Augusto Monterroso wrote that sooner or later the Latin American writer faces three possible fates: exile, imprisonment or burial.
I met Roberto Bolaño right at the end of his period of imprisonment, although it would be more properly called one of anonymity, of isolation, being shut away.
I met him on the 21 November 1999 at Bar Novo in Blanes, a kind of granja catalana, one of those places characterised by their spotless milk-churn decor, but in reality they’re as foul as they are supposedly hygienic and all the more so for those who, like me in those days, loved the murky darkness of big nocturnal bars.
I’d gone into the Novo with Paula de Parma to have a juice, and I’d just ordered it when Bolaño walked in. Paula, who used to work at a secondary school in Blanes, had just read Distant Star (recently published by Anagrama) and I remember like it was yesterday her asking Bolaño if he was Bolaño. He was, he said. And I, Bolaño added, was Vila-Matas…
‘Jesus Christ!’ we heard uttered soon after.
The exclamation was Bolaño’s, and I have the impression the following conversation lasted as long as ‘the drawn out laughter of all these years’, as Fogwill would say.
I remember that I always talked to Roberto like we’d known each other all our lives. He was living with his wife Carolina López and their son Lautaro at 17, Carrer del Lloro (Parrot Street), and kept a little work space at no. 21. At no. 19 was the butcher’s where he got the inspiration for the memorable poem ‘Among Flies’: ‘Trojan poets / Now that nothing that might have been yours / Exists / Neither temples nor gardens / Nor poetry / You’re free / Admirable Trojan poets’.
He didn’t have a telephone and his post box was at no. 441, where he hear if he’d picked up some regional prize; the of these was from San Sebastián at the end of 1996 for the story ‘Sensini’, a masterpiece. The value of that prize was really a very modest amount but Carolina and Roberto, who were living off her state salary, received the news with an enthusiasm more fitting for the Nobel than for a local competition.
My none too eloquent personal journal – composed with a certain dryness, containing just dates, notes and short comments – is, however, of invaluable help to me when it comes to recalling some of the places in Blanes we frequented in the heady years that followed: Debra, Bacchio, Bar del Puerto, Casino bar, Kiko, El Mexicanito, Ample cinema hall, Can Flores, Centro bar, Pastelería Planells, La Gran Muralla, Terrassans, L’Antic. We’d meet up in our respective homes, but also in these places – backdrops to conversations, quarrels, passions, sparks of creativity, endless discussions, laughter, phrases that slipped away like smoke: ‘Smoke with eyes half-closed and recite Provençal bards / the solitary to and fro of borders / this may be defeat but also the sea / and the taverns…’ (‘The Romantic Dogs’).
I suspect, perhaps contrarily, that living in Blanes, going through a bitter time of silence, living in defeat – in adversity, but with the sea and the taverns – must have suited Bolaño perfectly. No, I’m not being ironic. I’m only thinking of the story of that provincial for whom all went well until he got a taste of Paris because, once that happened, the city swallowed him up. I’m not suggesting this was exactly the case with Bolaño but, when I think of him, I can’t forget that certain period of happiness some artists have, of glorious, gloryless days lived out in ignorance of the literary world, of the jealousies, egos and the market; days in which these artists were mysterious and antisocial and, however much they deplored living among so much desolation and sadness, lived fully and drew breath in their personal, sacred kingdom of art.
The case of Bolaño’s isolation for years in Blanes reminds me of those books Elias Canetti talks about in The Human Province, books we have at our side many years without reading, books we don’t leave behind but take with us from one city to another, from one country to another, carefully packaged up, even though there isn’t much space; we’ll have a flick through on taking them out of the case, perhaps; yet we studiously avoid reading any phrase in its entirety. Later, years down the line, the moment comes in which suddenly, as if compelled by an order from on high, we can’t help but reach for one of these books and read it straight through, cover to cover; this book then serves as a revelation. At that moment we know why we’ve paid it such close attention. It had to live so long by our side; it had to travel; it had to take up space; it had to be a burden, and now the purpose of its journey is revealed; now it lifts its veil; now it sheds light on the years it lived silently by our side.
