Tag Archives: Roberto Bolaño

The truth and progress, 2: Santa Teresa

Cruces_Lomas_del_Poleo

This is the second reflection on ideas about “progress” and change through novels that explore the consequences of progress for ordinary people and their everyday live.  The first considered  Patrick Chamioseau’s Texaco, and here the conversation turns to Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and 2666.

The secret story is the one we’ll never know, although we’re living it from day to day, thinking we’re alive, thinking we’ve got it all under control and the stuff we overlook doesn’t matter. But every damn thing matters! It’s just that we don’t realize. We tell ourselves that art runs on one track and life, our lives, on another, we don’t even realize that’s a lie.
―Roberto Bolaño, Last Evenings on Earth

Cesárea

The Savage Detectives and 2666 are monumental novels about a search for literary ghosts in the cities and towns of northern Mexico’s Sonoran Desert. They were written by Roberto Bolaño, a Chilean who lived much of his life in exile, in Mexico and Spain, searching for ways to make words reconcile the world that is with the world of his own experience and imagination.

In The Savage Detectives, Bolaño assumes a pose akin to Chamoiseau’s in Texaco, as a thinly disguised self called Arturo Belano, whose poetic vocation reflects his directionless quest for authenticity and escape from the Latin American “Boom” generation—those writers like Octavio Paz, Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, & etc. whose work won four Nobel Prizes and utterly defined the “Latin American” voice. Their monumental dominance is for Belano and his generation a straight-jacket of Latin exoticism that is nothing like the world they grew up in. Belano/Bolaño’s world is one in which global currents are washing over Latin America, wearing away what the Boom Generation created.

Sion

Cesárea Tinojero’s only known poem, “Sión”

The Savage Detectives follows Belano’s group of poets—the “Visceral Realists”—from an early adventure in the mid-1970s to find an obscure 1930s Mexican poet, Cesárea Tinajero. In the 30s, she worked for one of the generals leading the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910 and only wound down by the 1930s. The Mexican Revolution itself was the constituting event in Latin American history that drew a line between the United States and everything south of the Rio Grande. It made the Boom Generation possible.

By the late 1970s, long after her general died, Cesárea is presumed living in somewhere in Sonora not far from Santa Teresa, itself a thinly disguised version of Mexico’s border boomtown, Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. After rambling through the desert, they finally find her, aged and alone, in a small room in Santa Teresa. Through a local teacher who had befriended Cesárea, they learn that she had lived a very lonely, impoverished life, lately having taken to scribbling visions of the future, afraid of persecution and even death, in a scene that appears to foreshadow 2666 without being specific enough to say anything at all.

“… Cesárea spoke of times to come and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesárea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something. And then, when the teacher couldn’t help but laugh at such a random date, a smothered little laugh that could scarcely be heard, Cesárea laughed again, although this time the thunder of her laughter remained within the confines of her own room.” (The Savage Detectives, p. 634)

Belano and his cohorts will meet Cesárea herself, but before anything much happens her end meets the end of the Visceral Realists in a thudding anticlimax that explains the preceding 400 pages chronicling the group’s dissolution and dispersal around the world.

Archimboldi

2666 isn’t a sequel to The Savage Detectives, but in important ways it picks up where the earlier left off, with a crew of literary critics searching for Benno von Archimboldi, a German author whose Pynchonian mantle of self-imposed obscurity only heightens the reverence of his followers. As with Cesárea Tinojero’s oblique reference to the year 2600, Archimboldi is also referenced in The Savage Detectives, as “J.M.G. Arcimboldi,” credited for the Archimboldi of 2666‘s early novel, The Endless Rose. By the time of 2666, set around the turn of the millenium, Archimboldi has had a 40-year  career in which he has published 21 novels and is mentioned frequently as a short-list candidate for the Nobel Prize. Like most of their colleagues, Archimboldi scholars are a fanatical lot and would go to the ends of the earth to find their master—which leads them to Santa Teresa a quarter-century after Arturo Belano and the Visceral Realists arrived there to find their master.

What is different between the two novels is the Mexico they depict. Where The Savage Detectives chronicles a generation’s futile struggle against the grandiose and Nobel-studded world of their literary forbears, 2666 completes that story by portraying a Mexico that is at once devouring itself with it’s own misogyny and violence while at the same time it is irretrievably caught in a tide of globalization, which abets the local violence and even explains it as its own pathology. Like Texaco, 2666 is a novel about a city that stands for a larger story about the price of progress.

