In the Sonora

Benjamin Kunkel

Roberto Bolaño was born in Santiago de Chile in 1953, moved with his family to Mexico City at the age of 15, and was inspired by the election of Salvador Allende to return to his native country five years later. In his short story ‘Dance Card’, which accords with the known facts of his life and does not present itself as fiction, Bolaño indicates that he hardly distinguished as a young man – if he ever did – between his politics and his love of poetry: ‘I reached Chile in August 1973. I wanted to help build socialism. The first book of poems I bought was Parra’s Obra Gruesa (Construction Work).’ He then bought another book by Nicanor Parra, the anti-rhetorical Chilean poet whose work Bolaño preferred to that of the more celebrated Pablo Neruda – a preference, it seems clear, for Parra’s plain-spokenness over Neruda’s florid multiplication of metaphor – and, in his telling, this was practically all the work towards socialism Bolaño accomplished before his arrest, following Pinochet’s coup of September 1973, as a ‘foreign terrorist’.

Bolaño was imprisoned for several days, and then released by a pair of policemen who recognised him as an old schoolmate. He remained in Chile for several months – he would recall a time of ‘black humour, friendship and the danger of death’ – and then left his country for good. Back in Mexico, Bolaño founded with some friends what might be described as a punk-Surrealist poetry movement called infrarrealismo. The group’s manifesto, written by Bolaño, took its title from a poem by Breton; and what seems most important about it, in the light of Bolaño’s mature work, is the traditional Surrealist refusal to separate art from revolution, or from life at large.

From the late 1970s until the mid-1980s, Bolaño led a vagabond life in Europe, mostly Spain, writing poetry and, it seems, not much fiction. (There is a short cowritten novel from 1984.) He also developed a heroin habit and, in the process, as he later learned, a compromised liver. A few years after getting clean, Bolaño at last settled down; by 1991 he was a married man and a father, with a fixed address in Blanes, on the Costa Brava. Goaded by the need to support a family and the knowledge that his failing health might not grant him much time, Bolaño kept up through his last dozen years a heroic productivity: seven novels, three collections of stories, and many essays and poems. He died, aged 50, in July 2003, awaiting a liver transplant, having drafted but not yet revised his enormous final novel, 2666. Not long before his death, Bolaño had been acclaimed, at a literary conference in Seville, as the leading Latin American writer of his generation, a status that with each new translation he has come more and more to enjoy in the English-speaking world as well.

Bolaño’s desperado image is a large part of his appeal. His revolutionary politics and the personal risk they entailed, the movement he founded, his poverty, exile and addiction, his death in his prime: the combination of these elements is foreign to the increasingly professionalised career of the contemporary writer. Bolaño’s dishevelled, wandering characters are, more profoundly than they are left-wing, anti-bourgeois, which is to say disdainful of comfort, security and success: an attitude more than a politics, but the attitude is deeply felt. Even to write ‘marvellously well’, Bolaño declared, was not enough; ‘the quality of the writing’ depended on the author’s understanding ‘that literature is basically a dangerous calling’.

But Bolaño would not be so strange or significant a writer if he had not found a way of handling his dangerous calling with simultaneous reverence and irony. And ‘calling’ is the word: there is never any question in Bolaño of another vocation. He is a writer for whom what Nietzsche said about music would seem to go without saying about literature: without it, life would be a mistake. But there is also an important sense – as Bolaño demonstrates again and again – in which both he and his narrators are without literature, in the desolate way that a religious person might find himself without God. Part of this is simply that these stories and novels narrated almost exclusively by and about poets don’t contain (with one notable exception) any examples of the poets’ verse, and Bolaño often invites us to doubt how much a poet writes or how well. But it’s not just that his fiction about poets excludes their poetry; his fiction excludes many of the familiar components of fiction. Sponsored and sustained by devotion to literature, these books nevertheless abstain from what we think of as literary writing. In Bolaño’s fiction, it is as if – but only as if – literature were what he was writing about, but not what he was doing.