Surely Bolaño, just like the book, wouldn’t have had so many things to say without having been silent all that time. ‘We must suppose that during this period he was building up the formidable energy released from 1994’, notes Ignacio Echevarría in ‘Bolaño extraterritorial’. To the energy he was building up we’d probably have to add: the happiness of being a nobody, and at the same time being someone who was writing. Occasionally, a period of silence is paradise for writers.
He’d arrived in Blanes with Carolina in the summer of 1985, to work in a little trinket shop set up by his mother at 28, Carrer Colom, where he attended to the customers, generally tourists. In the first months he acted like an undercover detective and set himself to locating all traces of Pijoaparte, the character Juan Marsé places in Blanes with his Ducati motorbike. ‘When I had a moment off from the shop and was tired from walking, I’d go into the bars in Blanes to have a beer and talk to people, and so it was that I never found the house from Marsé but I did find friends,’ he recalled in ‘Pregón de Blanes’.
These friends were fishermen, waiters, young drug addicts (all condemned to an early death) – the well-known school of life. There is no doubt that this stage of anonymity, of isolation, was hard; but it was also I believe providential, for if it’s true that, for example, nobody from the literary world afforded him the slightest bit of attention, it also goes that his condition as a total unknown facilitated his full dedication to writing. What’s more, I believe the intense harshness of those days, during which he was utterly forsaken, served to strengthen his character and above all his powerful – at times, understandably bitter – style. No one would deny how hard it is to pass through moments of desolation, but it can also be the case that for an artist an isolated, tough existence can prove a severe, if highly stimulating, apprenticeship. This, moreover, can prove useful at the moment he leaves behind the shadows of neglect or indifference and appears in the plain light of day, to the surprise of the many who’d been unaware of him until then…He appears armed to the teeth, ready for anything, hardened by the isolation and the happiness of so many years. A samurai in Blanes. It makes me think of that Madrid aphorist who wrote this truth so succinctly, ‘Character is formed on Sunday afternoons.’
I met Bolaño just when he was coming out of a period of endless Sundays, during which he’d been forging his savage spirit; I met him at the end of that prodigious year when a few things had come together to the extent of effecting a reversal for him and his family, that year which began with Seix Barral publishing Nazi Literature in the Americas and finished with Anagrama bringing out Distant Star.
Bolaño was delighted. He never lost his sense of humour, and this was especially the case that year. Of that day in Bar Novo I remember most of all having the feeling or presentiment, after only a short time speaking to him, of being with a true writer. And this is something – the reader should know straightaway, without further delay – that is not a common occurrence: ‘Poetry (true poetry) is thus: it is sensed, it announces itself in the air, like earthquakes are sensed, they say, by certain animals especially attuned for that purpose.’ The sensation of finding myself in front of a Chilean who didn’t seem Chilean and, however, so much resembled the romantic notion I’d pursued for twenty years in the real world, the idea of what a real writer should be. Not long ago, Gonzalo Maier cited an essay by Fabián Casas in which the latter, remembering Bolaño, talked of how much he missed, ‘the writers from the old days, all of those who, like Cortázar, were much more than mere writers, they were masters, life examples, powerful lighthouses to which he and his friends gravitated’.
