Before Night Falls

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Robert Birnbaum in Conversation with John Sayles

In the 35 year period in which he has made 17 films (among which are Matewan, Eight Men Out, Return of the Secaucus 7, Men With Guns) MacArthur grant-winning director John Sayles has also published seven books, including the National Book Award-nominated Union Dues and two full-bodied novels, Los Gusanos and, most recently, A Moment in the Sun. And yet, as he mentions in the conversation that follows, he has never received one note or letter from anyone who has read any of his books — a correction the cross-country reading tour (in a rented Prius) Sayles and his partner Maggie Renzi embarked on, will no doubt make.

A Moment in the Sun, in nearly 1,000 pages, delves into a sketchily acknowledged period of American history — the rise of Jim Crow, effectively thwarting Reconstruction in the South, the road to the Cuban Spanish-American War, American imperialism running rampant in the Philippines, and the greed-fed Yukon gold rush. As it happens, the American involvement in the misnamed Philippine insurrection also serves as the setting for Sayles latest film, Amigo.

This, my second chat with John Sayles (we last met in 1995 for his Cuban exile novel, Los Gusanos), turned out to be a lengthy conversation touching on his new opus, his new film, the perils of independent film making, and any number of asides and anecdotes from a full and storied creative life.

Robert Birnbaum: Its International Free Press Day — in case things like that matter to you. I haven’t seen any reviews of your new opus. Maybe because it is too long for reviewers?

John Sayles: There have only been the publishing trade magazines, Kirkus and those. One of them called it a cat-squasher of a book.

RB: How imaginative. I saw an article on the fact that you are visiting every state including Alaska.

JS: Just about, yeah.

RB: Is that fun?

JS: Yeah, I like reading. The book is long enough so I am reading a different chapter every night so I don’t get bored with it. One thing that is nice is that it is almost all independent bookstores.

RB: The chains seem to be going out of business (laughs). Who would have thought it?

JS: Also the chain stores don’t do readings in the mall that often. I have written three novels before this and a couple of short story collections and to this day I have never gotten a letter from someone who has read one of my books. I run into people who have seen my movies all the time. Most people don’t know I write books.

RB: Didn’t you win a National Book Award or something?

JS: That didn’t change anything. I was nominated.

RB: You haven’t published a book since Los Gusanos [1991].

JS: A short story collection, Dillinger in Hollywood. But that was about five years ago or so. Nation Books published it — they hadn’t done fiction before so it was pretty new to them. Doing readings is kind of like theater, where you are looking at your audience. Which is nice for a book, to actually see somebody who is going to read the book or at least buy it.

RB: Unlike most book tours, which is one sealed tube after another — you are out among the people.

JS: We like driving across the country.

RB: Are you rejiggering your budget now that gas prices are soaring?

JS: No, but we are renting a Prius. I am almost too big for a Prius but it’s OK. Mexico is just about out of oil — which will be good for the pollution in Mexico City.

RB: The week I was there it must have been really unusual because it was not bad at all.

JS: They have a few good days, but the rest of the time it’s like breathing bus exhaust.

RB: I’ve lost track of Mexican politics — did they just have an election?

JS: They are about to have a big one. What’s happening is that the narcos have a bigger army than the government.

RB: That stuff is ripe for fiction — lots of books are coming out of the borderland. My favorite is

The Savage Detectives Machete

1.
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?

2.
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.

3.
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.

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