The Savage Detectives (first published in Spain in 1998) joins three other Bolaño novels available in English, and a collection of short stories. Each of the three shorter novels – novellas, really – is a distraught monologue delivered by a poet interested to the point of obsession in the lives of other poets of his or, in Amulet, her acquaintance. Likewise, all the stories in Last Evenings on Earth are told by writers, usually about other writers, most often poets. The Savage Detectives begins and ends with the diary entries of a young Mexican poet recently inducted into the school of ‘visceral realists’; in between these bookending sections stretches a vast oral history assembled from the testimony of those who knew or met the young poet’s mentors, the fugitive poets Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima. And the witnesses called to testify are mostly writers, critics or other literary types.

The poets are a varied group, but it is possible to divide them into heroes (or anti-heroes) and villains. The great studies of villains – and the books for which Bolaño first became known in English – are the novellas Distant Star (1996) and By Night in Chile (2000), and together these portraits of Fascist writers offer a sort of negative rationale for Bolaño’s own aesthetic. Where his villains’ taste in writing is for what’s ‘literary’, well-ordered and highly finished, Bolaño will opt in his own work for being plain-spoken, unstylised and inconclusive. Distant Star concerns the sole poet in Bolaño whose work we are able to read, since Carlos Wieder, a former poetry workshop acquaintance of the narrator, is also a lieutenant in the Chilean air force who, following Pinochet’s seizure of power, takes to the air and sky-writes gnomic but identifiably fascistic verse (‘Death is friendshipDeath is ChileDeath is cleansing …’) for all to see. The pilot-poet’s other important work uses death, in a literal sense, as a medium: Wieder has ‘disappeared’ a number of fellow Chileans, and one night at a party stages an exhibition of grisly photographs taken of his mostly female victims: ‘In general’ – the unnamed narrator is summarising the testimony of an eye-witness – ‘the photos were of poor quality, although they made an extremely vivid impression on all who saw them. The order in which they were exhibited was not haphazard: there was a progression, an argument, a story (literal and allegorical), a plan.’

The story of Carlos Wieder has its own potent, even crude aspect of allegory: fascism as the aesthetic revenge of failed artists. But this is also a work of the imagination in which the imagination disclaims its power. The narrator spends years meditating on the crimes of his former poetry workshop acquaintance, and finally helps a detective to track Wieder to an apartment building in Spain; but two pages from the end of his account his imagination still draws a blank when it comes to the man: ‘I tried to think of Wieder. I tried to imagine him alone in his flat, an anonymous dwelling, as I pictured it, on the fourth floor of an empty eight-floor building, watching television or sitting in an armchair, drinking, as Romero’s shadow glided steadily towards him. I tried to imagine Carlos Wieder, but I couldn’t.’ The successful hunting of the Fascist poet supplies no relief, no insight, no ‘closure’; it does not prompt a peroration or a homily. The book just ends, as if the narrator has simply told us what little he knows. And surely there is a moral component to this narrative modesty when Wieder himself had been pleased to arrange his corpses so carefully.

By Night in Chile is another novella about – and this time narrated by – a literary man of the right. No short discussion can do justice to a book regarded by many as Bolaño’s greatest, but it’s worth noting that this most eloquent of Bolaño’s novellas, and the only one that appears to follow a symbolic pattern, is the death-bed confession of a Chilean priest, poet, literary critic and member of Opus Dei who accommodated himself to the Pinochet regime. Father Lacroix’s literary bent is made to seem suspect early on, when he recalls being asked by some peasants whether he liked the bread they had offered him: ‘It’s good, I said, very tasty, very flavoursome, a treat for the palate, veritable ambrosia, pride of our agriculture, hearty staple of our hard-working farm-folk, mmm, nice.’ Like Carlos Wieder, Father Lacroix has a notion of clean and orderly beauty that is aligned with cruelty; one of his chief services to the Church is to deploy a trained hawk against the pigeons befouling Europe’s cathedrals. Bolaño is plainly sympathetic to this frightened old man caught between self-justification and remorse, but gives him his comeuppance all the same: ‘And then the storm of shit begins.’

On the other side – the side of revolution, disorder and failure – are Bolaño’s (anti-)heroes. From the first paragraph of the story ‘Enrique Martín’ – the title refers, naturally, to a fictional poet – it’s possible to understand a great deal about them and their creator:

A poet can endure anything. Which amounts to saying that a human being can endure anything. Except that it’s not true: there are obviously limits to what a human being can endure. Really endure. A poet, on the other hand, can endure anything. We grew up with this conviction. The opening assertion is true, but that way lie ruin, madness and death.