Cortázar never seemed like a lighthouse to me, but I understand what Casas is talking about. In fact, on that day in the Novo, what I saw or recognised immediately within Bolaño – I don’t think I’d be kidding myself to say so – was the hermit-like lunatic or, more precisely, ‘a writer from the old days’, that type of person I already considered untraceable because they belonged to a world I’d glimpsed in my youth but thought had already vanished for good; that sort of writer who never forgot that literature is, above all, a dangerous profession; someone who is not only brave and doesn’t give a damn for the prevailing vulgarities, but who also displays an overwhelming authenticity and who melds life and literature with total ease; an incredible survivor from an extinct race; this surprising kind of writer who proudly belongs to a lineage of crazies, obsessives, maniacs, tormented by the true meaning of words; obstinate types, totally obstinate, who already know that all is false and that, what’s more, everything, absolutely everything, is finished (I believe that when one finds oneself in the situation of sizing up the dimensions of falsehood and the finality of things, then, and only then, can obstinacy help you, push you to circle around and around your cell in order not to miss the sole, merest instant – because this instant exists – that can save you); types who are in truth more desperate than well-worn revolution, making them to a certain extent the indirect heirs to the irremediable misanthropes of yesteryear.
These lost causes lived in times when writers were like gods and lived in the mountains like craven hermits or lunatic aristocrats. In those days they wrote with the sole aim of communing with the dead and they’d never heard of the market; they were mysterious and solitary and drew breath in the sacred kingdom of literature. It’s clear that the ‘writers from the old days’ are heirs to the enigmatic, misanthropic, craven hermits of yesteryear; they’re like the swarthiest toughs on the baddest street, and of course – I’ll say it to add a note of humour, in keeping with the drawn out laughter of all these years – don’t have anything to do with, for example, the grey competent writers who, in their time, proliferated to such an extent under the so-called nueva narrativa española. ‘Writers from the old days’ go in search of a highly personal mode of expression, without forgetting that within this mode may lie – beyond the limits of the old great prose and after the almost complete and definitive death of literature – a road, perhaps the very last road there is to travel. Or not. Or maybe there are none left. Do you think there are none left? In this case, I’ll remind you of the line – it’s just one line, but what a line – from the story ‘Phone Calls’:
‘B also thinks that the street is a dead end.’
Knowing Bolaño – here I add the fact that by 1996, in literary terms, I’d been adrift for years – was like going back and remembering that life and literature, however much the grey competent writers dismissed such a notion with smirks, can go perfectly together just as I’d intuited straightaway in the years I was starting to write; that’s to say, it wasn’t a crime nor any mistake to mix life and literature, above all it was something that could be joined up with astonishing ease.
I met up with Bolaño on the odd afternoon to walk with him by the sea and sometimes he asked me whether such and such a friend really carried literature in his blood. Even now, his most famous declaration of principles helps me carry on in savage fashion, ‘Literature is very similar to the battles of samurais, but a samurai doesn’t fight against another samurai: he fights against a monster. What’s more, generally he knows he’ll be beaten. Being brave enough, already aware you’re going to be beaten, to go out and fight: that’s literature.’
This tough but also poignant statement could never have been made by a writer without a highly untamed, deeply passionate conception of literature. It was an idea that, as Rodrigo Fresán once said, transmitted, almost instantaneously, a certain romantic theory of poetic activity and of its practise as a realisable utopia… In fact, being with Bolaño on the terrace of a seaside bar was like being with a ‘writer from the old days’, with a poet, like living this viable utopia.
I look at, I read, I skim through my personal journal. Yesterday it dawned on me how good it was to have written down over those days so many mundane details, so many things that would have been forgotten if I hadn’t been noting them since 1985. On looking for what I wrote around the 21 November 1996, I found this unadorned but, deep down, highly expressive – for its conclusiveness – entry:
I also saw upon going through my notes, that, four days after the meeting in the Novo, 25 November, I’d gone to Barcelona’s Condes de Barcelona hotel for the press conference to launch Distant Star. This date surprised me because I hadn’t remembered the scenes from the 21 so close to the press conference of the 25. Of that gathering of journalists I recall, among other things, that while Herralde introduced his new author I couldn’t lift my gaze from the Faulkner quote that opens Bolaño’s novella:
‘What star falls unseen?’
