by Montserrat Madariaga Caro
A great little find for fans (and maybe even future fans) of a certain 1998 Roberto Bolaño novel, Bolaño Infra. 1975-1977: Los años que inspiraron Los detectives salvajes [Infra Bolaño, 1975-1977: The Years That Inspired The Savage Detectives] provides a short but thoroughly satisfying account of Bolaño's mid-twenties in Mexico during the time when the then aspiring poet was co-founding the Infrarrealist movement and raising hell with a gang of bohemian friends and sympathizers who would later become immortalized within the pages of The Savage Detectives as the "visceral realists." While part of the fun in reading Bolaño Infra is getting to hear something from and learn something about many of the real life infras who inspired various Savage Detectives characters, an unexpected bonus for me was the faded snapshot of Mexico City's mid-1970s underground art and literature scene that eventually took shape as a result of Chilean journalist Montserrat Madariaga Caro's interviews and research. For example, there are at least two wonderful anecdotes about how the infrarrealists targeted poet Octavio Paz for art terrorist attacks on multiple occasions for the crime of representing establishment culture. In the first such account, José Vicente Anaya tells how "en una de esas reuniones donde discutían sus ataques, se le ocurrió ir con pistolas de salva a un recital de Octavio Paz para disparar y gritar: ¡la poesía ha muerto! Pero la idea se desechó por un posible infarto del señor Paz" ["at one of those meetings where they planned their attacks, it occured to them to go to an Octavio Paz recital with starter pistols to shoot and to shout: 'Poetry is dead!' But the idea was scrapped because of the possibility of Paz having a heart attack" (67). In the second, Paz is remembered reading a poem of his called "La vista, el tacto" ["Sight, Touch"] that plays with repetition of the word luz [light]. An unknown infra begins to interrupt with shouts of "mucha luz, cuanta luz, demasiada luz" ["a lot of light, how much light, too much light"] to which Paz gets up, asks to see who's mocking him, and demands: "Qué es lo que tiene usted contra mí?" ["What is it that you have against me?"]. To which the infra replies: "Un millón de cosas" ["A million things"] before being ejected from the ironically titled "Encuentro de generaciones" ["Generational Encounter"] held at the UNAM bookstore (133). Great story! In addition, there are several memorable word portraits of the young Bolaño. Mexican novelist Juan Villoro, not an infra but a contemporary who became a friend of Bolaño's after meeting him in 1976, describes the Chilean wearing Groucho Marx glasses with hair "agitado por un viento imaginario que conservaría dos décadas después" ["agitated by an imaginary breeze that would still be preserved two decades later"]. "Imposible olvidar sus locuras, el entusiasmo, el disparate, su vitalidad para provocar conversaciones increíbles... Roberto siempre fue muy exagerado y muy elocuente; sus elogios se disparaban hasta el cielo y sus críticas te llevaban al séptimo círculo del infierno, donde están los asesinos" ["Impossible to forget his craziness, enthusiasm, absurdity, his vitality for provoking incredible conversations... Roberto was always very exaggerated and very eloquent; he'd praise things to high heaven, but his criticisms would take you down to the seventh circle of hell, where the killers are"] (101). In one of the nicest surprises of all, an entire chapter is dedicated to the little-known Mexican poet Mario Santiago, the longtime best friend of Bolaño's who was the model for the Ulises Lima character in The Savage Detectives. While details of the Bolaño-Santiago friendship were surprisingly affecting to learn about, one of the heads-up things that the author does with the material is to contrast how the ex-partners in crime approached life and literature after their infrarrealism days. Bolaño, according to some who knew him in his pre-fame Mexico City youth, was a kind of sellout to the cause--a guy who wanted to be recognized as a writer so much that he turned his back on poetry and entered the world of the commercial novelist instead. The eccentric Santiago, on the other hand, chose to live his life as a poem, circulating his poetry among friends and writing poems on apartment walls and other stray surfaces. Which path was more honest? To her credit, Madariaga Caro doesn't render a verdict on the question, instead leaving us with this: "A fin de cuentas, los dos próceres del Infrarrealismo tenían la escritura tatuada en la sien. Ambos vivieron intensamente y codificaron esas sensaciones en poemas, cuentos y novelas. Murieron jóvenes. Murieron sabiéndose deteriorados, como consumidos por sus letras pero aún así escribiéndolas" ["When all's said and done, the two leaders of Infrarrealism had writing tattooed on the brain. Both lived intensely and codified those sensations in poems, short stories and novels. They died young. They died knowing themselves deteriorated, as if consumed by their literature but still writing it"] (124). And this on what Bolaño hoped to achieve with his portrait of Mexico in The Savage Detectives: "Conoció a quienes hacen arte para poder vivir bien, y a los que viven mal para poder hacer arte; en consecuencia, aprendió la naturaleza dual de las cosas y concluyó que 'México es un país tremendamente vital, pese a que es el país donde, paradójicamente, la muerte está más presente. Tal vez solo así, siendo tan vital, puede tener a la muerte tan presente'" ["He knew those who create art in order to live well and those who live poorly in order to create art. As a consequence, he learned the dual nature of things and concluded that 'Mexico is a tremendously vital country in spite of the fact that it's the country where, paradoxically, death is most present. Maybe only like that, being so alive, can it have death so present'"] (140). An unexpectedly inspiring feat of research and one that's even more of a treasure trove for the fan on account of the "Primer manifiesto del movimiento infrarrealista" ["First Manifesto of the Infrarrealist Movement"] and some Bolaño-Santiago correspondence tacked on at the end. (www.rileditores.com)
Photo originally published in Pájaro de calor, ocho poetas infrarrealistas, 1976.
Top: Margarita XX, Mario Santiago, José Rosas Ribeyro, Roberto Bolaño, José Vicente Anaya. Bottom: Rubén Medina, Dina XX, Ramón Méndez, Guadalupe Ochoa, Ramón Méndez.
Montserrat Madariaga Caro