Knockout Reading

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This month’s David and Goliath championship bout between Manny Pacquiao and Antonio Margarito may have brought boxing some new fans.  Watching  Pacquiao, outweighed some sixteen pounds, dazzlingly wallop the villainous but courageous Margarito, was nothing short of spectacular if not epic.  Margarito, who had mocked Pacquiao trainer’s Parkinsons just before the match, met poetic justice for the first time in Cowboys Stadium.

It’s no wonder boxing has fascinated so many writers.  The late Budd Schulberg, author of the novel and screenplay On the Waterfront, traces literature’s affair with pugilism back to Epeius and Euryalus’ fist-fight during the siege of Troy in The Iliad. He also describes Lord Byron fancying the sixty-round bare-knuckled fighting popular in his day.  In the 20th century, A.J. Liebling in the New Yorker famously set the bar high for boxing journalism, employing obscured latinate words between steak and whiskey dinners in West Side dives.  In fact, his haughty tones and smart aleck descriptions can even sound condescending to the world he described.  (Joyce Carol Oates has gone as far as to say his boxing writing is racist.)  Boxing was clearly a serious matter for manly men, a tradition followed by the new journalists, who seemed to have viewed the boxing piece as a rite of passage.  Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson and Gay Talese, all wrote extensively about pugilism, but none of these portrayals of real life boxers nurse a bookworm’s dream of being a toughened fighter like fiction.

Ernest Hemingway was a master of fiction and a master of fictional boxing, a self-proclaimed boxing expert in Paris, who despite his lack of experience, trained poet Ezra Pound and coached the Spanish painter Juan Miro on his jab; unfortunately, his sparring matches with real boxers like Canadian Morley Callaghan got Hemingway pummeled.  And yet despite his lack of talent, Hemingway continued following and writing about boxing.  His stories “Fifty Grand” and “The Battler” are both based on pugilists, as is Robert Cohn from The Sun Also Rises.

There is plenty of bad boxing fiction, mostly old, mostly clichéd, mostly rotting away in used bins, or library sales racks, but then there are the gems, the ones that endure.  In the last couple of years I’ve come across a few that are not just good boxing fiction but good fiction.  They all inexplicably take place in California (where both Pacquiao and Margarito both trained before their match).

Fat City by Leonard Gardner is one of the best novellas I’ve read this year.  It’s a noir novel without really trying to be one.  No detectives, city nights, or hyperbolically dark dialogue, instead we have subtle descriptions, hazy characters; some of its patiently rendered urban landscape descriptions almost slip by, as the reader enters 1950s Stockton, on the beat street motels, between hot pans and dirty sheets.  When not working odd jobs, the book’s protagonist Billy Tulley (a name vaguely reminiscent of late champ Gene Tunney) is boxing or being an alcoholic, a combination which you can imagine must be horribly painful, not to mention high unlikely.  Still, Tulley sweats out his shakes at Ludo’s Gym where a sign reads: “PLEASE DON’T SPIT ON THE FLOOR GET UP AND SPIT IN THE TOILET BOWL” and where dialogue like this can be overheard in the changing room:

“You want to know what (sic) make a good fighter?”

“What’s that?”

“It’s believing in yourself.  That the will to win.  The rest condition.  You want to kick ass, you kick ass.”

When not training, Tulley is sopping up booze into bars, where sometimes people even recognize him as the promising fighter he once was.  But then, he gets into a tangle with a malevolent female — a must in any noir novel — something like a trashier version of Holy Golightly from  Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Somehow, despite the archetypal characters, the story, thanks to its effortlessly sleek story, manages to move.  Tulley’s struggle to make himself ¨kick ass¨ in the face of alcoholism and loneliness is tragic, and perhaps tragically outdated in this era of athletic competitiveness, but is told in such a way that the reader can’t help but want to save Tulley from one punishment or another.  I was only disappointed when I found out Gardner hadn’t written any other novels.