We were at the tail-end of 1996, during which Bolaño had finally been sighted, watched, detected. And that quote offered, among others, the possibility of being read in this way. I looked at Bolaño and, in a kind of silent game, I put myself to verifying once and for all that there was nothing in him of the sinister aviator from Distant Star, of that guy who the narrator said seemed like a real hard man, like some Latin Americans over forty years of age can be. And I added, ‘A hardness so different to that of Europeans or North Americans. A sad, and incurable, hardness.’
The potential hardness of Bolaño, that day of the press conference, had very little sadness to it and actually offered a perspective that suggested the possibility of a certain happiness. Maybe it was because everything was becoming new for him, maybe because in one fell swoop everything had become funnier and more dangerous than before and the machine of anonymity, with all the energy built up over the course of the days of lunacy, suddenly set itself in motion – the point is that there seems to have been a mild euphoria: ‘And so what is a good piece of writing? Well, what it always has been: knowing how to stick one’s head into the darkness, to leap into the void; basically, knowing that literature is a dangerous profession.’
Around the fortieth minute, by the time everything in the air had relaxed at last, he let himself get carried away by a question about the modest reality of Chile and suddenly embarked on a long monologue – absolutely fascinating, beyond time and place – a monologue on discipline, the British uprightness of the Chilean army. I believe that Bolaño, from minute forty onwards, suspended time. I remember at a certain moment I shut my eyes, and it was odd, I felt then as if his words themselves were heavily regimented and weighed double. Right now I couldn’t rule out that the implacable anonymity machine shaping him in Blanes, through the period of silence, may have been doubly-loading each of these words.
It became abundantly clear, I recall, as he went on and on, that he was a writer without the tics of professional storytellers. This became especially evident in the endless final minutes of the press conference when he launched into a sudden and generous never-ending tale, with a genuine outpouring of passion for what he was recounting. The journalists seemed like so many hypnotised fishermen at any table of a Blanes bar and, for a moment there in the Condes de Barcelona, it was as if he’d started a new novel, this time writing it live, straight out, a novel that appeared to be springing directly from the last pages of Distant Star. In fact – even though I didn’t know it yet – what was happening was the same as what happened with Distant Star, which had sprung from the final pages of Nazi Literature in the Americas…
And so it always was with Bolaño, one book springing from another, everything connected in some way. In fact, Distant Star emerged at the precise instant in which Herralde, in his office at Anagrama, asked Bolaño if he had some unpublished novel, something recently written, that he could publish. Such a novel didn’t exist, but Bolaño claimed otherwise and wrote it in three weeks – record time, he took time off to do it – and because his work always advanced by means of these unfurlings of one novel into another, a considerable number of words of Nazi Literature in the Americas too. Between the end of the latter (‘Look after yourself, Bolaño, he said, and off he went’) and Distant Star (‘Look after yourself, my friend, he said, and off he went’) I think I always preferred that, ‘Look after yourself, Bolaño’. But, of course, this is anecdotal. Much less so is that, in the days following his delivery of the manuscript to Anagrama, Bolaño went through some difficult times, and also fortunate ones (he was pleased about this apparent stroke of luck) in which a certain fear was smile weak with nervousness, as if the possibility the publishing house might discover that part of the text was lifted from his own prior work both scared and amused him.
This whole period, from Distant Star on, was governed by bursts of intensity and record time. So much so that sometimes I see him as the protagonist in Sur le Passage de Quelques Personnes à Travers une assez Courte Unité de Temps, Guy Debord’s short film.
