Bolaño in Mexico

Bolaño in Mexico

As a young writer in the 1970s, Roberto Bolaño was expected to choose between two rival factions of Mexican poets. He chose both.


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.

The young Efrainite poets got around the city on foot, or by bus; they were iconoclastic and attended workshops; in bookstores they scrutinized, read and stole the merchandise; they carried satchels, had long hair and wore huarache sandals with soles made from car tires; they published here and there and spent hours in the downtown cafes, especially Café La Habana, and various seedy bars. The young Octavian poets criticized one another’s poems fiercely, in the same cafes as the Efrainites, at neighboring tables; they bought or stole books from the stores, carried satchels, had long hair and almost always wore sandals; they got around the city on foot, or by bus, or in their friends’ cars; and they published in the Octavian magazines and literary supplements.

Some of the Efrainites were belligerent and used to turn up at literary events to jeer, pass judgment and generally create havoc. This group (the protagonists of The Savage Detectives) called themselves the Infrarealists, and they were under the command of Bolaño, who, in 1976, wrote and was the sole signatory of the Infrarealist Manifesto, a text whose irreverence and verve were worthy of the Surrealists:

A new lyricism springing up in Latin America, nourishing itself in ways that continue to amaze us…. Tenderness like an exercise in speed. Breath and heat. Experience at full tilt, self-consuming structures, stark raving contradictions.

According to Bolaño, who was originally from Chile but was raised partly in Mexico, Infrarealism was a local version of Dada. Paz was full of praise for the avant-gardes who had been so fond of manifestoes and had himself been closely associated with the Surrealists. But Octavians and Efrainites saw themselves as irreconcilable enemies. In fact, they were branches of the same tree. The manifesto might have been written by Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948), whom both Paz and Huerta had admired since their youth: a Chilean, like Bolaño, and probably the world’s most prolific concocter of avant-garde literary -isms.

The Efrainites (including the Infrarealists) and Octavians were fighting a grudge war. Neither camp was free of dissidents. Bolaño, a friend and admirer of Huerta, said repeatedly in interviews that they had “big differences of political opinion,” which should come as no surprise, since Bolaño had been a Trotskyist.

As far as I know, only two people were on friendly terms with both the Octavians and the Efrainites (and with Bolaño in particular): among the poets, Verónica Volkow, Trotsky’s great-granddaughter; and among the publishers, Juan Pascoe, who ran a small press called Taller Martín Pescador (Kingfisher Workshop–the name was Bolaño’s idea). Pascoe’s workshop published Bolaño’s first book (Reinventar el amor, 1976) and mine (La memoria vacía, 1978): exquisite limited editions, chapbooks printed on dampened paper using movable type and a hand press, which also turned out the first volumes by Volkow, José Luis Rivas, Francisco Segovia and other poets of our generation.

In his Infrarealist Manifesto, Bolaño wrote:

The bourgeois and the petit-bourgeois live from party to party. They have one every weekend. The proletariat doesn’t have parties. Only regular funerals. That’s going to change. The exploited are going to have a big party. Memory and guillotines.

Bolaño was right, literally, about the party habit (but not, thankfully, in his Jacobin prediction). The literary world was small and close-knit, and we lived from party to party, if you count all the readings, lectures, openings and gatherings in cafes. We saw each other all the time. I’m going to recall five such parties, between 1973 and 1976:

The first was the launch of a book by Efraín Huerta, published by Juan Pascoe. Pascoe’s big house in the Mixcoac neighborhood was full of people. The Efrainites sang, or rather bawled, rancheras and boleros. The Infrarealists stood firm beside “the barrel of pulque we had brought, and a twenty-five-kilo Mennonite cheese we had lugged from the market at La Merced.” I cite our publisher and host, not having been present at that celebration myself.