You can see how much stoicism (‘A poet can endure anything’) and how much grief (‘ruin, madness and death’) go into his literary tribalism: his poets are tough, and their broken lives are sad. The sadness and toughness often come from their belonging to an impoverished diaspora of left-wing South American writers scattered by that region’s descent, in the 1970s, into several vernacular imitations of Fascism. But the bond uniting Bolaño’s people is not always especially political; it can simply be, as in The Savage Detectives, that they grew up together in Mexico City, sleeping around, talking poetry, nursing rivalries and smoking pot. Bolaño’s work has a marked generational inflection: ‘We grew up with this conviction,’ he says about the idea that a poet can endure anything.

‘Enrique Martín’ is narrated by Bolaño’s main alter ego, Arturo Belano, one of the two main characters in The Savage Detectives, just as many of the other short stories concern the life of ‘B’, and shadow the author’s own life. The device of the names is just the beginning of the verité effect. The conversational tone and seemingly unrehearsed quality of Bolaño’s prose, with its inefficiencies and puzzled self-revisions (‘Which amounts to saying … Except that it’s not true … Really endure … The opening assertion is true, but … ’), give his writing the rhythm and mood of testimony, as opposed to crafted ‘literature’. This approach, which produces a documentary rather than a fictional impression, extends to Bolaño’s mode of characterisation: Enrique Martín is not, any more than his other people, a ‘well-rounded’ or ‘three-dimensional’ character. We don’t know how he looks or talks, learn his history in any great detail, or gain special insight into his psychology.

We do learn this much: a writer of bad poetry in both Spanish and Catalan, Enrique Martín, over the course of several years, excludes the narrator from an anthology of young poets, stirs up in this way some resentment, the existence of which he seems never to suspect, appears meanwhile to become involved with a UFO cult, suffers a nervous breakdown, sends the narrator several cryptically numerological postcards, deposits a box of manuscripts at the narrator’s house for safekeeping, and then, one night, hangs himself. The motivation for Martín’s suicide, like the narrator’s motivation in telling the story, is never made clear.

This flat and lurid story is like an account that anyone might give of an acquaintance’s fate: certain curious details retain their vividness (‘Enrique confessing that he would like to have a child. The experience of childbirth, those were his words’); much has been forgotten (‘I think he was writing from Madrid, but I’m not sure any more’); much was never known (why Martín had to travel to Cartagena and Málaga for work); and the tale is studded with apparent irrelevancies (‘I went to live on the outskirts of a village near Girona with five cats and a dog’). You don’t feel that Enrique Martín is a robust character inhabiting a well-made story; you feel – whether or not any real-life original ever existed – something perhaps more powerful and certainly, in fiction, more unusual: namely, that he is simply a person, and that instead of having a story he had a life. The life was just a mess, and then it ended.

Bolaño’s narrators refer constantly to what they don’t know and can’t remember, something else that gives the impression that his fiction is anything but. It’s as criminologists tell us: admissions of ignorance suggest honesty, and a man who is telling the truth doesn’t make special exertions on behalf of verisimilitude. (A complementary rule of thumb, known to readers of research-heavy contemporary novels, is that an abundance of verifying data often undermines the authority of a tale.) Nor is there any lyricism in ‘Enrique Martín’, as if any fanciness would be an indulgence, a distraction, or worse.

Here is a writer, then, who writes as if literature were all that mattered, and at the same time writes in a distinctly unliterary way. When the narrator of Amulet says ‘a chill ran down my spine,’ or when Arturo Belano refers to his quarrel with Enrique Martín as ‘ancient history’, this reflects something plain and merely serviceable in the Spanish as well. To be sure, in the novellas (and more rarely in the stories and The Savage Detectives) there is sometimes a hallucinatory or phantasmagoric element carried over from Bolaño’s as yet untranslated poetry. But this imagery seems to emerge from a narrator’s ragged mental state, rather than from a poet’s bag of metaphors.