Gardners‘s gruesome tell-it-like-it-is portrait of working class in California reminded me of another book that brims with fisticuffs, Ham on Rye.  I should preface my description of the novel by saying that I’ve never been a Bukowksi lover.  Since high school I thought his old man alcoholic misogyny was kind of boring, but this book is different from his others:  his fictional self is only a pre-teen , plagued by acne, no chance at being cool, but angry enough so he isn’t the catch of the day for his belligerent friends who endlessly pull at their crotches, compare wieners, and fantasize about every female near them.  Bukwoski writes:

Each afternoon after school there would be a fight between two of the older boys.  It was always out by the back fence were there was never a teacher about.  And the fights were never even; it was always a large boy against a smaller boy and the larger boy would beat the smaller boy with his fists, backing him into the fence.  The smaller boy would attempt to fight back but it was useless.  Soon his face was bloody, the blood running down into his shirt.

What I think makes this particular pointdexter protagonist so interesting is that he’s tougher than a stale piece of jerky, as are all the other kids.  In this world, “even the sissies took their beatings quietly.”  Zealously narrated kiddy fight scenes run like well told bar stories:

They squared off.  Wagner had some good moves.  He bobbed, he weaved, he shuffled his feet, he moved in and out, and he made little hissing sounds.  He was impressive.  He caught Moscowitz with three straight left jabs.  Moscowitz just stood there with his hands at his sides.  He didn’t know anything about boxing.  Then Wagner cracked Moscowitz with a right on the jaw.

The interchange continues until Moscowitz turns the fight around:

Moscowitz was a puncher.  He dug a left to that pot belly. Wagner grasped and dropped.  He fell to both knees.  His face was cut and bleeding. His chin was on his chest and he looked sick.

Paradoxically these school fights, although bloody, are nothing compared to the beatings Bukowski gets from his dad.  In fact, these fights seem almost cathartic, a good thing in comparison to the much more serious and scary adult world that surrounds them.

Nearly everyone’s seen the Clint Eastwood movie Million Dollar Baby starring Hillary Swank as a female boxer from the sticks, but not everyone knows it’s based on a short story by F.X. Toole.  A fledgling writer most of his life, Toole was a cut man by trade, the guy in the corner who swabs and smears Vaseline on a fighter’s face, after having been told he was too old for a career in boxing.  Although the stories in Rope Burns can be a bit repetitive (how many more down and out kids do we have to hear about) and sometimes cliché  (see previous parenthetical remark), they have a lot of heart.

“Fightin Philly” describes a manager and his talented but injured light heavyweight fighter Mookie facing a title fight against a hardened Ugandan fighter in Philadelphia.  Unfortunately, Mookie has a leg injury.  Like Yuri Foreman’s bout against Miguel Cotto in Yankee Stadium earlier this year — Foreman bravely, perhaps foolishly fought through two rounds wobbling — Mookie must fight his injury as much as his opponent.   The match ends up even by the tenth round, or at least his corner man Con thinks.  So, late in the fight – thanks to Con’s advice – Mookie manages to frazzle his opponent with a flurry attack that includes a low blow to frighten him.  Afterward “he nailed him with big left hands and combinations to the head, which began to swell and make [the Ugandan] looked like a zombie.”  Sadly, it isn’t enough and Mookie’s courage, training, and will aren’t enough.  Maybe this story gets at me because I know someone like Mookie with 10-10 a professional record who insists on continuing to fight professionally.

Writers and boxers actually have something in common: nearly impossible odds at ever making it big; of course, it goes without saying that boxers get real bruises rather than just bruised egos.  Toole definitely got this about boxing and literature, which is perhaps why he kept it up for so long.   Unfortunately, he died before the movie adaptation of his book ever came out.  Since his death, a posthumous novel Pound for Pound was published.  I guess some guys just never go down.

They Could Have Been Contenders: Hot Tips on Latin America’s Nobel Candidates

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Update: Vargas Llosa wins! Learn more.

Now that The Nobel Prize Committee has already selected their winner for the Literature prize, there’s only a little time left before the announcement to bet on the winner at Ladbrokes. Of the 237 nominees selected, Ladbrokes bookies chose a few dozen authors they felt are particularly likely to win. Among them are some six Hispanophone writers, with the favorite of the bunch running at 25/1 odds.  Still, everyone loves an upset, and with that in mind, we’ve handicapped the group ahead of the big day.

Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has been given 25/1 odds by the bookies.  Vargas Llosa, 74, is an all around man of letters, in the long Latin American tradition of such figures.  He’s a journalist, playwright, columnist, critic, politician (he ran for president of Peru in 1990), but most of all he’s a novelist, and among his greatest hits is The War at the End of the World, novel that made Harold Bloom’s best of all time list.  A good starting point however might be The Time of the Hero, a coming-of-age story that takes place in a military academy.  Of his non-fiction I am fond of Letters to a Young Novelist, a lyrical meditation on Flaubert, Cervantes, Borges, and other authors Vargas Llosa admires.  It’s an admirable book of essays in its own right.

Things in favor: old age, politically active
Things against: politically conservative, name recognition

Mexican Carlos Fuentes (30/1, then 33/1), in addition to being the screenwriter (of awful films), the former ambassador to France and an essayist, has penned some dozen novels.  His fame for erudition in Mexico has reached near Harold Bloom levels.  Fuentes, 82, spent much of his life in the United States as a boy and wrote The Death of Artemio Cruz when he was 34.  Among other things novels often allude to U.S-Mexico relations.  Of his books, I greatly enjoy The Old Gringo, a historical novel based on satirist Ambrose Bierce’s sojourn in Mexico. Fuentes remarkably takes the old stereotype of fatalistic Mexicans – seen in works by Graham Greene and D.H. Lawrence – and turns it on its head.

Things in favor: old age
Things against: name recognition, politically centrist

This year, 79-year old Spanish novelist and poet Juan Goytisolo (30/1 then knocked to 66/1) – listed with the wrong first name on Ladbrokes (Luis Goytisolo is his brother in fact and I highly doubt he’s up for a Nobel; he hasn’t even been translated in English) – made the list.  Obtuse, postmodern, and confessional are a few words that describe Goytisolo’s work.  The Dalkey Archive recently reprinted Juan the Landless. A narrative tirade told with a brutal sense of humor, the book is the final part of a trilogy that announces Goytisolo’s own self-imposed exile in Morocco.

Things in favor: obscure, expatriate, homosexual, old age
Things against: none

Ernesto Cardenal – not Cardinal, as Ladbrokes spells it – a Nicaraguan poet and former Sandanista was given 30/1 chance of winning the prize until Ladbrokes knocked him down to 45/1.  After a correspondence with religious poet Thomas Merton, Cardenal decided to study at Merton’s convent in Kentucky in the 1950s.  Then a visit to Cuba in 1970 lead him to embrace liberation theology – a mix of Marxism and Catholicism extremely popular all over Latin America at the time – which in effect converted him into a Sandanista.  After the Sandista victory in 1979 he was the Minister of Culture until he resigned in 1987, and this year he publicly denounced Daniel Ortega, former Sandinista, and now president of Nicaragua.   Cardenal is also a longtime friend of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and New Directions released an anthology of his poems last year, Pluriverse.  My favorite poem from the collection, “At the Grave of a Guerilla” imagines an astronaut looking down on a guerrilla’s tomb from space.

Things in favor: leftist, politically active, old age, literary merit, neglected country, poet
Things against:

Javier Marias, the youngest of the group at 59, is, after Vargas Llosa, is probably the most well known in the Anglophone world, not to mention a best-seller in his native Spain (I once bought one of his novels from a vending machine).  Son of the expat philosopher Julian Marias, a prodigious English translator, he was recently accepted into the Real Academia Española.  Of his novels, I like Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me, the story of a love affair and an untimely death, delivered  in what almost sounds like a soliloquy, laced with Shakespearean references.

Things in favor: politically outspoken
Things against: name recognition, young

Rounding out the group, we have writer Eduardo Galeano (66/1).  Author of Open Veins of Latin America, his first work that he wrote when he was a journalist in the 1960s. This is also the book that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez handed to President Obama upon meeting him. All of his works since then are collections of short, aphoristic non-fiction fables.  Galeano has cranked out quite a few beautiful quotes, some of which can be found in Voices of Time: A Life in Stories, an excellent place to start with the Uruguayan writer.