The second was the launch of a book by Octavio Paz, also published by Pascoe, with a host of Octavians in attendance. Pascoe’s house buzzed with conversation. Instead of pulque, there were toritos to drink: ninety-six-proof alcohol with rice milk or (for the suicidal) peanut milk. With my own eyes I saw a group of Infrarealists (mission: sabotage) throw the contents of a glass over Paz (very smartly dressed, in an elegant blazer), who shook out his tie and continued the conversation with a smile, as if nothing had happened.

The third party I can remember took place at the opening of an exhibition by Basia Batorska, wife of the poet and essayist Gabriel Zaíd (Zarco in The Savage Detectives), a Paz fellow traveler, considered then and now one of our most critical thinkers, who in the ’70s gathered verses from the hundreds of new young poets sprouting in Mexico. I am certain that no Infrarealists were present, because there were no incidents. Like the other young poets, I put on shoes for the occasion; but we didn’t have our hair cut or relinquish our satchels. That was where I met Octavio Paz and chatted with him. I had just published my first poem in a “professional” literary supplement, and he commented on it in very favorable terms. Naturally, I was walking on air. He invited me to visit him at home. The apartment (which I chose not to grace with my huarache sandals) was wonderful, elegant, full of Mexican and Indian artworks, extraordinary paintings and his personal library. An exquisite, light-filled home; the home of a poet who had been an ambassador. Paz had an utterly charming manner and was an incomparable conversationalist.

Since I never went to Efraín Huerta’s place (which had surely seen many tire-shod visitors), I will rely on Juan Pascoe’s description of a corner of that residence: “There were press cuttings stuck on the walls, culled from different articles, taken out of context, with the following title: ‘Octavio Paz killed his mom’; there was a photo of the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier, one of the Sandinista poet Ernesto Cardenal, a small Cuban flag, aesthetic variations on the hammer and sickle.”

I didn’t attend the fourth party either, so again I quote our publisher describing the formal inauguration of the Infrarealist group, with Bolaño at the helm. Addressing an audience of forty people, Roberto set out the reasons for his hatred of Paz: “his odious crimes in the service of international fascism, the appalling little piles of words that he risibly calls his ‘poems,’ his abject insults to Latin American intelligence, that dreary excuse for a ‘literary magazine,’ which reeks of vomit and goes by the name of Plural.”

At the fifth party on my list, Paz and Huerta read poems together. It was a historic occasion. When Paz began to read, the Efrainite saboteurs, or perhaps just the Infrarealists, started booing. Huerta, who had undergone a laryngectomy, stood up and, with outstretched arms, called his troops to order, demanding silence and respect. They let Paz read unheckled.

I am not certain that Bolaño was present at that reading in San Ildefonso, because I saw his circle from a distance. They frightened me. When I gave my first poetry reading–a condition of the lucrative Salvador Novo fellowship for poets under the age of 21, which Ernesto San Epifanio (Darío Galicia) wins in Amulet–there was a big party to celebrate, and I couldn’t sleep the night before, worrying that the “Infras” would sabotage it. Just as I had feared, they turned up and jeered as they saw fit. But they spared me, perhaps because of Galicia, who had won the fellowship the year before and was a friend of mine.

I was too busy battling my own demons to engage in public confrontations with Infrarealists. Everything was a struggle for me. Also, I had read Bolaño’s book of poetry, printed by Pascoe, and I respected it.

It was a good time to be in Mexico City, which was a beautiful place back then. Depending on your preferences, you could talk to Paz or Huerta, Luis Rius, Juan José Arreola, Luis Cardoza y Aragón, Tito Monterroso, Juan Rulfo or Salvador Elizondo–not to mention García Márquez and Álvaro Mutis, who had been living in our city for some time. The author of Amulet was well aware of this. The gallery of Latin American authors was extensive and accessible. In the ’70s, a wave of exiles from the south refreshed the scene. I kept my eyes open as best I could, and from time to time in cafes, bookshops and galleries I came face to face with the Legends. I no longer had a home; they would be my new family.