Belano speaks of Martín’s poetry only with pity and contempt; and he reveals that, when shown Martín’s articles on UFOs for a magazine specialising in the paranormal, he was no more diplomatic: ‘I told him he should learn how to write. I asked him if they had editors at the magazine.’ There can be little hope, then, for the literary value of the bundle of manuscripts Martín leaves at the narrator’s house, and choosing a hostile acquaintance as the guardian of his work is one more sign that he is not well. After Martín’s suicide, the narrator opens the package of manuscripts: ‘There were no maps or coded messages on any of them, just poems, mainly in the style of Miguel Hernández, but there were also some imitations of –’ and here some other poets are named. For the first time, Martín’s writing is referred to without scorn, if yet without praise; despite its derivativeness, the narrator credits it with being poetry and its author with being a poet.

Go back to the story’s opening paragraph, about a poet’s ability to endure anything, including ‘ruin, madness and death’. Ruin can be endured in a sense, and madness too, but death? Your soul might endure, but Bolaño’s people are not believers of that kind. Your reputation might endure, but then few if any of Bolaño’s writer characters – and certainly not the main characters of The Savage Detectives – seem to have produced poems destined to last. Enrique Martín’s is not a name that will survive (except, that is, as the title to the story). So what might endure of a poet, if not his soul, work or reputation? Or – always a possibility with this author – is Bolaño merely being ironic when he vaunts the special status of poets?

The Savage Detectives is made up of three sections. The first 120-odd pages consist of the teenage poet Juan García Madero’s diary for November and December 1975, and record his ecstatic initiation into the worlds of poetry and sex. Much of the action takes place in the chaotic household of Quim Font, a mentally crumbling Spanish architect (presumably an exile from Franco’s regime) who is the father of two lovely poet daughters and the designer of the only two issues of the visceral realist journal Lee Harvey Oswald. If this title makes the never defined visceral realist project sound at once silly, dangerous and borderline senseless, it suits the atmosphere of the Font household after the architect has taken in, evidently without consulting his wife, a prostitute by the name of Lupe.

The ridiculous and the harrowing are always close in Bolaño, and before long Lupe’s pimp and his goons have laid siege to the architect’s house. The impasse ends when Quim bribes the young visceral realist chieftains Belano and Ulises Lima to spirit Lupe away to the Sonora Desert in his Ford Impala. The poet-diarist gets mixed up in the escape – ‘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 piles into the getaway car; the pimp gives chase in his Camaro; and, with this scene of danger and farce, a self-contained narrative of beautifully concentrated high spirits comes to an end.

In the novel’s third and final section, the diary picks up where it left off – 1 January 1976 – with the poets and the whore fleeing the pimp into the Sonora, and beginning their quest for the vanished Mexican poet Cesárea Tinajero, of whose work hardly a trace remains. The teenager’s mood of exaltation – of great gifts and great appetite gorging themselves on life and words – is the same in both sections, but the tone sounds quite different after the novel’s central portion of almost four hundred pages, covering the years from 1976 to 1996, which is itself called ‘The Savage Detectives’ and might equally have been called, like the middle section of To the Lighthouse, ‘Time Passes’.

Just as the first and third sections of The Savage Detectives employ the casual, sub-literary form of the private diary, the middle section uses another informal documentary medium: oral history. Instead of a single diarist, we now have 38 narrators, many from Mexico City, others from various European and American countries, all of them the sometime friends, former lovers or passing acquaintances of Belano and/or Lima. These many narrators (their words date-lined with time and location) recount to the best of their knowledge and recollection what happened to Belano and Lima after their adventure in the Sonora, as the two wandered countries and continents. One of the most moving voices belongs to the institutionalised Quim Font, who – as in some surrealist country-and-western song – lost his Ford along with his mind.

Belano and Lima do not figure among the narrators, nor do the dozens of stories about them combine stereoscopically to define the exact shape and volume of the poets’ characters. Belano is often sardonic and arrogant, Lima tends to be quiet and passive, but this much anyone could tell in five minutes. And there is conflicting evidence to be entered, unsynthesised, into the record: the aloof and superior Belano treats with utmost tenderness a woman afflicted by an embarrassing gynaecological problem, while the lamb-like Lima is not above mugging people in Vienna. In the end, Belano will be glimpsed disappearing like a superannuated Rimbaud into an African jungle. Lima will wind up speaking politely to his old bête noire Octavio Paz with what Paz’s assistant (one of the narrators) recalls as ‘the saddest voice I would ever hear’. Evidently neither poet amounted to much; as a painter acquaintance (another narrator) says, ‘they weren’t writers. Sometimes they wrote poetry, but I don’t think they were poets either. They sold drugs.’ Bolaño never reveals a line of either man’s verse.

