So here I am, dearest reader, if you’re still with me, about to ask you to take off your watch and put it away. Put away the sense that you have other things to do. Sit down with me and consider some of the most refreshing and amazing writing I’ve come across in the past twelve months.
I’m talking about Roberto Bolaño’s novel, The Savage Detectives. It is a book about words and sentences, poems and talk, friendships and memory, sound and smell. It is a book without a plot, a book that breaks the usual sequence of time, a book composed of monologues, missing people, delusion, hope, tears, sex, and loss. It is a book about broken frames of reference, displacement, and the world of literature. It is a book with no narrative from an unseen and all-knowing author. Anything and everything we learn or think we learn in this book is the product of a monologue. The book is composed of many monologues, like a Mozart opera without any recitatives or ensembles. And yet there are ensembles in the book; they are groupings of monologues. Except for two long sections of diary entries, the book reads like the verbatim transcripts of oral history interviews, capturing all sorts of nuances and idiosyncracies of personality. The author’s ear for habits of speech is one of the most beguiling and amazing features, which is why I’m going to quote more than you imagine appropriate.
But I must digress for a moment, as the book does, and recall an acting class I took when I was a young teacher in Santa Fe. We learned to analyze a character by keeping three lists as we read through the play. On one list, we wrote down what the author says about our character; on another, what our character says about himself; and on a third, what the other characters say about our character. Despite my height and weight, I had decided to study the part of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Willy, the “low man” in the system, a person described in the play as “a shrimp,” has been played by big men, but I think Dustin Hoffman is about the right stature for that role. I made my three lists, though, and I have them yet. What a wonderful way to study!
In The Savage Detectives, the author says absolutely nothing about the characters, and only the secondary characters have anything to say about themselves. The main characters deliver no monologues at all, so they are known only through what others remember about them. They are known, in other words, only through the refraction of multiple memories. I think it is not a coincidence that one of the characters in the book repeatedly refers to Marcel Duchamp’s painting, Nude Descending a Staircase.
The book is a detective story of a special kind. All sorts of people and things turn up missing in the book, and there are stories within stories of the search for what has been lost. The book begins as comedy, wry comedy, and as it progresses, a sadness flows into every nook and cranny of it. There are broken or lost frames of human reference throughout, yet because the story of the central characters must be deduced and inferred from monologues of others, the book is also about how people remember each other and the small dramas of the moments they shared. The book is often cinematic in how we are made to see and sense what is inside the current frame of reference.
We open the book to a section titled “Mexicans Lost in Mexico” and find ourselves in the 1975 equivalent of a blog, a sequence of diary entries:
I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.
Cordially. A word with spin, right away in the first sentence, and within two lines, something intriguing is afoot.
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 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….
We imagine this is going to be García Madero’s story of university life. He identifies the visceral realists as two men in their early twenties, a Chilean named Arturo Belano, and a Mexican who adopted the name Ulises Lima several years earlier at the prompting of a high school girlfriend. The November 3 entry continues:
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 Lautrémont’s Poems, something in the Poems 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.
Now the diarist sketches the gritty environs where aspiring poets meet:
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 sopes 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 sopes, 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?
We turn the pages and meet the people García Madero hangs out with, and we learn that he is a virgin. On November 10 he narrates a scene of his first sexual experience, in which he is the baffled recipient of a favor from Brígida. But the favor, which occurs in the supplies closet of the bar, is interrupted by an emergency. Later, he wonders if he is still technically a virgin. Somewhat later, the question ceases to matter.
For the first two hours of reading, this is García Madero’s life and García Madero’s book. Through his sensibilities, we enter a circle people who are at least five years older. It is a circle in which people talk to each other about literature or politics for hours at a time. Everyone in the circle is somehow caught up in a love of poetry or a desire to write it or publish it. We meet Maria and Angelica Font, the daughters of a deranged architect, Joaquin “Quim” Font. Maria and Angelica share a “little house” behind the main Font residence, where they obtain privacy for sexual adventures by drawing a curtain across the single room.