If the apogee of the Mexican revolution, in literary terms, is Octavio Paz’s Nobel Prize, then the nadir, in human terms, is the killing of up to 400 young women—femicidios—in Ciudad Juarez between 1993 and 2004. These murders are historical core of 2666, just like slavery and urban modernization are the historical core of Texaco. Thumbnail sketches of the murders in the fictionalized Juarez of Santa Teresa, hundreds of them, are meted out in clinical detail for over 280 pages in the longest of the novel’s five sections, “The Part About the Crimes.” Plot points filter in and out of an utter fog of forensic reportage like familiar faces wandering into a dream, trying desperately to drag it into the waking world. The scourge of violence becomes banal and then fades into normalcy. “The Part About the Crimes” is the reader’s own exile from everything she knows, the reader as Aeneas in Hades seeing a prophetic vision of dystopian globalization that reverses the familiar story of progress, replacing civil society and the rule of law with a world descending into inexplicable, and inexplicably unjust, viciousness.

cjuarez_airshot

In the last section of the book, “The Part About Archimboldi,” we finally learn who this writer is in an epic tale spanning the Russian Revolution, World War II, the Cold War, the emergence of computer technology, and the femicidios of Santa Teresa. In the end, it’s the story of how the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first, a Latin American novel that was written in Spain and unmoored itself from Mexico with a cast of characters from the United States, Spain, England, France, Germany, Russia, Chile, Romania, Italy, Mexico, and other places. Set on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, in an international metropolis that reflects the two countries’ grand fraternal struggle for coexistence, 2666 continuously finds its border-crushing narrative crashing against the invisible wall between these two countries. Like Chamoiseau, Bolaño in The Savage Detectives and 2666 reimagines the world he has lived in and feeds it back to us in overlapping waves of murder mysteries, vision quests, and pilgrimmages. These books are the chronicle of Bolaño’s life swept up by the grand rip currents of history.

Notes and Credits

Photographs and images:  The first photo is of crosses placed on Lomas del Poleo Planta Alta, Ciudad Juárez, in the place where the bodies of eight murdered women were discovered in 1996. It is from the Wikimedia Commons. The photocopy of Cesárea Tinajero’s poem, “Sión,” from p. 398 of The Savage Detectives, is a photocopy taken by Tom Sparks and posted on his blog, WFTM.  The air photo of Ciudad Juarez’s sprawl across the countryside up to the mountains was taken from an article in El País online, ¿Porqué Ciudad Juárez?

Five Latin American writers would win the Nobel Prize between 1945 and 2010:  Gabriela Mistral (Chile, 1945), Pablo Neruda (Chile, 1971), Miguel Ángel Asturias (Guatemala, 1967), Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia, 1982), Octavio Paz (Mexico, 1990), and Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru, 2010). These writers and many others equally as notable, including Jorge Luis Borges, Júlio Cortázar, and Carlos Fuentes, to name a few, not only created a globally recognized “Latin American Literaure” but they also exercised a palpable influence on post-World War II literature in general.  García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is recognized as the overarching masterwork of the era, bringing the notion of “magical realism” to fore in world literature, while Cortázar’s Rayuela has become a post-modern touchstone that has far eclipsed the Boom Generation.

From 1993 onward, around 400 women have been killed in Ciudad Juarez, a city of about 1.5 million people just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. Most of the victims of the femicidios were young and suffered violent deaths that included rape and torture.  Few of the murders were solved.  Those who could fled the violence (an estimated 700,000 people leaving the area in the late 1990s-early 2000s) while those who couldn’t continued to work in the maquiladora factories created to supply U.S. companies with cheap production based almost entirely on the miserly wages paid to the Mexican workers—mainly women—who have flocked to the border for work.  The violence has ebbed and flowed, but it nonetheless continues to the present day and has spawned movements and organized reactions.

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The truth and narrative, 3: my life with Roberto Bolaño

1987

I met Gondim in Rio de Janeiro in 1987.  He brought me to Morro dos Prazeres, a favela whose name translates into English as “Hill of Pleasures.”  We took the streetcar from downtown up to the neighborhood of Santa Teresa, climbing a couple thousand feet along the way.  It was (and still is) Rio’s last streetcar line, and the trip is a step back in time.  At the end of the line, you arrive in Santa Teresa’s walled streets and tight alleys, a Bohemian retreat high above the Rio’s noise and splatter.  It’s a nice place, and the mountain air is cool.