The narrators are naturally more concerned with their own love affairs, break-ups, travels, illnesses and careers than with contributing any footnotes in invisible ink to Mexican literary history. The reader is immersed in the stream of one life and then another, moved by Quim Font’s madness, then by the Mexican poet Luis Rosado’s grief over the loss of his lover the poet Luscious Skin, then by the pluck of a Catalan female bodybuilder (a one-time roommate of Belano’s), and then by something else entirely, as an old or new narrator takes up the story. Not that there really is a story, or any thematic convergence. If anything unites the crowd of narrators, it is their air of disconnection, as when María Font describes the end of one of her love affairs: ‘One day, though, we talked about everything that was or wasn’t happening between us, and after that we stopped seeing each other.’ She has just related the disbanding of the visceral realists in the same tone; and the narrators’ stories often have this same quality of termination without completeness.

If lyric poetry is marked by its figural and epigrammatic concentration, the impossibly diffuse Savage Detectives is a kind of anti-poem, refusing any form of summation. Even on the rare occasions when a narrator permits himself a general statement or unifying image, the clarity swiftly erodes. Near the end of the second section, a journalist friend of a Spanish literary critic recalls watching the critic and Belano threaten each other with swords on a beach at sunset, after Belano had, absurdly, challenged the critic to a duel:

In a brief moment of lucidity, I was sure that we’d all gone crazy. But then that moment of lucidity was displaced by a supersecond of superlucidity (if I can put it that way), in which I realised that this scene was the logical outcome of our ridiculous lives … It wasn’t proof of our idle guilt but a sign of our miraculous and pointless innocence. But that’s not it. That’s not it. We [the witnesses of the duel] were still and they were in motion and the sand on the beach was moving, not because of the wind but because of what they were doing and what we were doing, which was nothing, which was watching, and all of that together was the wrinkle, the moment of superlucidity. Then, nothing. My memory has always been mediocre, no better than a reporter needs to do his job.

One person who never shows up in the reminiscences, except when the recording angel behind the oral history asks unavailing questions, is the teenage poet García Madero. This is because, heartbreakingly, no one remembers or has heard of him. So by the time we get to the third section, we understand that the half-forgotten poets Belano and Lima took with them on their quest for the all-but-forgotten poet Cesárea Tinajero a poet whose name was written on even swifter flowing water. In this way The Savage Detectives partakes, paradoxically, of the general oblivion it describes, since oral histories of undistinguished and out-of-print poets are not assembled in the first place, any more than the diaries of mute inglorious Miltons from Mexico City are ever published. Moreover, because the narrators’ accounts of their own lives as they briefly criss-crossed Belano’s and Lima’s truly resemble oral testimony rather than essays, stories or poems, these accounts would appear (but only appear) to possess no particular literary value worth preserving. No novel I have read is so movingly and appallingly lifelike in its unthematised accumulation of time and grief, and in its unco-ordinated march towards oblivion.

It’s something close to a miracle that Bolaño can produce such intense narrative interest in a book made up of centrifugal monologues spinning away from two absentee main characters, and the diary entries of its most peripheral figure. And yet, in spite of the book’s apparent (and often real) formlessness, a large part of its distinction is its virtually unprecedented achievement in multiply-voiced narration. The confessional or first-person novel done in multiple voices was an important Modernist mode, a logical extension of the tendency towards authorial self-effacement that we associate with Flaubert. English speakers will think of ‘The Nighttown’ section of Ulysses, Dos Passos’s USA, The Waves, and – probably the most successful – several of Faulkner’s novels. The mode is extremely challenging, and several pitfalls opened even beneath Faulkner: the novelist may rely excessively on cognitive eccentricity, especially mental illness, to differentiate his narrators (The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying), or else may invest the narrators more or less equally, and therefore implausibly, with his own voice (Absalom, Absalom!). Another challenge, if the narrators come from diverse social backgrounds, derives from the author’s inevitably unequal familiarity with these. (Monica Ali’s Alentejo Blue is a recent example of the difficulty of pulling off an oratorio novel.)

