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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The other night I saw a commercial for Polident denture cream. There’s a guy in a lab coat, a pretend dentist, who’s saying that a lot of people treat dentures like teeth even though dentures are much softer and more porous than teeth. Dentures, the guy tells us, are different to teeth. But why should I listen to him? Why should I even be able to stand him? Different to? This makes me nuts. Okay, so in England — the British Isles — it is acceptable to pair these words together, but we’re not in England. We spell realize with a z and not an s. We don’t have a monarchy. We are more discreet about our prejudices. In sum: we are different from the British. We might even be different than the British. But we are certainly not different to the British. What we are, I fear, is dumber than the British. Or getting dumb thanks to media that institutionalizes bad grammar. Ever seen that commercial for Burger King’s new line of fries? Forget what gross measures BK has taken to modulate its fry-frying technique, and focus on the message: Forty percent less fat, thirty percent less calories. If you want to get into it, there’s reason to argue that less in some contexts can be applied to countable plural nouns. Just not this one. Why couldn’t they have said: Less fat, fewer calories? Why? Because it’s not as punchy, not as advertisy, and not as indifferent to proper grammar, which is fast becoming a hallmark — even a badge of honor — for people trying to woo each other. Want to sell me something? Great, just be sure to put on your idiot face, first. I have read a lot of dating profiles. A lot. Infer from this what you will while I make the following observation: no one equates proper grammar with sex appeal. On the contrary, the worse your punctuation, the more confident you seem that strangers will want to have sex with you. Does anyone on these websites know the difference between you’re and your? There and their? I teach creative writing to undergraduates and am frequently — daily — appalled by how bad their command is of basic language skills. Fast forward twenty years and I am seeing these same people advertise themselves on OkCupid. I love to travel. Its just my thing. Reluctant non-conformist, verging on the anarchist. AKA, "a prick". Aka a truant, since this guy obviously skipped that class on punctuation and its placement. Here’s one I like: I'm "well educated". It’s gotten so bad that one guy, in the “what are you looking for” section, writes: “A woman who knows the difference between its and it’s.” To me that’s like saying I want to date a person who knows the alphabet. When did the bar drop so low? And, really, why do I care? On the spectrum of world problems that need bemoaning, is bad grammar really one of them? Yes. Yes it is. For a lot of people, good grammar is like the opera — elitist and snobby. Never mind that opera tickets cost less than the nose-bleeders at almost any sporting event in the country or that the stories in opera are as Everyman as it gets: boy meets girl, boy loses girl. It’s all about perception. And if you say less fat, fewer calories, maybe people get the idea you are pretentious, and if pretentious, unpalatable. This is why so many of us don’t use capital letters when we email — because it looks stuffy. Which would all be fine were it not the case that bad grammar falls into the same category as bad prose writing, which heralds the depredation of our culture and the exaltation of fascism. Seems like a bold statement, and it is, until you reread George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” which seems every bit as urgent today as it must have in ’46 despite fascism’s being less potent now than it was then. In the essay, Orwell contends that imprecision (and what is poor grammar but the handmaid of imprecision?) allows propaganda to thrive. Imprecision allows you to say one thing when you really mean another, or at least to obfuscate whatever it is that you do mean. Imprecision favors political conformity by relieving all of us of the burden to think. When’s the last you heard a politician who made you think? All you heard were the same hackneyed phrases and idioms that say, in essence, go to sleep now, the machine’s well-oiled. As Charles Baxter writes in his wonderful essay “On Defamiliarization,” the kingdom is running smoothly because no one is learning anything. Orwell was not actually all that big on grammar, though his grammar was impeccable. His bugbear was the debasement of the language thanks to dead metaphors, familiar phrases, euphemism, and vagueness. But I think bad grammar is equally dangerous. A commercial for Hill’s Ideal Balance dog food fear-mongers by telling me that my dog’s diet has too little vitamins. Gah, mini vitamins in my lab’s bowl! Guess I should run to the pet store right now. Similarly, next time a hurricane rolls into town and the government fails to provide adequate remuneration for people whose lives have been destroyed, I will be well pacified by the language coming out of Capitol Hill. Why worry? We’re stronger to the storm.
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