One turn and a hundred feet down another street, Santa Teresa gives way to small houses climbing up the hillside in seemingly ramshackle fashion, stacked one atop the other to the sky.  Children play on rooftops, their kites hanging in the ocean breeze.  The two neighborhoods cling to each other on the steep hillsides of Rio de Janeiro in an uneasy relationship marked by occasional hostility, outbreaks of violence, and cheap domestic help.  The views are breathtaking across the Guanabara Bay.  Back in 1987, Gondim introduced me to Walter, the “professor,” a fan of Fidel Castro’s and leader of the neighborhood association in Morro dos Prazeres.  I spent time there talking to people, hanging out, following Walter around.

At that time, Gondim lived in Santa Teresa, among artists and musicians and dancers.  It was love and revolution all night long over cachaça, weed, and samba.  At night, and sometimes during the day, I played music anywhere I could, with Rogerio or for the girls on Avenida Atlântica between tricks, the ocean crashing across the road beneath the moon and the Southern Cross.

1992

Five years passed and I wasn’t a very good correspondent.  Neither was Gondim or Rogerio or anyone in Rio.  In 1992, I found Rogerio in Flamengo, the neighborhood down on the beach below Santa Teresa.  He asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was on my way to Belém.  Belém!, he screamed—there are only crooks and thieves and whores there! Madness to go there! he told me.  My people, I thought, and then he gave me his sister’s phone number and said I should look up her up when I get there.  Next I went to Gondim’s offices at the magazine, but the editor told me he had moved.  Where to? I asked.  Belém, she said, and she gave me a phone number.

In Belém, it was sweaty nights on the street in Cidade Velha with Gondim and his friends, among them Petit, a Catalan who had married a Belemense girl and become a professor at the university.  We drank beer, ate chicken and rice, and sang songs about everything.  With Marga (see the Tamba-Tajá stories) I took in the arrival of Iemanjá on the beach at Mosqueiro in 1992.  Márcia took me to her neighborhood, Bom Futuro, which like Morro dos Prazeres had a meaning that seemed at odds with its circumstance, “Good Future” in Portuguese.  We had great parties at her house and a photograph of all the women in her family, four generations, hangs in my office next to my desk, not far from a photograph of my own mother.

Bom Futuro was an invasão—they didn’t call them favelas in Belém—in a swampy area amid the mega-invasão of Área Cabanagem (pop 200,000) named after Oscar Neimeyer’s nearby monument to the slave and Afro-Native rebellion that occurred in Belém in the 1830s.  Chiquinho took me to his invasão in Aurá, a suburb about an hour or 90 minutes from central Belém by bus.  I spent years with him and his comrades as they struggled to pave the streets and keep the lights on.  I cherished these friends dearly, as I also loved M-J, who became my accomplice in dreams for a few years.

Then things changed.

The details are unimportant.  What matters is that things changed because I made decisions that I don’t understand today.  The right thing to do now seems so obvious, though it was so obviously the wrong thing to do at the time.  My mistake was not so much in doing right or wrong, but in doing either only half way.  I forgot my passion at some point, and my calling went to rest beneath a rock of responsibility or reason that did not suit me very well.  Maluco Beleza was the song I loved, and it became the life I lived a little by accident and not nearly enough by design.

2008

Years later, when I picked up The Savage Detectives in Brooklyn’s Community Bookstore, I felt like I found something I had lost.

My lives with Greene and Cortázar were there on Bolaño’s pages, in the stories of Arturo Belano, Ulises Lima and their band of poets—the visceral realists—by way of hundreds of small depositions from everyone who had crossed paths with them over four continents and twenty years, chronicling their lovers and affairs, their triumphs and tragedies and madness.  About half way through, the literary and historical sweep of the novel becomes staggering, Cortázar resurrected in the granularity of Bolaño’s storytelling and an entire generation of Latin American literature (including at least two Nobel prizes) left in the dust.  This was my world.

I laughed out loud on the subway to read Amadeo Salvatierra reminiscing on his hero during the years just after the Mexican Revolution (p. 396),

… I emerged from the swamp of mi general Diego Carvajal’s death or the boiling soup of his memory, an indelible, mysterious soup that’s poised above our fates, it seems to me, like Damocles’ sword or an advertisement for tequila …

And also at the exchange between Belano and Lima and Salvatierra over the one published poem by Cesárea Tinajero, the original visceral realist in the 1920s (p. 421),

Belano or Lima: So why do you say it’s a poem?

Salvatierra:  Well, because Cesárea said so … That’s the only reason why, because I had Cesárea’s word for it.  If that woman had told me that a piece of her shit wrapped in a shopping bag was a poem I would have believed it …

Belano:  How modern.

I felt my heart tug when Joaquín Font spoke about his release from the mental hospital where he’d spent the last several years (p. 400) …

Freedom is like a prime number.