Bolaño’s wanderings acquainted him with several Spanish vernaculars and much local slang, just as his literary career brought him into contact with well-spoken people and his poverty into contact with the poor. But in The Savage Detectives he doesn’t overdo the local colour, which his superb translator Natasha Wimmer in any case wisely ignores. The narrators are individuated above all through our sense of the helpless particularity of their fates; and to the extent that they sound alike, this is explained and excused by their common situation (testifying for an oral history) and the flattening effect of speech in any language. Above all, Bolaño overcomes the problem of getting so many voices to comment on the same events, or sing to the same music, by letting each voice persist in its natural egocentricity. True, the reader is liable to protest, somewhere before page 200, that this book isn’t about anything. Later on, it’s possible to recognise, with admiration, that Bolaño has found a way to keep the novel alive and freshly growing in the Sonora of modern scepticism – our scepticism, that is, as to what can finally be known or said of any life, and whose life is worth being represented, or considered representative, in the first place.

But this triumph in the face of scepticism is the triumph of a strange belief. No one can fail to see that in Bolaño poetry functions much like a religion: as a promise of the meaning of earthly existence, as well as of dignity, fellowship and redemption. And yet if Bolaño and his more autobiographical narrators believe, religiously, in the value of poetry, they also appear somehow to believe in salvation by faith, rather than by works – such as the faith Martín evidently kept by remaining true to his vocation in spite of his manifest lack of talent. This desperate and even delusional persistence wins from Belano a measure of respect, and Bolaño’s justification for having arranged The Savage Detectives around several poets who left behind them only hazy memories, and little if any durable verse, would likewise seem to be that Lima, García Madero and the self-same Belano lived with poetic desperation and sincerity, no matter what poetry they wrote or failed to write. Pilgrims rather than saints, they lived towards literature, without ever quite reaching that condition.

The religious analogy is not a fanciful one, as can be seen from a passage in the episodic prose poem ‘Un paseo por la literatura’ (written in 1994), which sometimes explicitly prefigures The Savage Detectives:

Half-done we remain, neither cooked nor raw, lost in the vastness of this endless trash heap, wandering and getting ourselves wrong, killing and begging pardon, manic-depressive characters in your dream, Father, your limitless dream that we have unravelled a thousand times and more than a thousand times again, Latin American detectives lost in a labyrinth of crystal and mud … lost in the misery of your utopian dream, Father, lost in the variety of your voices and abysses, manic-depressives in the uncontainable room in Hell where you cook up your Jokes.

But from the same passage it is equally clear, if it wasn’t already, that Bolaño’s piety is not to be distinguished from his irony. Is it a noble, properly quixotic folly to address one’s life to such a God? And does the Holy Father of left-wing Latin American poets – their socialism never built, their great poems never written – appear an incomprehensible, jesting sadist only because of the shortcomings of his adherents? Or is invoking this God just the height of their bullshit? The ambiguity lies over Bolaño’s own created world: to the extent that his fiction refuses to behave anything like fiction, is this a mark of its triumphant reality? Or (the depressive obverse to the mania of belief) is the world of Bolaño’s generation, and perhaps the world generally, too refractory to order and understanding to permit its transformation into literature, leaving inconclusive testimony the only honest form?

To these questions the answer would seem to be a ringing … simonel. In the first section of The Savage Detectives, García Madero wonders about the Mexican slang term: ‘If simón is slang for yes and nel means no, then what does simonel mean?’ Four hundred pages later, at the end of the middle section, a former poet named Amadeo Salvatierra (‘Like so many hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, I too, when the moment came, stopped writing and reading poetry’) recounts the drunken discussion he had one night with Lima and Belano when they had come to seek out any information he might possess about their vanished Cesárea Tinajero:

And I saw two boys, one awake and the other asleep, and the one who was asleep said don’t worry, Amadeo, we’ll find Cesárea for you even if we have to look under every stone in the north … And I insisted: don’t do it for me. And the one who was asleep … said: we’re not doing it for you, Amadeo, we’re doing it for Mexico, for Latin America, for the Third World, for our girlfriends, because we feel like doing it. Were they joking? Weren’t they joking?… and then I said: boys, is it worth it? is it worth it? is it really worth it? and the one who was asleep said Simonel.