Things in favor: leftist, politically outspoken
Things against: none

Who would I like to see win:

Ernesto Cardenal – He’s been reprimanded by Pope John Paul II and had has his bank account frozen by Daniel Ortega; someone has got to cut this guy some slack, and who better than the Swedes?

Who might win:

Juan Goytisolo – His standing almost reminds me of recent winners, with an obvious political element in his work, recognized for his work, but in the bigger picture not well-known.  Of course, that is if Ladbrokes doesn’t really mean Luis Goytisolo – who doesn’t stand a chance.

Wild card pick:

Although he didn’t appear on the Ladbrokes card Nicanor Parra, 94, has been projected to win so many times he’s written a poem about it, or anti-poem, as he calls it.

With all of Ladbrokes’ typos, errors, and last minute changes, I wonder who is really betting on this.  I’ve got my copy of Petals of Blood handy just in case the favorite Ngugu Wa Thiong’o (7/2) wins.

World Cup Reading: Books, Beers, Bars

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Contrary to popular belief, books are meant for multi-tasking.  You can eat with a book, drink with a book, even sleep with a book; it’s all a question of the right book for the right occasion.  For some people, that occasion will be at a bar where you’ll hear the zizzing of vuvuzelas, the shouting of national anthems, the thumping of a jabulani.   It’s hard to justify spending hours in front of the screen, drinking beer no less, unless, of course, you bring a book.  Then you are reading, drinking, watching.

After trying a few others and getting bored (or drunk) I thought that Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs was the perfect book for bars during the World Cup, despite the fact that it’s not about international soccer.  It is, however, a famous book, which is to say, it seems that most people have read it; I hadn’t read it, but when I began to read it, I realized why most people have read it: once you start it’s impossible to stop.  It’s a sanguine, rowdy, raucous account of an American journalist that braves it with Manchester United hooligans. But the book is more than just brash violence and ballsy reporting, it’s hopping borders, skipping fare on planes, pissing onto people’s plates.

Although much of what Buford narrates is about England of a certain era — lagers, crisps, skinheads, oi music — hooligans and their fanaticism can be found all over the world.  This is life in the cheap seats: “There was a narrow human alley, and I joined the mob pushing its way through for a place from which to watch the match.  Except there was no place.  There was a moveable crush.  It was impossible once inside to change my mind.”

Buford writes with impeccable rhythm and clarity.  You can read Among the Thugs as book of brilliant soccer grotesques: “a tall very sunburnt man wearing very little clothing”; “He was short, dumpy, and balding, and wearing a white linen suit that would have flattered a man many times thinner… his  forehead was damp and clammy, and his skin had the quality of wet synthetic underpants.”  I could go on, but I don’t want you to vomit like so many of Buford’s subjects do after a few too many warm lagers.

Published in 1991, the book precedes the more recent craze for immersive non-fiction, and as a work of plain old journalism, it is written with amazing intelligence.  Buford is cognizant of the many ways he might fall into journalistic clichés.  He names them, contemplates them, then moves on.  The one you’d most expect, as does Buford, is that he’ll go native, start throwing back the lagers, and wolfing down the crisps, but he doesn’t.  Instead he observes that there’s something exhilarating about being with and yelling with other people, whether it be scoring a goal, or breaking a window.

Simon Kuper’s Soccer Against The Enemy is good for half-assed reading for different reasons. It’s a series of articles written over the span of nine years that describe football: its history, its people, its fans around the world in fifteen to twenty-minute reads.  The commentary can sound a little outdated, but the story is probably as entertaining as it was a decade ago.  Kuper is interested in examining football’s role in culture and politics, why it means so much to so many people, so he spends nine years traveling all over the world as a journalist to figure it out.   Most of what Kuper discovers applies to this year’s World Cup.