We meet Maria’s friend, Lupe, who is a prostitute aspiring to enter dance school, and through Lupe’s conversations we hear about her pimp, Alberto, and his peculiar obsession involving a knife. We meet a strange, haunted bi-sexual youth who has named himself Luscious Skin, and we meet a variety of homosexuals. It’s an accepting circle of people. Sexual orientation is of no particular interest to any of them, and sexual curiosity is an unremarkable part of everyday life. We meet a couple of young poets who are expecting a baby, Jacinto Requena and Xóchitl García. (Her name is pronounced SO-cheetl, the Nahuatl word for “flower.”) (“Oh what a pompous know-it-all,” you’ve just thought. Before I Goggled for “Mexican X pronounce”, I don’t think I had ever seen the word, “Nahuatl.” I’m wearing it like a new watch today! Trying to find a use for it in an ordinary sentence several times. Not getting far.)
So we’re carried along through this new world that García Madero entered when he enrolled at the university, taking in all sorts of rich detail about everyone’s manners and lifestyles, and we can’t help wondering why these Mexicans are “lost,” or in what sense they are lost, or where the detectives are. Then things turn dangerous. Lupe decides to pursue an education and quits working for Alberto. Quim Font hides her in a hotel room, and later in his home, where Alberto mounts a siege as New Year’s Eve approaches. The cast of characters assembles at the Font home, and we know we’re in for a Mozart finale. Just after the turn of the year, it is decided that Belano and Lima will break the siege by speeding Lupe away in Quim Font’s new Impala. García Madero narrates what happened in his diary:
As Quim explained some of the finer points of the car to Ulises, Jorgito said that we should hurry up because Lupe’s pinp had just come back. For a few seconds everyone started talking in normal voices and Mrs. Font said: the shame of it all, to be reduced to this. Then I hurried off to the Fonts’ little house, got my books, and came back. The car’s engine was already running and everyone looked frozen in place.
I saw Arturo and Ulises in the front seats and Lupe in back.
“Someone will have to go open the gate,” said Quim.
I offered to do it.
I was on the sidewalk when I saw the lights of the Camaro and the lights of the Impala go on. It looked like a science fiction movie. As one car left the house, the other approached, as if the two were magnetically attracted to each other, or drawn together by fate, which the Greeks would say is the same thing.
I heard voices. People were calling my name. Quim’s car passed me. I saw the shape of Alberto getting out of the Camaro and the next moment he was alongside the car my friends were in. His friends, still sitting in the Camaro, yelled at him to break one of the Impala’s windows. Why doesn’t Ulises hit the gas? I thought. Lupe’s pimp started to kick the doors. I saw María coming through the garden toward me. I saw the faces of the thugs inside the Camaro. One of them was smoking a cigar. I saw Ulises’s face and his hands, which were moving on the dashboard of Quim’s car. I saw Belano’s face looking impassively at the pimp, as if none of this had anything to do with him. I saw Lupe, who was covering her face in the backseat. I thought that the window glass couldn’t withstand another kick and the next moment I was up next to Alberto. Then I saw that Alberto was swaying. He smelled of alcohol. They’d been celebrating the new year, too, of course. I saw my right fist (the only one I had free since my books were in my other hand) hurtling into the pimp’s body and this time I saw him fall. I heard my name being called from the house and I didn’t turn around. I kicked the body at my feet and I saw the Impala, which was moving at last. I saw the two thugs get out of the Camaro and I saw them coming toward me. I saw that Lupe was looking at me from inside the car and that she was opening the door. I realized that I’d always wanted to leave. I got in and before I could close the door Ulises stepped on the gas. I heard a shot or something that sounded like a shot. They’re shooting at us, the bastards, said Lupe. I turned around and through the back window I saw a shadow in the middle of the street. All the sadness of the world was concentrated in that shadow, framed by the strict rectangle of the Impala’s window. It’s firecrackers, I heard Belano say as our car leaped forward and left behind the Font’s house, the thugs’ Camaro, Calle Colima, and in less than two seconds we were on Avenida Oaxaca, heading north out of the city.