… and when Edith Oster, a heart-broken, ill, displaced Mexican in Barcelona, told of how she went to find a payphone to call her parents in Mexico City (p. 436),

In those days, Arturo and his friends didn’t pay for the international calls they made … They would find some telephone and hook up a few wires and that was it, they had a connection … The rigged telephones were easy to tell by the lines that formed around them, especially at night.  The best and worst of Latin America came together in those lines, the old revolutionaries and the rapists, the former political prisoners and the hawkers of junk jewelry.

She had broken Belano’s heart, too, but the image brought me back to Vargas Llosa’s revolutionaries in Historia de Mayta, who sat around debating the finer points of Marxist theory in their garage, perched atop stacks of their party’s newspaper that had no readers and never saw the light of day, much less of a dim bulb or candle for covert reading in a dormitory, prison, or monastery.

Bolaño himself was at one time or another an old revolutionary, a former political prisoner, and a hawker of junk jewelry. Adding rapists to the mix only put down the rose-colored glasses of our generation’s passions and all those fights between Garcia Marquéz and Vargas Llosa as if to say “enough, already.”  Yet being Bolaño, it would have been more like a visceral scream from the front row during a book reading at a polite salon or book store.

The Savage Detectives is a fractured narrative told in the shards of pottery and broken mirrors laying about the floors of the places where Bolaño slept.  I read Bolaño and I saw what had become my life.

Notes and Credits

The photo of Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives was taken by the author on his nightstand.  This is the normal appearance of my end table.  I picked up the leather Brazilian street scenes in Salvador, Bahia, in 1993.

Bolaño’s biography is well-noted and I won’t go over it here, except to say that the last 10 years of his tragic life (cut short by terminal illness) was one of those artistic outpourings that will live in legend.  In a brief period of time, Bolaño the cast-off cast-away reshaped Latin America an became its voice (for now, at least).

The photo of Santa Teresa and Morro dos Prazeres comes from the Wikimedia Commons and a photographer named “chensiyuan.”  The photo of Belém from the Amazon River was taken by the author in 2000, arriving in Belém on a boat trip that began in Manaus about 10 days earlier.  The photograph of Bom Futuro was taken in 1995 on a visit to Márcia’s house. I’ve chosen for now to leave out my photos of Márcia, her family, and the parties we had.

The picture of the Bolaño graffiti was taken from gsz’s photostream on Flickr.  The photo of the author and Gondim was taken on the beach at Mosqueiro in 1995.  Mosqueiro is the old resort area of Belém, still within the city limits but on a remote island, where the elite used to have weekend vilas and houses.

Earlier this year, torrential rains caused flooding in Rio that resulted in a huge landslide in Morro dos Prazeres and other areas.  As a result, the mayor of the city developed a plan to remove the neighborhoods, on the pretext that the danger of flooding is no longer tolerable.  The problem with this logic, however, is that Rio’s favelas have always had this problem in the annual rainy season.  To many, it seems the floods are just an excuse to to solve some of Rio’s other problems with crime and drugs (really a police problem) by blaming the poor and tearing down their neighborhoods.

This is the same issue that drew Janice Perlman to the favelas in the 1960s and me there, later, in the 1980s.  Unfortunately, the problem of drugs and organized crime is all too real.  In 1987, when I was there, the police routinely went into Morro dos Prazeres and rounded up young men for summary executions – this as a warning to others and a means of controlling the population.  Twenty years later, the film Trope de Elite (Elite Squad) chronicled the same story, Morro dos Prazeres still there at the center.

The Memorial da Cabanagem is a landmark in Belém.  It was built by Governor Jader Barbalho after he became one of 9 resistance candidates to win election to governorships against the military regime in 1984.  The pretext is that Barbalho’s victory signaled a rebellion of Cabanagem-like proportions, the people rising up against the elite.  After humble beginnings, Barbalho himself has been governor twice and held seats in both the national congress and the senate, where he was that body’s leader for a short while until he was impeached while rumors and allegations of corruption mounted.  Barbalho is one of the richest men in Pará.  As with Fernando Collor, time conquers all, and Barbalho is back in the national congress representing Pará.  Jeferson Assis’s Flickr photostream has many images of the Cabanagem monument, as does Jeso Carneiro.

Bolaño’s rigged payphones reminds me of stories my friends told about the payphones in Washington Heights in the 1980s.  The Latin American drug traffickers (or so my friends said) would rig them to make free international calls, and everyone in the neighborhood used them.

When all is said and done, I wish peace to my friend Gondim and pray that I will see him again.

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E/F – The glass of art

A friend of mine told me about a playwriting workshop he attended some years ago.  The instructor was David Mamet, and after the lecture someone asked Mamet what made him a great playwright.