Kuper’s account of soccer in the former Soviet Union will be familiar to those who followed the North Korean national team this year, their fearful faces and their puppet fan base (that literally had a conductor).   In the USSR, soccer coaches are sent to Siberia.  Secret Police run their own teams.  Kuper arrives just after the fall of the Wall, and immerses himself in the great changes on the former Soviet soccer field.  In what was once the only arena in life where fans could yell things like, “Go urinate in front of Lenin’s Mausoleum” to the game’s referees, now Kuper finds fans bored with much greater freedom.  The players, rather than priding themselves on this foul-mouthed fan-base as they once did, hardly run after the ball; they’re too busy daydreaming about signing a contract in the West.

Football Against the Enemy also explains the draw game in soccer.  Many of those low-scoring games were examples of catenaccio, a tactical style, that is often attributed to the Italians (it means “padlock” in Italian, but it is now a word in English according to the OED). Kuper actually hangs out with the star coach of various Spanish and Italian sides, Helenio Herrera, who some credit with having invented this defensive style of play.   In catenaccio, the most of the team defends, thanks to an extra defensive player called the sweeper, waiting for an error; when it gets one, it sends the ball to the front lines, where the strikers can sneak a shot without taking a major risk.  According to Coach Herrera, it’s French, not Italian and it’s a libero, not a sweeper.  It doesn’t really matter now that nearly everyone uses it when they have to, hence the abundance of low scoring ties at the beginning of this World Cup.

One of my favorite chapters in the book, “Africa (In Brief)” examines the continent’s historically underprivileged position in FIFA, as well as the press’ attitude towards African teams, much of which has been repeated this year in various languages.  The age-old criticism? The Africans are disorganized and they don’t train.   As Kuper is quick to point out, aside from North Africa, most of the African nations couldn’t even play to qualify in 1994 due to poverty or war.  Indeed, we do not know the real conditions behind these teams and their pristine Nike uniforms (in one case “the coach of Ghana has to beg petrol from the Minister of Sport before he can drive into the bush to look at players.”).

Then we get to South Africa, 1992.  As captured in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, as well as J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime, everything, even sports come color-coded in South Africa.  Just take a look at the Bafana Bafana (Zulu for the Boys explains Kuper): there are hardly any white players.  Then look at South Africa’s rugby or cricket team: the opposite is true.  Kuper, born in Uganda of Dutch heritage and upbringing, heads to South Africa for the first multiracial election, and to witness Nelson Mandela’s first visit to the South African national football team. 

When Mandela comes, just like in the Clint Eastwood movie, he says, “I support all sports.”   The story Kuper recounts with testimony from government ministers, players, coaches is surprising.  Despite many setbacks, as Kuper writes, “On a day when they are feeling optimistic South Africans say that their country has everything: gold, sunshine, and an ideal mix of white and black.  They tell you that the new South Africa will be as rich as Switzerland, have no crime, and that it will win the 1998 World Cup.”  Sure, fifteen years later not much of that is true, but not even Kuper for all of his soccer savvy could foresee South Africa as the host of the World Cup.  I guess there is something to be said for that: cheers.

The Savage Detectives Machete

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When I was back in the States for Christmas last year, what surprised me more than Obama-mania, or the eerie presence of snow, was the widespread fame of Roberto Bolaño.  He went from obscure to star in little over a year, following the English translation of The Savage Detectives.  Every reader seemed to have his own version of the story: the desperate bohemian, the heroin addict love poet, the Chilean-Mexican-Spaniard.  For the next week I saw the book’s tabloidish cover on nearly every train I got on. Such are literary trends I guess.