That’s the end of the section titled, “Mexicans Lost in Mexico.” The next section is titled, “The Savage Detectives (1976-1996)” We turn the page and the diary has vanished. Instead, we’re looking at text that begins with a formality:
Amadeo Salvatierra, Calle República Venezuela, near the Palacio de la Inquisición, Mexico City DF, January 1976
My dear boys, I said to them, I’m so glad to see you, come right in, make yourselves at home, and as they filed down the hall, or rather felt their way, because the hall is dark and the bulb had burned out and I hadn’t changed it (I haven’t changed it yet), I skipped joyfully ahead into the kitchen, where I got out a bottle of Los Suicidas mezcal, a mezcal only made in Chihuahua, limited run, of course, of which I used to receive two bottles each year by parcel post, until 1967…
This is evidently an interview taken in the same month Belano and Lima drove away with Lupe and Juan García Madero. Salvatierra is one of the earlier visceral realists, and the “dear boys” turn out to be Belano and Lima in the autumn of 1975. They are trying to track down Cesárea Tinajero, the “lost” mother of visceral realism, and are taping interviews with all the surviving members of her circle who they can locate in Mexico City.
We don’t know who is conducting this interview, though. Is it another group of university students on a quest, like Belano and Lima? Is it a team of policemen, or gangsters? Is Mexico City teeming with twenty-somethings armed with cassette recorders, taking oral histories of obscure poets? All we know is that the interviewers are male, plural, and young. The formality of the heading suggests a formal taking of information.
The next interview, also taken in January 1976, follows the same pattern; a formal opening giving name, location, and month, followed by a verbatim transcription. The purpose of the interview is to develop background information on Belano or Lima, or both. This one is with Perla Avilés, who shares a memory of horseback riding with Belano in 1970, when they were both in high school. Remember, we’re mentally making a list of things said by others that reveal a character we’re studying. And remember, too, that just like a scene in Verdi, there is a harmonic vocabulary in the fabric of this prose, a sense of pacing, a sense of where the weight will fall; and that like a screenplay or a good poem, it must seed our imagination with “sticky” images. (I couldn’t help noticing the unintended rhyme of Tlaxcala with the opera house, La Scala!)
…My father had some land in Tlaxcala and had bought a horse. He said he was a good rider and I said this Sunday I’m going to Tlaxcala with my father, you can come with us if you want. What bleak country that was. My father had built a thatched adobe hut and that was all there was, the rest was scrub and dirt. When we got there he looked around with a smile, as if to say, I knew this wasn’t going to be a fancy ranch or a big spread, but this is too much. Even I was a little bit ashamed of my father’s land. Among other things, there was no saddle, and some neighbors kept the horse for us. For a while, as my father was off getting the horse, we wandered the flats. I tried to talk about books I’d read that I knew he hadn’t read, but he hardly listened to me. He walked and smoked, walked and smoked, and the scenery was always the same. Until we heard the horn of my father’s car and then the man who kept the horse came, not riding the horse but leading it by the bridle. By the time we got back to the hut my father and the man had gone off in the car to settle some business and the horse was tied up waiting for us. You go first, I said. No, he said (it was clear his mind was on other things), you go. Not wanting to argue, I mounted the horse and broke straight into a gallop. When I got back he was sitting on the ground, against the wall of the hut, smoking. You ride well, he said. Then he got up and went over to the horse, saying that he wasn’t used to riding bareback, but he vaulted up anyway, and I showed him which way to go, telling him that over in that direction there was a river or actually a riverbed that was dry now but that filled up when it rained and was pretty, then he galloped off. He rode well. I’m a good horsewoman, but he was as good as I was or maybe better, I don’t know. At the time I thought he was better. Galloping without stirrups is hard and he galloped clinging to the horse’s back until he was out of sight. As I waited I counted the cigarette butts that he had stubbed out beside the hut and they made me want to learn to smoke. Hours later, as we were on our way back in my father’s car, him in front and me in back, he said that there was probably some pyramid lying buried under our land. I remember that my father turned his eyes from the road to look at him. Pyramids? Yes, he said, deep underground there must be lots of pyramids. My father didn’t say anything. From the darkness of the backseat, I asked him why he thought that. He didn’t answer. Then we started to talk about other things but I kept wondering why he’d said that about the pyramids. I kept thinking about pyramids. I kept thinking about my father’s stony plot of land and much later, when I’d lost touch with him, each time I went back to that barren place I thought about the buried pyramids, about the one time I’d seen him riding over the tops of the pyramids, and I imagined him in the hut, when he was left alone and sat there smoking.
