Authors: Roberto Bolaño
The late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño has been called the García Marquez of his generation, but his novel The Savage Detectives is a lot closer to Y Tu Mamá También than it is to One Hundred Years of Solitude. Hilarious and sexy, meandering and melancholy, full of inside jokes about Latin American literati that you don't have to understand to enjoy, The Savage Detectives is a companionable and complicated road trip through Mexico City, Barcelona, Israel, Liberia, and finally the desert of northern Mexico. It's the first of Bolaño's two giant masterpieces to be translated into English (the second, 2666, is due out next year), and you can see how he's influenced an era.
Translated From The Spanish By Natasha Wimmer
For Carolina López and Lautaro Bolaño,
who have the good fortune to look alike
"Do you want Mexico to be saved? Do you want Christ to be our king?"
– Malcolm Lowry
MEXICANS LOST IN MEXICO
I've been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.
I'm not really sure what visceral realism is. I'm seventeen years old, my name is Juan García Madero, and I'm in my first semester of law school. I wanted to study literature, not law, but my uncle insisted, and in the end I gave in. I'm an orphan, and someday I'll be a lawyer. That's what I told my aunt and uncle, and then I shut myself in my room and cried all night. Or anyway for a long time. Then, as if it were settled, I started class in the law school's hallowed halls, but a month later I registered for Julio César Álamo's poetry workshop in the literature department, and that was how I met the visceral realists, or viscerealists or even vicerealists, as they sometimes like to call themselves. Up until then, I had attended the workshop four times and nothing ever happened, though only in a manner of speaking, of course, since naturally something always happened: we read poems, and Álamo praised them or tore them to pieces, depending on his mood; one person would read, Álamo would critique, another person would read, Álamo would critique, somebody else would read, Álamo would critique. Sometimes Álamo would get bored and ask us (those of us who weren't reading just then) to critique too, and then we would critique and Álamo would read the paper.
It was the ideal method for ensuring that no one was friends with anyone, or else that our friendships were unhealthy and based on resentment.
And I can't say that Álamo was much of a critic either, even though he talked a lot about criticism. Really I think he just talked for the sake of talking. He knew what periphrasis was. Not very well, but he knew. But he didn't know what pentapody was (a line of five feet in classical meter, as everybody knows), and he didn't know what a nicharchean was either (a line something like the phalaecean), or what a tetrastich was (a four-line stanza). How do I know he didn't know? Because on the first day of the workshop, I made the mistake of asking. I have no idea what I was thinking. The only Mexican poet who knows things like that by heart is Octavio Paz (our great enemy), the others are clueless, or at least that was what Ulises Lima told me minutes after I joined the visceral realists and they embraced me as one of their own. Asking Álamo these questions was, as I soon learned, a sign of my tactlessness. At first I thought he was smiling in admiration. Later I realized it was actually contempt. Mexican poets (poets in general, I guess) hate to have their ignorance brought to light. But I didn't back down, and after he had ripped apart a few of my poems at the second session, I asked him whether he knew what a rispetto was. Álamo thought that I was demanding
for my poems, and he went off on a tirade about objective criticism (for a change), a minefield that every young poet must cross, etc., but I cut him off, and after explaining that never in my short life had I demanded respect for my humble creations, I put the question to him again, this time enunciating as clearly as possible.
"Don't give me this crap," said Álamo.
"A rispetto, professor, is a kind of lyrical verse, romantic to be precise, similar to the strambotto, with six or eight hendecasyllabic lines, the first four in the form of a serventesio and the following composed in rhyming couplets. For example…" And I was about to give him an example or two when Álamo jumped up and cut me off. What happened next is hazy (although I have a good memory): I remember Álamo laughing along with the four or five other members of the workshop. I think they may have been making fun of me.
Anyone else would have left and never gone back, but despite my unhappy memories (or my unhappy failure to remember what had happened, at least as unfortunate as remembering would have been), the next week there I was, punctual as always.