There has been so much written about him by now, it’s hard not to disagree with somebody about who Roberto Bolaño was, never mind who he is.  Without getting into any of the biographical debates, he was poet for most of his life, until he began writing novels in the 80s. Like most poets he was poor.  As he tells it in his forward to Monsieur Pain, he began writing his first novels to win the literary contests that nearly every rinky-dink town in the Iberian peninsula awards annually. As absurd as that may have sounded, it paid off.  Nearly every novel and novella won him something.  So he repeated the formula and kept on winning.  This went on for some time, maybe ten years, until his best friend died and he began writing The Savage Detectives, the book that would win him the grand mother of literary prizes in Spanish, the Premio Romullo Gallegos. His work was certainly popular by then, especially in Latin America, but nothing like the craze one finds in the States.  I wouldn´t be surprised if someone gave Obama a copy of 2666 as a welcoming gift in the White House. Ten years ago when I bought Bolaño’s books in Spain, where seemingly everyone reads (or at least acts like they do), my friends would ask me why I was buying him.  Why not Javier Marias?  Why not Almudena Grandes?   Because Bolaño’s books are dark, funny, allusive, erratic, and most importantly, sincere — at least, that’s what attracted to me about him. And I had never read anything like him.  I just didn’t know what to make of him, so I read his novellas and his books of short stories, until I worked up enough courage to take on The Savage Detectives.

After reading just the first half of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima’s adventures I knew: (1) I wanted to be them, (2) I was only getting a quarter of the literary references, (3) I would likely have to reread it.  As Belano and Lima poetically conquer Mexico City, and later the world – talking lit, getting drunk, falling in love, writing manifestos, being poor, being really poor – they emulate an entire generation’s experience.  Like On the Road many key literary figures appear, in some cases cryptically, in others blatantly, sometimes with pseudonyms, other times with their real names.  They are not solely from Mexico, or Spain, or Chile, where Bolaño had lived; they are all from that larger republic of letters, Spanish. (When asked about his nationality he told the Mexican newspaper La Reforma that he was from “Strangerland, whose natives are foreigners.”)  I thought if I had spotted one or two writers halfway hidden behind a pseudonym, there were probably more.  A name is just a name, but I don’t know if the book wouldn’t be as “extremely fun” as it could be – and as the Argentine writer Cesar Aira described it – without wondering about the real person behind each character.  As revealed in an article published last year in the Spanish newspaper Vanguardia, Bolaño was a gamer, and as such clearly wants us to play.  The mystery is laid out in the very first line of the novel, “I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists.“  But who are the visceral realists?

They begin as teenagers in Mexico in the 1960s, an unprecedented period of turbulence, optimism, violence, vivacity for all of Latin America. In the rash optimism of their youth, they rebel against everything and everyone.  They joke about murdering future Noble Laureate Octavio Paz, member of the New Left.  They stumble into the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968 (retold in Bolaño´s novella Amulet; something like the Tianamen Square of Latin America); the very same year, socialist Salvador Allende is elected president. In 1970 Argentine former dictator Aramburu is kidnapped and killed by the leftist guerrillas the Montoneros. Three years later, Pinchoet strikes Chile with a military coup. Through Lima and Belano, they peripherally witness the fall of Franco. Finally, they follow the last Latin American leftist movement of the twentieth century to Nicaragua, where the Sandinistas have just claimed victory.  Then the Sandanistas sink and the last hope for the Left is gone.  From there some go to the Feria de Libros in Madrid, the world of boring book signings and banal book discussions.  By the end of the twentieth century, the balls-to-the-wall bravado of avant-garde literature has gone the way of Barnes and Noble. By then our hero Ulises Lima, along with his nonconforming optimism, has also vanished; Belano, like an inverse Che in the Congo with a touch of Rimbaud, wanders through warring Monrovia hoping to die.

In Latin America, literature has always been a part of politics.  Colombus’s records are the new world’s first book in Spanish, followed by other conquistadors and later their mendicant colleagues. Before Ronald Regan, Simon Bolivar was considered the great communicator.  In fact, name any Latin American leader in the 19th century and chances are they have written a book of grammar or poetry.  Likewise, many famous writers become politicians (i.e, Vargas Llosa’s presidential campaign in Peru; Ernesto Cardenal’s position in the Sandanistas).  If not, being exiled because of your writing remains a possibility, as it was during the military dictatorships (the –ettis, Uruguayans Benedetti and Onetti suffice as examples).  Thus, to write a book about Latin American writers – from the obscure to the famous – is to write a political work.  The Savage Detectives is as much a story of a two artists as young men, as it is the trajectory of the Left in the second half of the twentieth century, which Bolaño eulogized in a brilliant speech when he won the Romulo Gallegos.