Did you notice how much you have learned about Belano in this one, vivid memory of him as a teen? Smokes like a fiend, superb horseman, seems off in some other world, makes unique sorts of comments you never forget. And while you learn these things, you also retain the vivid details that Perla remembers, and you are left with that image of the superb young horseman alone in a hut, chain smoking.
Quim Font is interviewed many times during the book. In this monologue from October 1976, shortly before his family commits him to a mental institution, he responds to a question about Belano’s and Lima’s characters:
Now that the days are going by, coldly, in the cold way that days go by, I can say without the slightest resentment that Belano was a romantic, often pretentious, a good friend to his friends, I hope and trust, although no one really knew what he was thinking, probably not even Belano himself. Ulises Lima, on the other hand, was much friendlier and more radical. Sometimes he seemed like Vaché’s younger brother. Other times he seemed like an extraterrestrial. He smelled strange. This I know, this I can say, this I can attest to because on two unforgettable occasions he showered at my house. More precisely: he didn’t smell bad, he had a strange smell, as if he’d just emerged from a swamp and a desert at the same time. Extreme wetness and extreme dryness, the primordial soup and the barren plain. At the same time, gentlemen! A truly unnerving smell! It bothered me, for reasons that aren’t worth getting into here. His smell, I mean. Characterologically, Belano was extroverted and Ulises was introverted. In other words, I had more in common with Belano. Belano knew how to swim with the sharks much better than Lima did, no doubt about that. Much better than I did. He came across better, he knew how to handle things, he was more disciplined, he could pretend more convincingly. Good old Ulises was a ticking bomb, and what was worse, socially speaking, was that everyone knew or could sense that he was a ticking bomb and no one wanted him to get too close, for obvious and understandable reasons. Ah, Ulises Lima… He wrote constantly, that’s what I remember most about him, in the margins of books that he stole and on pieces of scrap paper that he was always losing. And he never wrote poems, he wrote stray lines that he’d assemble into long, strange poems later on if he was lucky…Belano, on the other hand, wrote in notebooks…They both still owe me money…
The memory of exceptional personal odors is a curious secondary theme throughout the book. It seemed to me that the accounts of odors were an embodiment, to choose a word, of “visceral realism.” After both men move to Europe, stories of Lima’s squalid living conditions are countered by stories of his bathing. Here is one sequence, from his time in Paris, a year after the New Year’s Eve escape from the Font home. The first voice is Hipólito Garces, a Peruvian who Lima had met in Mexico. It is very late at night, Garces has been waiting outside Lima’s room for hours, hoping to restore his parasitic relationship with Lima. Lima arrives and lets Garces in. Garces sells him a pile of books for an outrageous sum, which Lima pays, and then Garces begins to rant as Lima stands and stares him down. Garces:
And then I couldn’t take it anymore and I collapsed on the bed like a slut and I said: Ulises, I feel like shit, Ulises, man, my life is a disaster, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I try to do things right but everything turns out wrong…I’m not the same person I used to be, and on and on I went, letting out everything that was torturing me inside, with my face in the blankets, in Ulises’s blankets, I have no idea where they came from but they smelled bad, not just the typical unwashed smell of a chamber de bonne, and not like Ulises, but like something else, like death, an ominous smell that suddenly wormed its way into my brain and made me sit up, holy shit, Ulises, where did you get these blankets, causita, from the morgue? And Ulises was still standing there, not moving, listening to me, and then I thought this is my chance to go and I got up and reached out my hand and touched his shoulder. It was like touching a statue.