Bolaño quit Mexico in 1977. With what he was paid for two magazine pieces, he bought a ticket to go to Europe and work as a “dishwasher, waiter, night watchman, trash collector, docker, and grape-picker.” Why did he leave a marvelous city where he could earn a living from his pen?

Perhaps that was just what he wanted:

To live [as he put it in an interview] outside literature. In Mexico I lived a very literary life. I was surrounded by writers and moved in a world where everyone was either a writer or an artist. And in Barcelona I began to move in a world without writers. I had some writer friends, but gradually I made other sorts of friends. I did all sorts of jobs, of course…. And I thought it was wonderful.

Or was it to follow the dictates of his Infrarealist Manifesto?

Risk is always elsewhere. The true poet is always leaving himself behind. Never too long in the same place, like guerrilla fighters, flying saucers, and the white eyes of lifers. LEAVE IT ALL BEHIND, AGAIN. GO OUT ON THE ROADS.

He went and left himself behind, because even then he was a leading figure in our literary world.

He went before I could get to know him. Later, when I had learned to stand on my own two feet, and was free of the terrible burden of being very young, I lived with an eminent Efrainite: Alejandro Aura, the father of my two children. Paz found it hard to forgive me. Mario Santiago (Ulises Lima, the Infrarealist poet who appears in several of Bolaño’s works) would come to our place, often clutching self-published pamphlets containing his new poems, and drink an alarming amount, like a true Efrainite.

Some years later, when I had published my first two books of poetry and my first two novels, a journalist who was conducting a kind of survey asked me which camp I belonged to: Was I with Huerta or Paz? I said I was with Ramón López Velarde, who died at the end of the Mexican Revolution: one of Bolaño’s favorites, a poet revered both by Paz–who wrote about him at length–and by Huerta.

Paz or Huerta, that was the question. We never thought about whether we were for or against “magic realism.” There were many stars in our fictional firmament in the early ’70s, and most of them–Julio Cortázar, José Donoso, Jorge Ibargüengoitia and García Márquez himself–worked in a variety of genres: realism and journalism as well as imaginative and fantastic literature. And yet there was a division among the fiction writers that paralleled the opposition between Octavian and Efrainite poets. There were those who admired La Onda (The Vibe), a realist literary movement that was Mexico’s version of the Beats, a group of young urban novelists whose prose was the equivalent of Efrainite poetry. On the other side were those who saw themselves as the heirs of Juan José Arreola, Juan Rulfo and Adolfo Bioy Casares; what they espoused wasn’t magic realism but an imaginative frame of mind, open to ghosts, madness and dreams (as in the fictions of Borges, Bioy Casares’s novel The Invention of Morel, or the jewel-like short stories of Silvina Ocampo). The members of this second group were, in a sense, the narrative counterparts of the Octavians. Neither of these “schools” required their followers to adopt a linear narrative technique. The better you know the tradition, the better you can subvert it; we knew that.

And that was exactly what Bolaño did, straddling the divisions between fictional and poetic camps. His first long novel, The Savage Detectives, is closer to The Vibe, more Efrainite, though not entirely. In his much shorter novel Amulet and in the prodigious 2666 (which has yet to be published in English), dreams illuminate reality and reality illuminates collective dreams; there is surrealism, fantasy and madness, but also a cold eye cast on reality.

Years later, like the rest of us, Bolaño had to respond to the question: Are you for or against “magic realism”? It bounced back to us from younger generations who hadn’t known the privileged, navel-gazing literary world we had enjoyed in the early ’70s. With the political and economic tragedies of the region, the literary circles broke and scattered, the publishing houses collapsed and Mexico City stopped being Latin America’s sounding board. The youngest took their cues from the gringos–they judged the panorama of Latin American writing by which books had become hits in English translation.