‘For Paula, with warmth and admiration from her friend in record time. Roberto. Blanes, March ’97’, he wrote in a copy of The Elephant Path, the book published in ’93 by Toledo city council. I realise on reading the back cover of the book that in fact it was written only a very short time before the important about-turn in his life as a writer; but not only is the back cover utterly incapable of predicting this, but anyone would find it off-putting. The author biography couldn’t be less persuasive, in tenth place counting from the penultimate line of hell, ‘Roberto Bolaño was born in Santiago de Chile in 1953. He has worked as a literary critic and translator. He edited the magazine Berthe Trepat. His poems feature in various anthologies of contemporary Chilean poetry. He has published poetry collections: Reinventing Love (Taller Martín Pescador, México DF, 1976), Naked Boys under the Rainbow of Fire (Ed. Extemporáneos, México DF, 1979)…’
From the end of ’96, I return to my journal and find noted there my trips to Blanes in 1997 and 1998, trips firstly to see Paula and later, when she’d stopped working for the school but kept her house with its terrace overlooking the sea, trips with Paula to see Carolina and Roberto and to eat, through a long period of strange attachment, in a horrible Chinese restaurant we loved. As the months passed, going to Blanes for the day or weekend became a ritual; we’d end up going to collect Lautaro from school, or preparing to host the close family friend AG Porta with whom we’d lose ourselves amid the most complex metaphysics as night fell in the Bar del Puerto. Jordi Llovet, Pons Puigdevall, Gonzalo Herralde and Luisa Casas, Javier Cercas and family, Joan de Sagarra and María Jesús de Elda, Carles Vilches, Gina and Peter, among others, passed through Blanes in the first months of ’97 and my journal, of course, notes the fact. Toing and froing, parties, names, incidents, all was jotted down – even that completely absurd phrase of Vilém Vok’s one afternoon in the Casino, when he said that Bolaño had fallen into the arms of the ghost of Humanity…
What did he mean? Oh well, it matters little now. Maybe he was right. After all, Humanity in those days went by train to Blanes.
On the 22 July 1997, at Llibrería 22 in Girona, Javier Cercas presented Distant Star and there was a big, I’d say existential – almost like an Antonioni film – party after dinner at the home of Pepa Balsach and Ángel Jové. And as a coda to the gathering there was a highly alarming and unsteady return car trip to Blanes.
On 22 September Roberto and Carolina came down to our flat at 80, Travesía del Mal where they saw the daily pile of letters sent to me for two years, every afternoon without fail, by an unknown woman whose style had become familiar. It always worked the same, she launched the discourse with a reassuring, tranquil, prose; and then she’d lose control of the words and, detonating the bland normality of decorum, entered a narrative chaos that violated her initial good manners (this structure really reminds me of Libro, that great novel by José Luis Peixoto). Bolaño picked one up at random and read it out loud, suddenly proclaiming – to everyone’s astonishment – that it was a very well-written letter. The best thing about this statement were the reasons he found to justify it, almost-convincing reasons that showed how, as a reader, he knew how to find in any text – however bizarre it might be – the merest charm, some aspect worth remarking on.
An hour later we left ours for the alley to the side of the Central bookshop, where a then very young and unknown Alicia Framis (off for the season in Amsterdam and therefore far removed from the fuss we’d make over her work), our one-time neighbour in the Travesía del Mal, the only artist I knew on that awful avenue – displayed in the basement of an art gallery no one ever visited a giant work that she’d titled, in homage to one of my books, ‘Una casa para siempre’. The board was covered in horizontal black and white stripes, on the black ones an endless amount of words were inscribed.
We stayed a good while in that basement because Roberto said he was amazed at what he was seeing. There was little doubt he saw more than we did. ‘It’s incredible’, I remember him repeating several times, and he made me view that ‘casa para siempre’ with new eyes and start to come up with all the things that make it great, so that now I’m practically bursting with reasons if I care to count.
On 18 December, in Happy Books, there was a press conference for Telephone Calls and that night Echevarría launched the book at the home of the Institut Català de Cooperació Iberoamericana (ICCI). Vague memories. Not so of the book. Among the stories are ‘Joanna Silvestri’, dedicated to Paula, and ‘Enrique Martín’, dedicated to me (maybe because, like the narrator, I’m called Enrique – although I don’t think I at all resemble this poet, admirer of Miguel Hernández and León Felipe). ‘Sensini’, without doubt the best story in the book, wasn’t dedicated to anyone even though it was clearly the most dedicatory of all, imagined for the great Antonio di Benedetto who participated like a , during his solitary final period, in Spain’s regional literary competitions.