Next, the testimony of one of the Peruvian women, Sofia Pellegrini:
They called him the Christ of the Rue des Eaux and they all made fun of him, even Roberto Rosas, who claimed to be his best friend in Paris…..I never went to see his place. I know people said horrible things about it, that it was a filthy hole, that the worst junk in Paris piled up there: trash, magazines, newspapers, books he stole from bookstores, and that all of it soon began to smell like the place and then rotted, blossomed, turned all kinds of crazy colors. They said he could spend whole days without eating a thing, months without a visit to the public baths, but I doubt it because I never saw him looking especially dirty.
Then Simone Darrieux:
Ulises Lima showered at my house. I was never thrilled about it. I don’t like to use a towel after somebody else, especially if we aren’t intimate in some way, physically and even emotionally, but still I let him use my shower, then I would gather up the towels and put them in the machine. It helped that he tried to be neat in my apartment. In his own way, but he tried and that’s what counts. After I shower I scrub the bathtub and pick the hair out of the drain. It may seem trivial but it drives me up the wall. I hate to find clumps of hair clogging the drain, especially if it isn’t mine. Then I pick up the towels I’ve used and fold them and leave them on the bidet until I have time to put them in the machine. The first few times he came he even brought his own soap, but I told him he didn’t have to, that he should feel free to use my soap and shampoo but that he shouldn’t even think about touching my sponge….He was a strange person. He wrote in the margins of books….You won’t believe this, but he used to shower with a book. I swear. He read in the shower. How do I know? Easy. Almost all his books were wet. At first I thought it was the rain. Ulises was a big walker. He hardly ever took the metro. He walked back and forth across Paris and when it rained he got soaked because he never stopped to wait for it to clear up. So his books, at least the ones he read most often, were always a little warped, sort of stiff, and I thought it was from the rain. But one day I noticed that he went into the bathroom with a dry book and when he came out the book was wet. That day my curiosity got the better of me. I went up to him and pulled the book away from him. Not only was the cover wet, some of the pages were too, and so were the notes in the margins, some maybe even written under the spray, the water making the ink run, and then I said, for God’s sake, I can’t believe it, you read in the shower! have you gone crazy? and he said he couldn’t help it but at least he only read poetry (and I didn’t understand why he said he only read poetry, not at the time, but now I do: he meant that he only read two or three pages, not a whole book), and then I started to laugh, I threw myself on the sofa, writhing in laughter, and he started to laugh too, both of us laughed for I don’t know how long.
Several dialogues by and about two of Belano’s lovers revolve around offensive odors. These are vivid enough to balance the book’s primary emphasis on the sounds of human speech. One of these scenes is in an interview with a self-absorbed Spanish ambulance-chaser and poet who sprinkles his conversation with quotes from Latin classical authors:
Xosé Lendoiro, Terme di Traiano, Rome, October 1992. I was no ordinary lawyer. Lupo ovem commisisti or Alter remus aquas, alter tibi radat harenas: either could be said of me with equal justice. And yet I’ve preferred to adhere to the Catullian noli pugnare duobus. Someday my merits will be recognized.
In those days I was traveling and conducting experiments. My practice as a lawyer or jurist afforded me sufficient income so that I could devote ample time to the noble art of poetry. Unde habeas quaerit nemo, sed oportet habere, which, simply put, means that no one inquires as to the source of one’s possessions, but possessions are necessary. An essential truth if one wants to devote oneself to one’s most secret calling: poets are dazzled by the spectacle of wealth…
Let us not lose sight of the fact that the purpose of the interview with this blowhard is to find out another scrap of information about either Arturo Belano or Ulises Lima. The comedy of blowhardiness has Lendoiro describe his post-divorce liberation as the release of a “giant” that was within him. The “giant” then inhabits the narrative like a third party.
