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Mexico City.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

French author Jean Rolin's 2009 Un chien mort apres lui (A dead dog after him--a quote from Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano) is an anthology of encounters with communities of stray or feral dogs and their attendant human societies around the world. Like all of Rolin's work, this book combines classic travel writing and memoir but is often billed as fiction, a la Bruce Chatwin or W. G. Sebald.

Juan Chavez Fernandez waits all day long, sitting on a low wall bordering one of the squalid patches of lawn, some shaded by trees, of which Plaza Garcia Bravo numbers three or four. On each of these lawns at least one drunk lies passed out while another sits on the low stone wall, like Juan Chavez, drinking from the neck of a bottle; and on the uninviting grass--trampled and withered--various species of bird and mammal roam about in search of food: chickens, ducks, quiscales, pigeons and doves, cats and dogs. At Juan Chavez's feet (he is also, consequently, positioned under a tree), a turtledove chick, its sparse down colored various shades of red and gray, has just fallen from the nest and lies motionless on the sidewalk for the few remaining seconds or minutes separating it from its inevitable demise.

Across the whole of Plaza Garcia Bravo, a host of happenings unfold, only some of which impinge upon Juan Chavez's consciousness. He does not seem to have noticed the unfortunate turtledove, for example. Nor any of the things going on behind his back, though the permanent or cyclical nature of these phenomena, within the confines of the square, obviates any real need to keep a close eye on them in order to be apprised of their existence. So it is with the melee invading the intersection of Jesus Maria and Venustiano Carranza, the crossing of which, early in the afternoon on the first Saturday of the month, is tantamount to a slow-motion, quasi-choreographic street brawl opposing four columns of pedestrians making for each of the four cardinal points amid the throng of street vendors whose stalls occupy almost the entire breadth of the concourse, and the accompanying throng of trolley pushers and bundle porters. So it is, too, for the little street show--a mix of preaching and religious songs--organized by the Iglesia Cristiana Interdenominacional as a prelude to the large evening gathering on Plaza Zocalo. Binding its loyal clientele ever tighter, the interdenominational church has installed a tent on one side of Jesus Maria, where the poor can receive free medical treatment while others get a haircut or shave, perched on tall revolving seats, wrapped from head to foot in white sheets, like all-enveloping shrouds.

Not far from here, perpendicular to Jesus Maria, against the wall of a disused convent, other tents, often no more than a simple sheet of plastic, shelter a more or less transient population of down-and-outs. By chance or otherwise, their territory is shared by a number of dogs, only one of which is constrained in its movements by a chain. Given that the dog in question is an American Staffordshire bull terrier, the chain may be an indication of its dangerousness, or market value, though in its extreme, emaciated state, it seems unlikely anyone would back it in a fight, for the moment at least. Throughout the weekend, however dense the crowds, the perimeter of the squatters' camp is always left clear. On the right-hand sidewalk on Talavera (heading north), just opposite the wall where Juan Chavez sits, a pile of trash--getting bigger by the day--is invariably attended by dogs, and the occasional old lady, in search of something to eat or reuse. At 12:45 p.m. precisely, a short distance from the pile of trash, a blast of compressed air announces the sustained erection of a double-sided inflatable slide, immediately besieged by swarms of children. At just this moment Juan Chavez falls asleep, but lightly, briefly, so as not to keel over, thereby retaining his spot on the low wall next to the shoeshining equipment he so rarely has occasion to use.

Since I've been watching him, or rather since I have established a rapport with him, which is to say for the past few hours--even the past few days, if I deliberately confuse Juan Chavez with the other shoeshiners occupying the same spot before or after him--he has detained no more than two or three clients, although the long duration of the treatment dispensed goes some way to compensating for their scarcity. And it is hard to see how he could proceed otherwise, given the sheer number of people plying the same trade on Plaza Garcia Bravo alone, let alone every other square in the city.

"Pecado ... pecado ..." rings out from the small grandstand set up outside the interdenominational church across the street, where preaching alternates with musical interludes. And this: "If you feel lonely and outcast, if you have not found direction and meaning in your life, if you cannot find it in your heart to forgive, if you are overwhelmed by money troubles, family troubles, emotional or sexual troubles, then you are in need of Cristo."

The shoeshiner's first client, on this day, is a gentle, pious man, perhaps a regular at the interdenominational church, who invites me to come back in December to witness a far grander religious spectacle than the one currently underway. The second is a tough-looking type, perhaps a cop or a gang member, diligently sorting a packet of grass (the narcotic variety) on a sheet of newspaper--seeds to one side, leaves to the other--while his shoes are shined. Clients are scarce, but onlookers are not, and the shoeshiner is almost always surrounded by an admiring group. He seems, too, to reign over a pack of dogs, about ten or twelve in number. I have only counted nine, but a lady in pink, who knows him well, tells me there are "at least twenty." And although--perhaps in jest--she claims ownership of "all these dogs!" she adds that "it is the shoeshiner who feeds them."

"With shop-bought dry food!" adds another woman, tattooed and missing a few teeth, perhaps a resident of the squatter camp, introducing herself as a native of Oaxaca. At around 2 p.m., the shoeshiner feeds pieces of roast chicken to two of the dogs, out of a plastic bag. It is doubtful whether he gets to eat roast chicken very often himself, but these leftovers have been entrusted to him by "a rich lady" who also helps with the cost of vaccinations, sterilization, and other treatments required by the dogs. When I point out to him that there are several puppies in the pack, he admits that the sterilization techniques leave a lot to be desired. Then he mentions a charitable soul in Queretaro who takes in the old dogs and "buries them at her home in a private cemetery." He himself admits to having buried a few in the lawn where we sit. What about the police? "The police are hand-in-glove with the dealers!" declares a nearby vendor of hairpieces. Even when it comes to dealing with stray dogs? The police don't come here anymore, says the same hairpiece vendor. The neighborhood folks would attack them. Before, the police used to take the dogs away on the pretext of getting them vaccinated, but in reality it was to feed them to the wild beasts at the Chapultepec Zoo. From the often confused, conflicting statements of one and all, it nonetheless emerges that Juan Chavez exercises leadership over not only the dozen or so dogs on Plaza Garcia Bravo--including Barbas, Bionique, La Sombra, Capolina, Rayas, Flaco, and Rojo--but also over another, bigger pack attached to the adjacent neighborhood of La Merced. "At night," he says, "they all follow me home." Which is another way of saying that the shoeshiner is a man of no fixed abode.

Translation from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie

Editorial note: "Mexico City" is an excerpt from Un chien mort apres lui (Editions P.O.L., 2009). English translation [c] 2013 by Louise Rogers Lalaurie.

At the crossroads of fiction, travel, and memoir, Jean Rolin's writing chronicles journeys worldwide. Many of his classic narratives of the 1980s and '90s have been republished as Folio paperbacks. His most recent novel is Le ravissement de Britney Spears (2011). He received a lifetime achievement award at France's Etonnants Voyageurs festival in 2012.

Louise Rogers Lalaurie (louiserogers.wordpress.com) translates literary, popular, and crime fiction from French. She is the winner of two French Voices awards, for Jean Rolin's The Explosion of the Radiator Hose (2011) and Gabrielle Wittkop's Serenissime Assassinat / Murder Most Serene (seeking a US publisher). She has published short stories by Hubert Haddad, Delphine de Vigan, and Marie Darrieussecq and chairs a Paris reading group for UK/US publisher And Other Stories.
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Title Annotation:COVER FEATURE
Author:Rolin, Jean Philippe
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Jul 1, 2013
Words:1650
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