I think destiny brought me back. This was the fifth session of Álamo's workshop that I'd attended (but it might just as well have been the eighth or the ninth, since lately I've been noticing that time can expand or contract at will), and tension, the alternating current of tragedy, was palpable in the air, although no one could explain why. To begin with, we were all there, all seven apprentice poets who'd originally signed up for the workshop. This hadn't happened at any other session. And we were nervous. Even Álamo wasn't his usual calm self. For a minute I thought something might have happened at the university, that maybe there'd been a campus shooting I hadn't heard about, or a surprise strike, or that the dean had been assassinated, or they'd kidnapped one of the philosophy professors. But nothing like that was true, and there was no reason to be nervous. No objective reason, anyway. But poetry (real poetry) is like that: you can sense it, you can feel it in the air, the way they say certain highly attuned animals (snakes, worms, rats, and some birds) can detect an earthquake. What happened next was a blur, but at the risk of sounding corny, I'd say there was something miraculous about it. Two visceral realist poets walked in and Álamo reluctantly introduced them, although he only knew one of them personally; the other one he knew by reputation, or maybe he just knew his name or had heard someone mention him, but he introduced us to him anyway.
I'm not sure why they were there. It was clearly a hostile visit, hostile but somehow propagandistic and proselytizing too. At first the visceral realists kept to themselves, and Álamo tried to look diplomatic and slightly ironic while he waited to see what would happen. Then he started to relax, encouraged by the strangers' shyness, and after half an hour the workshop was back to normal. That's when the battle began. The visceral realists questioned Álamo's critical system and he responded by calling them cut-rate surrealists and fake Marxists. Five members of the workshop backed him up; in other words, everyone but me and a skinny kid who always carried around a book by Lewis Carroll and never spoke. This surprised me, to be honest, because the students supporting Álamo so fiercely were the same ones he'd been so hard on as a critic, and now they were revealing themselves to be his biggest supporters. That's when I decided to put in my two cents, and I accused Álamo of having no idea what a rispetto was; nobly, the visceral realists admitted that they didn't know either but my observation struck them as pertinent, and they said so; one of them asked how old I was, and I said I was seventeen and tried all over again to explain what a rispetto was; Álamo was red with rage; the members of the workshop said I was being pedantic (one of them called me an academicist); the visceral realists defended me; suddenly unstoppable, I asked Álamo and the workshop in general whether they at least remembered what a nicharchean or a tetrastich was. And no one could answer.
Contrary to my expectations, the argument didn't lead to an all-around ass-kicking. I have to admit I would have loved that. And although one of the members of the workshop did promise Ulises Lima that someday he would kick his ass, in the end nothing actually happened; nothing violent, I mean, although I responded to the threat (which, I repeat, was not directed at me) by letting the threatener know that he could have it out with me anywhere on campus, any day, any time.
The end of class was surprising. Álamo dared Ulises Lima to read one of his poems. Lima didn't need to be asked twice. He pulled some smudged, crumpled sheets from his jacket pocket. Oh no, I thought, the idiot is walking right into their trap. I think I shut my eyes out of sheer sympathetic embarrassment. There's a time for reciting poems and a time for fists. As far as I was concerned, this was the latter. But as I was saying, I closed my eyes, and I heard Lima clear his throat, then I heard the somewhat uncomfortable silence (if it's possible to hear such a thing, which I doubt) that settled around him, and finally I heard his voice, reading the best poem I'd ever heard. Then Arturo Belano got up and said that they were looking for poets who would like to contribute to the magazine that the visceral realists were putting out. Everybody wished they could volunteer, but after the fight they felt sheepish and no one said a thing. When the workshop ended (later than usual), I went with Lima and Belano to the bus stop. It was too late. There were no more buses, so we decided to take a
together to Reforma, and from there we walked to a bar on Calle Bucareli, where we sat until very late, talking about poetry.