Lendoiro’s tells of meeting Belano during travels through Spain in 1977. He stops at a campground where Belano has found work as a watchman after leaving Mexico for Europe. Lendoiro witnesses Belano perform a remarkable feat of heroism and offers him a job writing monthly literary reviews for Lendoiro’s poetry magazine. What follows is a love affair between Belano and Lendoiro’s daughter, who is also a poet as well as the principal contributor to the magazine. Lendoiro discovers their affair in the most shocking way, vividly evoked in one of the best single sentences in the novel, which I will let you find for yourself.
Lendoiro’s salf-absorption diverts that tale of woe back to himself and his riches, and we enter a sub-narrative about wealth and stink, in “visceral realist” style:
Regarding money, naturally, I have indelible memories. Memories that glisten like a drunkard in the rain or a sick man in the rain. There was a time when my money was the object of jokes and ridicule. I know that. Vilius argentums est auro, virtutibus aurum. I know there was a time, at the beginning of my magazine’s run, when my young collaborators mocked the source of my money. You pay poets, it was said, with the money you make from crooked businessmen, embezzlers, drug traffickers, murderers of women and children, money launderers, corrupt politicians. I never dignified this slander with a reply. Plus augmentantur rumores, quando negantur. Someone has to defend the murders, the crooks, the men who want divorces and aren’t prepared to surrender all their money to their wives; someone has to defend them. And my firm defended them all, and the giant absolved them and charged them a fair price. That’s democracy, you fools, I told them, it’s time you understood. For better or for worse. And instead of buying a yacht with the money I made, I started a literary magazine. And although I knew that the money troubled the consciences of some of the young poets of Barcelona and Madrid, when I had a free moment I would come up silently behind them and touch their backs with the tips of my fingers, which were perfectly manicured (no longer, since even my nails are ragged now), and I would whisper in their ears: non olet. It doesn’t smell. The coins earned in the urinals of Barcelona and Madrid don’t smell. The coins earned in the toilets of Zaragoza don’t smell. The coins earned in the sewers of Bilbao don’t smell. Or if they smell, they smell of money. They smell of what the giant dreams of doing with his money. Then the young poets would understand and nod, even if they didn’t entirely follow what I was saying, even if they didn’t comprehend every jot and tittle of the terrible, timeless lesson I’d meant to drum into their silly little heads. And if any of them failed to understand, which I doubt, they understood when they was their pieces published, when they smelled the freshly printed pages, when they saw their names on the cover or in the table of contents. It was then that they got a whiff of what money really smells like: like power, like the gracious gesture of a giant. And then there were no more jokes and they all grew up and followed me.
All except Arturo Belano, and he didn’t follow me for the simple reason that he wasn’t called. Sequitur superbos ultor a tergo deus. And everyone who had followed me embarked on a career in the world of letters or cemented a career already begun but still in its infancy, except for Arturo Belano, who buried himself in a world where everything stank, where everything stank of shit and urine and rot and poverty and sickness, a world where the stink was suffocating and numbing, and where the only thing that didn’t stink was my daughter’s body. And I didn’t lift a finger to put an end to their unnatural relationship, but I bided my time. And one day I discovered (don’t ask me how because I’ve forgotten) that even my daughter, my beautiful older daughter, had begun to smell to that wretched ex-watchman of the Castroverde campground. Her mouth had begun to smell. The smell worked its way into the walls of the apartment where the wretched ex-watchman of the Castroverde campground was living. And my daughter, whose hygiene I refuse to let anyone question, brushed her teeth constantly: when she got up, at midmorning, after lunch, at four in the afternoon, at seven, after dinner, before she went to bed, but there was no way to get rid of the smell, there was no way to eliminate or hide the smell that the watchman scented or sniffed like a cornered animal, and although my daughter rinsed her mouth with Listerine between brushings, the smell persisted. It would go away for a moment only to appear again when it was least expected: at four in the morning in the watchman’s big castaway bed…It was an unbearable smell that chipped away at his patience and tact, the smell of money, the smell of poetry, maybe even the smell of love.
