’s just Mexico, isn’t it? In Home Reading Service, however, the literary and the illiterate also rub shoulders, and we are given a vision of people tentatively emerging from behind walls — but we don’t know how long it will last.
To his credit, Morábito does not sentimentalize intimations of change. Indications that they will lead nowhere is strong. Even Eduardo’s beloved Sanborns falls victim to paralysis:
Noticing all the walls in the City of Eternal Spring, which was abundant with streets that were no more than open-air tunnels lined with vertical brick walls made out of cinder block or volcanic stone, piedra. So much wall had infected the people: housekeepers, business owners, and taxi drivers, the beautiful woman from the Vista Hermosa neighborhood, too; everyone walked around stone-faced. There was even a Sanborns made out of stone!
In his final assessment, Eduardo informs us that the aging Cuernavaca “is expelling young people and keeping only the old-timers around, like any other godforsaken town of emigrants. The restaurants, except Sanborns, are going extinct; half of the mansions are up for sale; the bougainvillea on the fences are rotting; and I guess pretty soon we’ll hold the world record for the city with the most empty swimming pools.” Empty pools and empty walls and, we assume, empty words. Can a vital Mexican literature thrive in such a vacant context? Home Reading Service stands as an imaginative testament to signs that it might.
Jeremy Ray Jewell hails from Jacksonville, FL. He has an MA in history of ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a BA in philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. His website is www.jeremyrayjewell.com.