The story ‘Enrique Martín’ isn’t one of the best, but the book as a whole has power and presents, among other things, an interesting and complex analysis – in dialogue, I believe, with The Savage Detectives which was still to come – of the tension any contemporary author experiences between the market, recognition and resistance. As Andrea Cobas and Verónica Garibotto point out in their essay ‘Un epitafio en el desierto’, with this book Bolaño passes comment on the three stale, stark avenues left open to the contemporary writer: shackle yourself with the rules of the market (that multitude of grey, competent writers); remove yourself completely and pursue an underground and unknown oeuvre, like that of Enrique Martín; or, as Sensini does or the actual narrator of that story, or the Belano from ‘Enrique Martín’, enter the publishing industry but without accepting all its rules, flirt with it and break some of its codes (e.g., the Belano from The Savage Detectives making fun of all those puffed-up madrileños at the book fair).
We’ve mentioned three ways out, three stark avenues open to the contemporary writer. But in ‘Telephone Calls’, the title story of the book, a fourth arises, dropped lightly in there, a fourth way and a frightening truth:
‘B also thinks that the street is a dead end.’
Did he have a way out before 1996? Two years later already he had no means of escape – that much is fairly certain. At times I think that all Bolaño’s principal works, written in record time until his death in 2003, develop to the full in the narrowest alley I’ve already mentioned: the dark and deadly passageway, without the light of paradise or means of escape for whoever has seen, in shock, and after cranking up the anonymity machine, their wish fulfilled, but necessarily lethal, their star sighted, caught by the vultures of the new land it had crossed into.
Before 1996 there was no alleyway, nor the problem of getting out. Beyond the rough brick walls covered in shades, in the peace afforded his life by the stability of his relationship with Carolina, he could live freely like they did in the days when writers were like gods and wrote with the sole aim of communing with the dead, ignorant of the market; they were mysterious and solitary, lost in realms of doom, humour and poetry.
At the start of February ’98 the belated news arrived of the death, in Mexico, of Mario Santiago on 10 January. Juan Villoro wrote ‘A Poet’, his obituary in La Jornada, but the news arrived late in Blanes and when it did, came bluntly, without further information than a death notice, leaving Bolaño depressed like never before; he’d written to his friend the previous summer telling him he was named Ulises Lima in a novel he was working on called The Savage Detectives.
Mario Santiago left a final poem (which can be read on the wall of the bar La Hija de los Apaches in Mexico City’s Colonia Romita), verses which, depending on how we interpret them, seem to reference the end of Distant Star (‘Look after yourself, friend, he said, and off he went’) and also, chillingly, the poet’s own death, the death of Mario, his sudden death after being run over: ‘What else is there / other than knowing how to get off the ropes / and socking it to the motherfucker in the centre of the ring / Life beats the crap out of you / it shocks Efe Zeta / Juan Orol movie / Better to get out like this / Without saying semen works or pissing the other one off / Scribbling the position of the foetus / But now, yes / definitively and upside down’.
‘Mario was a poet poet’, said Bolaño in an interview about The Savage Detectives later that year. Surely, in his position as indisputable bard with the saintly countenance, he was the poet Bolaño referred to when, in the opening lines of ‘Enrique Martín’, he talked of someone who could endure anything. Mario Santiago was a poet poet who learnt in good time he had to know how to get off the ropes. This is the question, that’s to say, this is what it’s about, that is the question: the street is a dead end, a fact that doesn’t mean knowing how to get off the ropes loses importance.