Efraín Huerta died in 1982. Octavio Paz in 1998. Mexico City now is like a picture taken in the ’70s, photoshopped by a madman. The city had been slashed by transit routes (thanks to Mayor Carlos Hank González, less interested in a grand Moses-like vision than in rapacious corruption–wide one-way avenues cutting through the old neighborhoods, creating ad hoc channels for daily traffic jams). In the year of my birth, 1954, the official number of inhabitants was 3 million. Now the unofficial figure puts it at more than 23 million. When I read The Savage Detectives and Amulet shortly after their publication, it was like going back to the home we had in the ’70s, the charmed–for me infernal–house of our youth. Trying to write their way back to childhood, some novelists turn it into an irretrievably lost (and forever poisoned) paradise. Roberto Bolaño made our youth his own, and reconstructed it in his novels. Reading them, I felt at home, not just because of the city and the recognizable settings but also because of an affinity and shared tastes. It was clear to me that, like other writers of our generation (Daniel Sada, Francisco Hinojosa, Juan Villoro), we had served our apprenticeship in the world of the ’70s, in the shadow of the 1968 massacre, with the military coups and the guerrilla movements; we were the dispossessed. It’s not easy for novelists of the same generation to admire one another; but it’s a blessing when it happens. I admired Roberto. And I was doubly lucky: He returned my admiration.

We were formally introduced, twenty years after he left Mexico, in Vienna (which, like Mexico City in reverse, has shrunk to two-thirds of its former population). We had been invited to speak on a theme that was relevant to Roberto’s work, not mine: exile. I said what I felt like saying, and so did he, disregarding the theme. There was a fraternal complicity between us from the start; I took him along to the dinner organized for me at the Embassy, and in exchange he took me to the outskirts of the city to see what must be the least appealing stretch of the Danube, in which some charmless ducks were swimming with a curious clumsiness. Roberto showed me a Vienna that was uncannily similar to Mexico City. He refused to go to museums or the kind of picturesque spots I love to visit; he was sure we’d be attacked by neo-Nazis.

That was the beginning of an uninterrupted correspondence. We wrote to each other almost every day. I don’t think we ever discussed our relation to “magic realism,” although we did say exactly what we thought of many writers. We also crossed paths at other literary events, or almost. I once read in Nîmes, then took a train to Blanes, where we ate by the sea: myself; Roberto; his wife, Carolina; and Lautaro, his son (the “little spark,” as he called Alexandra, had not yet arrived). When my novel about Cleopatra was published, he was kind enough to travel to Madrid and launch it. It was such an anomalous novel–neither realist nor fantastic and yet both at once–that Roberto, who read it in manuscript, was immediately charmed.

On July 2, 2003, I wrote scolding him for not having replied to my e-mail of a few days before. On the third, Carolina wrote back: “Dear Carmen, Roberto asked me to reply to your message and tell you that he’s gone into hospital… he’ll be back at the keyboard soon. Love, Carolina.” He died on the fifteenth of that month.

I spent months trying to get used to the idea that Roberto had died. When his collection of stories, El gaucho insufrible, came out, I couldn’t bring myself to open it. Then came the monumental 2666, which he had mentioned so often in conversations and e-mails; it was irresistible. It is one of the great novels of my language, a raging monster of a book; the rest of Bolaño’s work pales by comparison. After reading 2666, I went back to the book of stories: uneven exercises by a master of narrative acrobatics. Some are simply indulgent, written in the manner of Bolaño’s character Sensini, to win prizes, or worse still, to recruit disciples. All bear the trace of his hand, it’s true, but Roberto Bolaño didn’t write with his hand. He wrote with the teeth he had left along the way (as had Auxilio Lacouture), the molars he lost when he had no money to pay a proper dentist or simply didn’t care.

Paz, Huerta, Arreola, Cortázar: Bolaño took the best from them all. When he left Mexico he wasn’t fleeing the masters: He was running to catch the ball they had flung high into the air.

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