I was born on 11 November 1928, under the sign I would have chosen, Scorpio, and on a date shared with Dostoevsky, Crommelynck and Vonnegut. My mother was rushed from a steaming-hot movie house in those days before Colonel Buendía took his son to discover ice in the tropics. She was seeing King Vidor’s version of La Bohème with John Gilbert and Lillian Gish. Perhaps the pangs of my birth were provoked by this anomaly: a silent-screen version of Puccini’s opera. Since then, the operatic and the cinematographic have had a tug-of-war with my words, as if expecting the Scorpio of fiction to rise from silent music and blind images.

All this, let me add, took place in the sweltering heat of Panama City, where my father was beginning his diplomatic career as an attaché to the Mexican legation. Since he was a convinced Mexican nationalist, my father insisted that the problem of where I was to be born had to be resolved under another ‘sign’: not of Scorpio but of the Eagle and the Serpent. The Mexican legation, however, though it had extraterritorial rights, did not have a territorial midwife, and the Minister, a fastidious bachelor, would not have me suddenly appearing on the legation parquet. So if I could not be born in a fictitious, extraterritorial Mexico, neither would I be born in that even more fictitious extension of the United States of America, the Canal Zone, where, naturally, the best hospitals were. So, between two territorial fictions – the Mexican legation, the Canal Zone – and a silent close-up of John Gilbert, I arrived in the nick of time at the Gorgas Hospital in Panama City at eleven that evening.

The problem of my baptism then arose. As if the waters of the two neighbouring oceans touching each other with the iron fingertips of the canal were not enough, I had to undergo a double ceremony: my religious baptism took place in Panama, because my mother, a devout Roman Catholic, demanded it; but my national baptism took place a few months later in Mexico City, where my father, an incorrigible Jacobin and priest-hater to the end, insisted that I be registered in the civil rolls established by Benito Juárez. Thus, I appear as a native of Mexico City for all legal purposes, and this anomaly further illustrates a central fact of my life and my writing: I am Mexican by will and imagination.

The Man from Hiroshima
How Great Thou Art