Galo’s house at one end of Amsterdam Street, Mexico City, is the result of a series of mistakes. First, the oval street was supposed to be a round track. Then a house was promised in such a position it messes up the layout of the street. More mistakes cause that house to become the home of a carpenter in the middle of a well-to-do area. This series of chance occurrences sets the tone for The Guardian of Amsterdam Street, by Sergio Schmucler and smoothly translated by Jessica Sayer. Galo grows up in that house believing that he must guard it and the memories of its inhabitants so that the world can keep spinning on.
Galo—who always seems like a child to me even though this book covers decades—is the kind of character I can’t help but try to diagnose. His worldview has a lot of the hallmarks of different kinds of mental illness. Does he have obsessive compulsive disorder? Is he a touch schizophrenic? The actual mental illness might be important, but it drives the small plot of The Guardian of Amsterdam Street. Just like a series of mistakes led to Galo’s family living in the house on Amsterdam Street, a series of tragedies lead Galo to believe that he must save cut hair to preserve memories and nurture a bougainvillea tree planted by his mother. He also never leaves the house. If he does, the whole delicate operation will collapse. His mother worries about him, but everyone is content to leave Galo alone. They explain him to others by saying that his mind isn’t right.
After Galo’s father leaves just before the outbreak of World War II (caused by a surprising act of violence by his mother), Galo’s mother Guadalupe rents out two rooms to a series of boarders: Jewish refugees, a Republican Spanish hairdresser, and a certain Argentinian revolutionary, among others. Galo strikes up conversations with the boarders about life, disappointment, and making homes in new places. He also quietly and secretively going about his tasks while the world goes by on Amsterdam Street. Small references to outside events let us know just how much time passes Galo by: the death of Francisco Franco, names of Mexican presidents, different waves of refugees and immigrants speaking different languages and different dialects of Spanish. So even though Galo will not go outside, his life is fairly cosmopolitan.
Because no one really pushes Galo out the front door (not after the first couple of times), I was able to set aside judgment (if not my mental armchair psychologist). I knew Galo’s behavior isn’t normal, but what did it hurt to have Galo do what he thought was necessary to keep the world and time rolling along. Amsterdam—and by extension the world—has room for everyone, including eccentrics who don’t hurt anyone. That said, Galo does come to a realization at the end of The Guardian of Amsterdam Street. Most of the book asks what’s worth preserving; the end asks, at what point do we have to let go of preserving the past so that we can move in new directions.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.