My poor daughter. It’s my wisdom teeth, she said. My poor daughter. It’s my last wisdom tooth coming in. That’s why my mouth smells, she would protest, when faced with the increasing coolness of the ex-watchman of the Castroverde campground. Her wisdom tooth!...
You may wonder how I could recommend that you read an entire book that is populated with people and events the such as these. But if you glossed over the passages, I hope you go back into them slowly, and resolve to read each sentence and absorb it for just what it is, and then read the next, and so on. Do not race to the “conclusion,” because it’s one of the things that has gone missing.
So we have sound and smell. What of taste? Nothing. Touch? Nothing. Sight? Very little. But the sense of triste? That permeates the monologues, especially in the way they end, without punch, as if the bottom line in these memories is “so what?”
Lima is the gravitational center of this sadness. It infuses people’s memories of him throughout the book. Hugo Montero remembers a moment with Lima on a plane to Managua with a group of Mexican poets. “…and then he said, in a voice that broke my heart: let me read it.” Clara Cabeza, Octavio Paz’s secretary, remembers a meeting between Lima and Paz. “Then Don Octavio looked at me with those pretty eyes of his and said Clarita, back in the days of the visceral realists I would hardly have been ten years old, this was around 1924, wasn’t it? he said, addressing Lima. And Lima said yes, more or less, the 1920s, but he said it with such sadness in his voice, with such. . .emotion, or feeling, that I thought it was the saddest voice I would ever hear. I think I even felt ill."
You can’t write about someone named Ulises and omit an odyssey, can you? Lima’s odyssey is encapsulated in a scintillating monologue by Jacinito Requena:
One day I asked him where he’d been. He told me that he’d traveled along a river that connects Mexico and Central America. As far as I know, there is no such river. But he told me he’d traveled along this river and that now he could say he knew its twists and tributaries. A river of trees or a river of sand or a river of trees that in certain stretches became a river of sand. A constant flow of people without work, of the poor and starving, drugs and suffering. A river of clouds he’d sailed on for twelve months, where he’d found countless islands and outposts, although not all the islands were settled, and sometimes he thought he’d stay and live on one of them forever or that he’d die there.
Of all the islands he’d visited, two stood out. The island of the past, he said, where the only time was past time and the inhabitants were bored and more or less happy, but where the weight of illusion was so great that the island sank a little deeper into the river every day. And the island of the future, where the only time was the future, and the inhabitants were planners and strivers, such strivers, said Ulises, that they were likely to end up devouring one another.
Loss. People lose touch with each other. They drop out of sight; they move to places they don’t belong; they try to return; their friendships dissolve, they move on with their lives. Jacobo Urenda, a foreign correspondent, in 1996, recalls a dangerous night in an African village in the midst of a civil war. He has known the mature Arturo Belano for several years and has run into him again in the thick of this war. It is late at night, and in the morning the people will leave in two directions, either or both of which could prove fatal.
So I started to think about my wife and my home and then I started to think about Belano, how well he looked, what good shape he seemed to be in, better than in Angola, when he wanted to die, and better than in Kigali, when he didn’t want to die anymore but couldn’t get off this godforsaken continent, and when I’d finished the cigarette I pulled out another one, which really was the last, and to cheer myself up I even started to sing very softly to myself or in my head, a song by Atahualpa Yupanqui, my God, Atahualpa Yupanqui, and only then did I realize that I was extremely nervous and that if I wanted to sleep what I needed was to talk, and then I got up and took a few blind steps, first in deathly silence (for a fraction of a second I thought we were all dead, that the hope sustaining us was only an illusion, and I had the urge to go running out the door of that foul-smelling house), then I heard the sound of snoring, the barely audible whispering of those who were still awake and talking in the dark in Gio or Mano, Mandingo or Krahn, English, Spanish.
