When I read Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives some years ago, I didn’t spend much time wondering who the so-called detectives of the title were. It seemed obvious. They were the book’s off-kilter heroes, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, two poetry-drunk youths who venture off in a white Impala into the Sonoran desert to solve the mystery of what happened to the mythical, vanished poet Cesárea Tinajero. Their quest, which also involves them fleeing a gun-wielding pimp, opens and closes the novel. It sandwiches a hefty middle section that patchily reconstructs Belano and Lima’s peregrinations across the globe later in life through interviews with some 40 people who knew them. It was only after I unexpectedly embarked on my own Bolaño-esque odyssey into war, dictatorship, and the world of Spanish-language poetry, years later, that I started to suspect that his two protagonists weren’t the only savage detectives in the book. I began to wonder: Who interviewed all of those people in the middle section? What unseen person(s) had tracked them all down to talk? Now that took savage detective work. Little did I know I would find myself doing something eerily similar and even ask myself, half in jest, if Bolaño was somehow toying me with from beyond the grave. Quite fittingly, my own savage detective story began in the very country where he died—Spain.
In the summer of 2012, I was living in Madrid with my wife. One night my friend Javi invited us over to his apartment to watch a cult Spanish documentary from the 1970s called El Desencanto (The Disenchantment). He didn’t say much else—he didn’t want to ruin it for us—only that the film was about a dead poet and his eccentric family.
El Desencanto is, indeed, about a dead poet and his eccentric family: Leopoldo Panero, his wife, Felicidad Blanc, and their three sons, Juan Luis, Leopoldo María, and Michi. But it is also about so, so much more. Leopoldo Panero was a communist before the Spanish Civil War but joined Francisco Franco’s army in order to survive, and by the end of the conflict he was writing fascist-tinged poetry and would later be celebrated by the dictatorship for his verses. In 1962 he died, leaving behind elegant, resentful, and literature-obsessed Felicidad, along with their three sons, all with rebellious leftist beliefs and high-flown literary aspirations. Ten-plus years later, mom and the boys got together on camera to make the film that left me in state of awe as I sat on Javi’s couch. Not only did they attack their deceased paterfamilias by pulling the family’s dirty laundry out of the closet and into the light, but they did it by speaking in a kind of incendiary poetry while lacing their story with literary allusions that added a dramatic mystique. The Paneros treated their family history as if it were a novel they could collectively rewrite, and certainly they were characters worthy of a novelist’s imagination. Juan Luis, the oldest, was both macho and dandified, modeling himself on his idols Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Leopoldo María, the middle son, was an unstable poetic genius who was constantly in and out of jails and mental institutions. And Michi, the youngest, was a playboy whose literary medium was the overblown stories he told. El Desencanto was about history and myth, family and inheritance, and politics and poetry. I would soon learn that the film had scandalized Spain when it came out in 1976, a year after Franco’s death, launching the Paneros into the realm of legend.
Prisons and asylums, fascism and rebellion, dictatorships and poetic movements—the Panero family’s story read like an unwritten Spanish chapter from Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas. I walked home that night from Javi’s apartment feeling like my eyebrows had been by singed the Paneros’ singular strangeness. I also felt like a literary wormhole had somehow opened up between Bolaño’s fictional universe and my own real one.
Wondering if this was a case of art imitating life—even as life for me would soon start imitating art—I turned to Google to see what I might dig up on the Paneros and Bolaño. Sure enough, the Chilean had fictionalized Leopoldo María as a character in two books I had already read: as a magnetic, nameless poet-genius living in an insane asylum in 2666, and as arguably the same character in The Savage Detectives, but named Pelayo Barrendoáin, surrounded by fans at the Madrid Book Fair “who feed on my madness to nourish their madness.” He also appeared without a mask in another Bolaño book. In the posthumous novel Woes of the True Policeman, a gay poet who idolizes Leopoldo María refers to him admiringly as “the Great Faggot of All Sorrows,” and his brother Juan Luis appears in a list under the category of “Worst houseguest.” These intertextual discoveries only made the story of the Paneros that I had seen in El Desencanto pulse with a stronger glow, leading me to feel like I had stumbled upon a non-fiction Bolaño book written by real life instead of him.
During the months after seeing El Desencanto, I developed an obsession with the Paneros, and to make a long story very short, three years later I began writing a collective biography of the family. The project required me to track down and interview all the people I could who had known them in order to trace the arcs of their lives. In other words, adopting the methodology of the middle section of The Savage Detectives as I chased stories of the Paneros, I became a savage detective.
By the time I started work on my book, I was living in Los Angeles, so I went back to Spain as much as was feasible. My research visits were very intense. Most of the people I sought out to interview were in Madrid, where the Paneros had spent the bulk of their lives. Although I had already lived there and thought I knew the city moderately well, it became a different, seemingly infinite place when infused with the rich history of the family. Every door I knocked on, every bar I sat in, every new phone number I called, unboxed a hidden world of stories. I interviewed friends and relatives and ex-lovers, editors and critics, gallerists and a ghostwriter, celebrated writers and film directors, historians and journalists, a Borges biographer, Federico García Lorca’s niece, a best-selling cookbook author, two former mayors of small cities, and the Spanish ambassador to Honduras. And, of course, I interviewed the literary kin of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima: poets—lots and lots of poets.
