Mexico City Letter

Mario Murgia

The first time I walked into Under the Volcano I was knocked out of my socks by the impressive amount of second-hand volumes on the shelves. Never before had I encountered such a large collection of literary jewels, in English, in a bookshop in Mexico City. That’s really what left me gobsmacked—it was all literature, and there was also a great deal of poetry to boot. No self-help books, no computer science, no Quick and Healthy Cooking for Dummies, no Twilight (die-hard fans will have to forgive me on this). I was expecting a couple of Illustrated Shakespeares, and perhaps the occasional Steinbeck, or if I was lucky, a semi-decent edition of Poe’s tales. All of a sudden, from behind a huge pile of stacked books, a voice shouted, ‘I sell no shit!’ in a distinct West Coast accent. It was Seattle-born Grant Cogswell, a journalist, screenwriter, poet, and yes, ex-pat bookseller. That was about four years ago. These days, Under the Volcano is located in the trendy, hipstery neighbourhood (my neighbourhood, mind you) known as La Condesa. Cogswell has rented a minuscule room in an art deco mansion that houses (go figure) The American Legion, a laidback booze-selling retreat for the very few American WWII veterans that still live… south of the border, I mean. And no, Grant still doesn’t sell any shit.

‘I wanted to create an environment, a place where anyone can read what matters,’ said he the last time I visited his extremely well organised establishment, a few weeks ago. ‘There’s books anyone can read in Spanish translation, Who Moved my Cheese? and stuff like that. I just thought I would sell books that people desired to read and enjoy in the original.’

‘So, what is it that matters?’ said I in a somewhat suspicious tone of voice.

‘Well, there’s the fiction, the history, the biography, the drama, the poetry…. That’s what matters to me, and surprisingly, to a number of other people in this city, not necessarily English speakers,’ answered Cogswell gingerly.

‘Wanna hear something funny?’ he added, as though he were about to confess a dirty little literary secret. ‘My great, great grandfather, Joseph Green Cogswell founded the Harvard and the New York City libraries, in an administrative sense at least. I recently discovered something amazing—over one hundred years ago, Joseph used to catalogue his books in the same way I do it here. It is all purely coincidental. I just can’t believe it.’

The truth is, that little room in The American Legion mansion is a booky hole in the literary wall of Mexico City. But it is far more than that—‘It is a model of the universe,’ as Cogswell himself says in ‘House,’ one of the poems contained in his collection The Dream of the Cold War (Third Place Press, 2010). The universe of poetical allusion and reading pleasure, I must add.

MARIO MURGIA was born in Mexico City in 1973. He is probably the only Mexican Milton scholar and has been writing poetry since the age of 11. Being of Italian descent (his father was from Sardinia), he has always been aware of the joys of language-shifting, which has made of translation one of his most rewarding pleasures.

Editor's Note. Mario Murgia is, with Flaminia Ocampo, guest editing the next issue of The Battersea Review, which will be a Spanish Number.