“I write plays, and you don’t,” was the reply.  David Mamet, it seems, talks like one of his characters.

Write what you know

You can’t be a great artist of any kind—playwright, sculptor, painter, novelist, etc.—if you produce nothing at all.  That’s what separates Mamet from those who would like to be writers.  It does not, however, separate Mamet from all the other writers who in fact write, whatever anyone thinks of it.

Apart from writing well or competently, writers themselves have little control over many other factors that separate great writing from just plain writing.  For the fact is that great writing will never be recognized as such if it doesn’t have a context in which it flourishes and speaks to enough people to make an impact on the world.  Great writing itself isn’t a pure quality, forever-set and canonical.  What we think of as great writing is shaped as much by the times to which it corresponds as by any inherent qualities of the writing itself.  Write what you know, as they say; if you’re in the zeitgeist, the rest will take care of itself.

Paint what you are

Jackson Pollock dared to follow his muse, wherever it led, regardless of what it meant, and he let his technical abilities take him to places other painters couldn’t dream of.  In that particular moment—post-World War II United States—his paintings made people see art and, one might argue, the world, differently.  His was a singular genius, exercised and exorcised against a cultural backdrop that needed his art to understand itself.

No. 31, 1950

The Pollock room at the Museum of Modern Art, on the fourth floor, is a slide show of singular dedication and focus that seems to culminate in the famed Number 31, which spans an entire wall. From painting to painting, Pollock moves from semi-representational work to increasingly abstract renderings that burrow each time more deeply into his consciousness itself.

Amid the soft footfalls and hushed voices in the room, Allen Ginsberg howls and yells and scratches at the seams of that world, trying to break out.  There is my own father huddled in a French Quarter coffee shop with his Aunt Carol, herself a painter, telling her about his poems or talking about art, trying to find some safe, comfortable place to let an idea fly from the heart.  Every splatter and spray of paint on that vast canvas is a voice from a world suffocating in Sylvia Plath’s bell jar, tapping on the glass I am, I am, I am

a woman in an abusive marriage, serving cocktails to some chain-smoking Mad Men caricature

a girl or maybe a wife pregnant with a child she cannot bear to bring into this world

a young man in Mound Bayou, Mississippi who just wants to vote

a painter who can’t figure out how make the dawn seem like the dawn because it means something else

Elvis Presley

Rosa Parks

Jack Lemmon asking Shirley MacLaine to see The Music Man in Billy Wilder’s Apartment of family values

John Lennon saying “we’re more popular than Jesus

Watson and Crick walking into the Eagle Pub in Cambridge, England, on February 28, 1953, saying that they had found “the secret of life

Idiot Wind

The voices blew through the tragedy of Pollock’s own life and the terror of his private demons, inseparable from the age he lived in because he made it so in his work.  As Pollock himself put it, “Every good painter paints what he is.”

Sylvia Plath, writing atop a stone wall in England

Does context make the art?  It’s a chicken-and-egg question that cannot be answered.  It’s impossible for most audiences to enjoy Shakespeare without an interpretation, and an interpretation like Scotland PA is nothing short of wonderful and luminescent of both Shakespeare and modern American culture, as much for the Shakespeare and the Paul Rogers and Beethoven dominated soundtrack as for the send-up of drive-through fast food.

One without the other is a hollow experience—art or context.  Pollock helped us understand the times in which he lived, and the resounding verdict on the worth of his work is that with every passing year he continues to reflect and refract his times even more intensely.  It’s all there on the canvas:  the straight-laced, short-haired, hourglass-figured, white, clean, modern, scientific world of tomorrow epitomized in Robert Moses’s 1964 New York World’s Fair.  It’s all there, splattered, fractal, chaotic.

Art becomes art because it helps people to understand their world.  It remains art because it continues to do so, over and over again.  What makes art great is something that millions of people determine every day, in all their infinitely innumerable actions and words.  What makes great art great is not so much its inherent greatness as the fact that it survives at all.

Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves, we’re idiots, babe, it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”

Notes and credits

Photograph of the glass margarita chalice with paint brushes, pens, pencils, etc. against the backdrop of a living room wall by the author.

Photograph of Jackson Pollock, No. 31, at MoMA, taken by the author, July 25, 2010.  Find Pollock all over the web.  This is a great photograph inspired by Pollock.

Sylvia Plath on a stone wall, from Mortimer Rare Book Room by way of the Amherst Bulletin.

Scotland PA is a wonderful film.  See reviews here and here, and whatever they say I recommend it highly.

Bonus track:  The Apartment

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