Over cafés con leche and condensation-beaded cañas (small glasses of beers), I probed everyone I interviewed delicately but insistently, trying to understand the thoughts and actions of five individuals who, like Bolaño characters, seemed to think literature was more real than life itself. The memories poured out, like a choral narrative for me to parse into one unified, cohesive tale. I learned the squalid details of one of the Panero sons’ alcoholic decline; I learned things about the sexual predilections of the other two. Combining several testimonies, I was able to recreate the 1976 premiere of El Desencanto. I listened to recollections about the Spanish Civil War, the Franco Dictatorship, and Spain’s precarious transition to democracy. The literary world in Spain is small and familial, so nearly everyone I interviewed knew everyone else I interviewed. Often, they insulted each other. During the long conversations I frequently ended up getting drunk when I didn’t mean to and went to sleep very late when I had to get up early the next day. Sometimes I even inadvertently got drunk early, like when a retired lawyer who had played a role in crafting Spain’s 1978 constitution welcomed me into his apartment on a scorching July morning with a bottle of champagne that he popped open for us to share.
People’s trust in me during this process was shocking. I was a blank page and the interviews filled me with the words of others, sometimes very sad ones. The novelistic richness of the experience outweighed the physical and emotional fatigue, especially the moments that felt not stranger than fiction but the stuff of fiction: the psychiatrist who only vaguely understood why we were meeting yet treated me to an enormous meal of fried fish, then invited me up to his apartment and seemed intent on keeping me there for the rest of the day; or the famous writer and former communist secret agent in Spain during the Franco dictatorship, now in his 80s, who has his own brand of anti-aging elixir.
I sometimes regaled my editor with these stories, which she called “the book behind the book.” My experiences also felt like the book inside of books. When I visited Juan Luis Panero’s widow in a town on the Costa Brava, an hour from Blanes, where Bolaño lived in his final years, I felt like I had entered the end of his novel Distant Star. Likewise, my research into Leopoldo Panero’s bitter public feud with Pablo Neruda put me in mind of the legendary poet’s appearance in By Night in Chile. But the proliferation of literary wormholes went beyond the work of Bolaño. The Panero family’s trip to Alexandria, Egypt in the 1950s simmered with the romance of Lawrence Durrell’s novel Justine, which they modeled their trip after. When I visited the family’s ancestral home in the small town of Astorga, the courtyard echoed Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, also a Panero family favorite. This was the magic of the Paneros—their literary obsessions seemed to deconstruct the fabric of reality and stitch it back together with literature as its seams. Bolaño and the Paneros were similar that way: Books became the raw material for crafting a life rather than the other way around.
And maybe I was that way too, since at a certain point during the writing of my book things seemed to turn very meta, as though I had entered a novel and become an unwitting character.
I first noticed this soon after I interviewed the Spanish novelist Javier Marías about his friendship with Michi Panero. I particularly adore two Marías novels, A Heart So White and Thus Bad Begins, both of which concern molten secrets that inexorably rise to the surface. As if on cue, after my conversation with Marías, several of the subsequent interviews I conducted yielded secrets about him. Nothing shattering, but enough for each person to go off the record. Was I being sucked into a María-esque narrative scenario? No. I was clearly being excessively fanciful imagining that life was imitating art in such a way. One person in Spain I talked to about this said I had a classic case of “Panero Paranoia,” meaning their compulsive literariness was becoming my own. This paranoia only increased, however, when I emailed Enrique Vila-Matas.
Like Javier Marías, Vila-Matas was good friends with Michi Panero. He mentions Michi in his novel Never Any End to Paris, and he dedicated his novel Lejos de Veracruz to him. The book is about the travails of three brothers who are a mashup of sorts of the Paneros and another famous Spanish literary family, the Goytisolos. I corresponded with Vila-Matas about some of his memories of Michi, and I also sent him a passage from Michi’s unpublished partial memoir to ask if what he said about Vila-Matas and his family was accurate. (The answer: kind of. Vila-Matas called it a “sublimation” of the truth.) Soon after, a writer for a magazine in Argentina who knew Vila-Matas wrote me to say he’d told her I was writing a novel about the Panero family, and she wanted to quote me for an article. I corrected her that I was writing a biography and answered her questions. A month or so later, a reporter for the Spanish newspaper El Pais wrote me because Vila-Matas had told her that I was making a movie about the Paneros. Once again, I offered a correction then answered questions. What would be the next inquiry, I wondered, someone saying that Vila-Matas had told them that I was composing a stage musical about the Paneros?
This was when it became clear to me that, yes, I was in an Enrique Vila-Matas novel. The playful absurdity, the maniacal whims of a writer, the blurring of the real and the unreal—it was vintage Vila-Matas. Or wait: Was it pure Bolaño? Was I in a novel by Roberto Bolaño (who was friends with Vila-Matas) in which a stand-in for Vila-Matas messed with the head of an American writer trying to write a book about a Spanish literary family with a fascist past?
Of course, the answer was much simpler than all of that: I was simply deep, deep inside the process of writing my own book, which finally came to a close six years after I first saw El Desencanto. A telling development had occurred. I was no longer the sole detective asking questions. Now new ones were appearing and tracking me down to ask me questions. When at last I turned in my finished manuscript after reading thousands of pages of books and documents and conducting nearly 100 interviews, I felt vastly satisfied but also vastly empty. The literary madness of the Paneros had nourished my literary madness, and I already missed them.
During the fraught, lonely period between finishing my book and its publication—which I imagined being akin to wandering lost in the Sonoran desert—I met my wife one day for lunch. We ate sitting on a bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean. After we finished, my wife departed, leaving me to contemplate the sea. Overcome by a sudden sleepiness, I laid down on the bench and dozed off. A half hour later, my own snoring woke me up. A huddle of people standing nearby glanced at me. I thought of something the middle son, Leopoldo María Panero, used to say near the end of his life, when he would leave the mental institution in the Canary Islands where he lived during the day and take naps on public benches: I’m not a bum, I’m a poet! I wanted to yell out the same thing. Instead, I lay back down and stared up at the clear blue sky. I wasn’t a poet; I never had been. I was a detective, and for the time being my savage work was done.
Image credit: Unsplash/João Silas.