I still don't really get it. In one sense, the name of the group is a joke. At the same time, it's completely in earnest. Many years ago there was a Mexican avant-garde group called the visceral realists, I think, but I don't know whether they were writers or painters or journalists or revolutionaries. They were active in the twenties or maybe the thirties, I'm not quite sure about that either. I'd obviously never heard of the group, but my ignorance in literary matters is to blame for that (every book in the world is out there waiting to be read by me). According to Arturo Belano, the visceral realists vanished in the Sonora desert. Then Belano and Lima mentioned somebody called Cesárea Tinajero or Tinaja, I can't remember which (I think it was when I was shouting to the waiter to bring us some beers), and they talked about the Comte de Lautréamont's
, something in the
that had to do with this Tinajero woman, and then Lima made a mysterious claim. According to him, the present-day visceral realists walked backward. What do you mean, backward? I asked.
"Backward, gazing at a point in the distance, but moving away from it, walking straight toward the unknown."
I said I thought this sounded like the perfect way to walk. The truth was I had no idea what he was talking about. If you stop and think about it, it's no way to walk at all.
Other poets showed up later on. Some were visceral realists, others weren't. It was total pandemonium. At first I worried that Belano and Lima were so busy talking to every freak who came up to our table that they'd forgotten all about me, but as day began to dawn, they asked me to join the gang. They didn't say "group" or "movement," they said "gang." I liked that. I said yes, of course. It was all very simple. Belano shook my hand and told me that I was one of them now, and then we sang a
. That was all. The song was about the lost towns of the north and a woman's eyes. Before I went outside to throw up, I asked them whether the eyes were Cesárea Tinajero's. Belano and Lima looked at me and said that I was clearly a visceral realist already and that together we would change Latin American poetry. At six in the morning I took another
, this time by myself, which brought me to Colonia Lindavista, where I live. Today I didn't go to class. I spent the whole day in my room writing poems.
I went back to the bar on Bucareli, but the visceral realists never showed up. While I was waiting for them, I spent my time reading and writing. The regulars, a group of silent, pretty grisly-looking drunks, never once took their eyes off me.
Results of five hours of waiting: four beers, four tequilas, a plate of tortilla
that I didn't finish (they were half spoiled), a cover-to-cover reading of Álamo's latest book of poems (which I only brought so I could make fun of Álamo with my new friends), seven texts written in the style of Ulises Lima, or rather, in the style of the one poem I'd read, or really just heard. The first one was about the
, which smelled of the grave; the second was about the university: I saw it in ruins; the third was about the university (me running naked in the middle of a crowd of zombies); the fourth was about the moon over Mexico City; the fifth about a dead singer; the sixth about a secret community living in the sewers of Chapultepec; and the seventh about a lost book and friendship. Those were the results, plus a physical and spiritual sense of loneliness.
A couple of drunks tried to bother me, but young as I may be, I can take care of myself. A waitress (I found out her name is Brígida; she said she remembered me from the other night with Belano and Lima) stroked my hair. She did it absentmindedly, as she went by to wait on another table. Afterward she sat with me for a while and hinted that my hair was too long. She was nice, but I decided it was better not to respond. At three in the morning I went home. Still no visceral realists. Will I ever see them again?
No news of my friends. I haven't been to class in two days. And I don't plan to go back to Álamo's workshop either. This afternoon I was at the Encrucijada Veracruzana again (the bar on Bucareli), but no sign of the visceral realists. It's funny the way a place like that changes from afternoon to night or even morning. You'd think it was a completely different bar. This afternoon it seemed much filthier than it really is. The grisly night crowd hadn't shown up yet, and the clientele was-how should I put it-more furtive, less mysterious, and more peaceable. Three low-level office workers, probably civil servants, completely drunk; a street vendor who'd sold all his sea turtle eggs, standing next to his empty basket; two high school students; a gray-haired man sitting at a table eating enchiladas. The waitresses were different too. I didn't recognize the three who were on duty today, although one of them came right up to me and said: you must be the poet. This flustered me. Still, I was flattered, I have to admit.
"Yes, I'm a poet, but how did you know?"
"Brígida told me about you."
Brígida, the waitress!
"And what did she tell you?" I asked, not daring to use the informal
with her yet.
"That you wrote some very pretty poems."
"There's no way she could know that. She's never read any of my work," I said, blushing a little, but increasingly satisfied by the turn the conversation was taking. It also occurred to me that Brígida might have read some of my poems-over my shoulder! That I didn't like so much.