Traditionally Spanish publishers (most publishers that publish in Spanish are owned by Spaniards) stuff their books with introductions and notes.  You have to skip the fifty pages of critical essays to read the twelve pages of poems.  Although I don’t think this novel needs all of that, an answer key, a cheat sheet, what in Argentina they call a machete, might do.

Let’s start with the easy ones.  Bolaño is Belano, although sometimes, Juan Garcia Madero.  Ulises Lima is Bolaño’s real life friend the late Mario Santiago Papsquiaro. In Nicaragua, we encounter Pancracio Montesol, an older Guatemalan writer (referred to as don Pancracio), who, despite being often compared to Borges, is called the “legitimate son of Alfonso Reyes.”  This is none other than Augosto Monterroso, modern fabulist, writer of the shortest short story in the Spanish language, who, in his playful, concise modern allegories, does resemble Borges, as the narrator, Hugo Montero alleges.  Then there’s Reinaldo Arenas.  If you’ve seen the movie starring Javier Bardem, Before Night Falls, you know the Cuban writer described in The Savage Detectives as “not afraid of police, or poverty, or of not being published.”  Later Felipe Muller describes the Cuban as struggling to write his last book before he dies of AIDS, just as Arenas did.   In Madrid, Pedro Ordoñez’s ultra-conservative complaints and aspirations to enter the Real Academia have brought many to conclude he is the nonagenarian Catalan poet Pere Gimferrer, who not incidentally was Bolaño’s friend.  I think it’s worth mentioning that Bolaño was very sociable during his short period of fame; he seems to have met nearly everyone with a novel published in Spanish; like Belano, everyone has a Bolaño story.

In the end, the visceral realists are or were real people, a group called of poets the infra-realists, hardly known until The Savage Detectives rocked the world.  Since then, Mario Santiago Papasquiaro’s poems have been anthologized and released by a major publisher last year.  Thanks to Bolaño’s immortalization of his friend as Ulises Lima, his name lives on.

The last mystery, and the hardest to solve, is that of the mother of visceral realism Cesárea Tinajero.  Some characters in the book think that Lima and Belano made her up, but at the end of the novel Octavio Paz remembers something Tinarejo  published in 1924.

Literary detectives think Tinarejo is Salvador Novo, Mexican poet, playwright, a sort Modernist Mexican version of Oscar Wilde.  Novo was respected greatly by the visceral realists as much as the real life infra-realists, and he began publishing just when Paz says.  Also, like Tinarejo, Novo led a grandiose life of letters, much grander than his books bécame after his death.  There’s only one catch: Cesárea is a woman.  There are hardly any famous female poets from that generation in Mexico, at least none that I can find.  So Bolaño wins.  The Case of Tinarejo has not been solved.

I’m left like Amadeo Salvatierra raising my glass to “all those strange or unfamiliar names, remembered or forgotten even by their own grandchildren.”  Is that it?  Are they now just names?  After rereading the novel a few times, I’m left wondering if who’s who is the really the stuff of literary history.   If so, Ulises Lima’s poetic quest is an empty one, as is the reader’s.  Or is this a parody of the secret language of literati?   Or is it about the suffering, the innocence, the loss and loneliness that accompany artistic ventures? I can’t answer that; however, in an epoch that allegedly traded in sincerity for visibility, The Savage Detectives seems particularly apt at presenting us with difficult questions.  I hope this machete can make those questions as real as it was to those who were living them.

Here in no particular order is a machete to cut The Savage Detectives to size:

Fictional Name
Real Name

Arturo Belano
Roberto Bolaño

Ulises Lima
Mario Santiago Papsquiaro, born José Alfredo Zendejas

Unnamed Cuban poet
Reinaldo Arenas

Pacracio Montesol
Augosto Moneterroso

Octavio Paz
Octavio Paz

Efrain Huerta
Efrain Huerta

Pere Ordoñez
Pere Gimferrer

Bonus Link (Spanish): The lesser known infra-realists are identified by José Vicente Anaya and Heriberto Yépez in their article “A Guide to The Savage Detectives” along with other suspects.