All languages seemed detestable to me just then.
To say that now is silly, I know. All those languages, all that whispering, simply a vicarious way of preserving our identity for an uncertain length of time. Ultimately, the truth is that I don’t know why they seemed detestable, maybe because in an absurd way I was lost somewhere in those two long rooms, lost in a region I didn’t know, a country I didn’t know, a continent I didn’t know, on a strange, elongated planet, or maybe because I knew I should get some sleep and I couldn’t. And then I felt for the wall and sat on the floor and opened my eyes extrawide trying and trying to see something, and then I curled up on the floor and closed my eyes and prayed to God (in whom I don’t believe) that I wouldn’t get sick, because there was a long walk ahead of me the next day, and then I fell asleep.
When I woke up it must have been close to four in the morning.
A few feet from me, Belano and López Lobo were talking. I saw the light of their cigarettes, and my first impulse was to get up and go to them. I wanted to share in the uncertainty of what the next day would bring, join the two shadows I glimpsed behind the cigarettes even if I had to crawl or go on my knees. But I didn’t. Something in the tone of their voices stopped me, something in the angle of their shadows, shadows sometimes dense, squat, warlike, and sometimes fragmented, dispersed, as if the bodies that cast them had already disappeared.
So I controlled myself and pretended to be asleep and listened….
Bolaño is able to extend the magic of this scene for six more, absolutely spellbinding, pages.
Throughout the long middle section of the book, we are brought back to excerpts from the January 1976 interview with the old visceral realist poet, Amadeo Salvatierra. He may be one of your favorite voices if you read the book. Salvatierra has lost two things. It is hard to tell which is the more important, his connection to Cesárea Tinajero or his connection to poetry:
Life left us all where we were meant to be or where it was convenient to leave us and then forgot us, which is as it should be…I remember her laugh, boys, I said, night was falling over Mexico City and Cesárea laughed like a ghost, like the invisible woman she was about to become, a laugh that made my heart shrink, a laugh that made me want to run away from her and at the same time made me understand beyond the shadow of a doubt that there was no place I could run to….and then she looked at me, without seeing me at first, then seeing me, and she smiled and said goodbye, Amadeo. And that was the last time I saw her alive. Cool as could be. And that was the end of everything…
Everyone forgot her, boys, except me, I said. Now that we’re old and past hope maybe a few remember her, but back then everyone forgot her and then they started to forget themselves, which is what happens when you forget your friends. Except for me….Like so many Mexicans, I too gave up poetry. Like so many thousands of Mexicans, I too turned my back on poetry. Like so many hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, I too, when the moment came, stopped writing and reading poetry. From then on, my life proceeded along the drabbest course you can imagine.
Without any inherent reason, Salvatierra’s 1976 monologues appear in sections that contain later and later interviews. They stitch the book together, and then, when all the 1996 interviews have been presented, “The Savage Detectives” section ends, and we see a title page for the next section that says, “The Sonora Desert (1976)”
Today I realized that what I wrote yesterday I really wrote today: everything from December 31 I wrote on January 1, i.e., today, and what I wrote on December 30 I wrote on the 31st, i.e., yesterday. What I write today, I’m really writing tomorrow, which for me will be today and yesterday, and also, in some sense, tomorrow: an invisible day. But enough of that.
It’s you-know-who again, but I won’t tell you what transpires in the final fifty pages. What I will tell you is that, after two full readings of the book and a third skimming of the countless passages I marked for later review, I could reenter this world and read it all again many more times.
I hardly ever read a book twice. The author I’ve reread more than any other is Homer. I have five translations of The Odyssey.