When I stepped into the literary scene in Mexico City, clutching my first sheaf of poems and hoping to write many more, it was clear in a flash that the young poets had drawn their battle lines. It was 1974; the city’s golden years were drawing to a close.
I had arrived too late. Everything that mattered seemed to have ended in 1968. I had experienced the ’68 movement only vicariously, listening to my mother, who used to come home from the university every day with news and fliers. Now all the cafes where students used to gather had been shut down, casualties of the massacre in Tlatelolco. And then, to add private to public tragedy, in 1969 my mother died, my father married a stepmother straight out of Grimm and I was thrown out of the house and left to fend for myself. I sang in a lightweight pop group to earn a few pesos at a bar in the neighboring city of Toluca; I worked as a hostess at a livestock show, hired by the US Embassy; I gave private art lessons for children one summer; I taught in a high school for privileged kids who were almost my age. Everything was painful for me, a source of anxiety and discomfort. It was at that time that my younger sister died in an accident, taking away what little calm and confidence I had left. Through all of this, I was compulsively writing poems; it was the only place where I felt I was going to be able to survive.
Though I was about to turn 20, I already considered myself to be very old. I hadn’t yet formed my circle of friends, the women writers and artists who were to be my shelter, my joy, my group. Most writers of my generation had all been publishing since they were much younger; I felt they were all confident and wise, and they all knew which side of the battlefield they were on. I couldn’t have cared less.
I enrolled at the public university. The corridors of the faculty of philosophy and literature were haunted by an Uruguayan exile and poet named Alcira, who had gone nuts after spending more than ten days hiding in the bathroom of the faculty building when the campus was occupied by the army in 1968. She would become Auxilio Lacouture, one of Roberto Bolaño’s characters in The Savage Detectives–in the author’s own words, “a detective novel, but also a roman-fleuve and a Bildungsroman.” Lacouture is also the protagonist and narrator of Amulet, another Bolaño novel newly translated into English.
Those same university corridors were also frequented by the poets of my generation who had aligned themselves with pre-existing enemy camps. One camp admired the demotic poet Efraín Huerta, famous for his “minipoems” packed with humor and nerve. The other looked to an exquisite magazine, Plural, published by the cosmopolitan intellectual and future Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, which was edited by an impressive group of writers, including Juan García Ponce, Salvador Elizondo, José de la Colina, Alejandro Rossi and the poet Tomás Segovia.
It was the street-smart types versus the aesthetes: Not that either camp corresponded exactly to its label. Paz and Huerta were descended from the same Mexican literary tradition. Both were born in 1914; they were of Juan Rulfo’s generation. As young men, at the end of the 1930s, they had co-edited the magazine Taller (Workshop). But over the years they had drifted apart. Literary and political differences had arisen between them. Paz had denounced Communism and broken with the Cuban Revolution. Efraín had not. Paz’s people said the Efrainites were Stalinists. The Efrainites called the Octavians reactionaries. Neither tag was entirely accurate. Their hostilities and affinities were both more and less complex than the insults implied.