‘A poet can endure anything, which is like saying a man can endure anything, but that’s not true: few are the things a man can bear. Really bear. A poet, on the other hand, can bear anything. We grew up in that belief. The first statement is true, but leads to ruin, to madness, to death’.
‘I call those who haven’t yet turned literature into a profession les classiques,’ (Jules Renard, Journal). Ruin, madness, death and the great swindle that is all youth are found at the core of The Savage Detectives – this much is known. Less widely known is that its structure takes as model the relatively forgotten Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski’s The Gates of Paradise, as it does Marcel Schwob’s The Children’s Crusade (already adopted by Faulkner years before in Light in August). These two books and Light in August were practically bibles for Bolaño; I remember the conversation about Andrzejewski at the Terrassans one March afternoon in ’98, days before I’d turn 50 and we’d celebrate the occasion at a dinner at Can Massana in Barcelona, where Bolaño would find thwarted his plan to read a few humorous lines penned for the occasion: ‘Before daybreak I’d like to request silence to be able to say a few words […] Today my friend Enrique turns 17, and that’s that. Because in literature 17 mean a huge amount…’
Of all the things we talked about at the Terrassans, the most interesting turned on what we might call the ‘labyrinth exit factor’, these three ways out or stark possibilities seen with such intuition by Andrea Cobas and Verónica Garibotto, the only possibilities open to the contemporary writer; no one who’s the least bit honest can keep from asking themselves which option they’d choose and if any of them is satisfactory enough; or if in reality the road itself, as we’d already guessed, is a dead end. There are three ways out: shackle yourself with the rules of the market; remove yourself completely and pursue an underground and unknown oeuvre; enter the publishing industry but without accepting all its rules, flirt with it and break some of its codes, until the wrath and vengeance of the oval office of the literary mafia falls upon the author (read this last line with a piercing look, full of doom, humour and poetry).
In August ’98 he gave me, like the ‘writer from the old days’ he was, important pointers – astonishing, almost – to solve the problem on which I’d run aground in the editing of my new book The Vertical Journey. I believed that nothing happens in it, and said so. But he thought the opposite. You reckon nothing happens – he said, puzzled – but a lot of things happen in there, really a lot. (The scene from the basement where Alicia Framis had Una casa para siempre on show came back to me.) It’s just great what’s happening in there, he told me, full of enthusiasm for my vertical Portuguese journey: no one has ever encouraged me more. It was an unforgettable moment, because he seemed to have worked out at once exactly what lies in knowing how to escape a situation we’re trapped in.
On 2 November he received the Herralde Prize for his surprising novel – for the record time in which it seems to have been written – The Savage Detectives, which in any case didn’t come out of nothing, as some thought, but from the relentless anonymity machine: Bolaño used the widest material, saved up over the years when silence made him strong.
On the morning of 6 December he moved house in Blanes, installing himself, Carolina and Lautaro at 13, Carrer Ample, first floor. In Barcelona on 16 December was the launch of The Savage Detectives. Jorge Edwards spoke first and next my turn came and I read my text ‘Bolaño en la Distancia’, which included a series of theatrical movements by means of which in equal measures I approached then distanced myself from Bolaño while reading; it is an insightful and premonitory text because I predict the compasses which from then on would govern our relationship. Among those present I remember Carolina, Herralde and Lali Gubern, Gina and Peter, Carles Vilches, Menene Gras, Paula de Parma, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, Javier Cercas. Edwards said that the novel was good, very good, although he had to confess to not having finished it, at which point he received a severe – historic, I’d say – scolding from the author. This scolding still sounds in my ears and, when it does, I imagine that Proust, Joyce, Schwob and Andrzejewski add to it, as if the anger was theirs too.
What to do? For me what resonates most about that period is this question which holds to this day, already mulled over at length with Roberto that afternoon on the terrace at the Terrassans. ‘Once inside, up to the neck’, Céline said. That’s how it is: up to the neck. And one observes how the ways of escape – integration; be an underground writer; enter the publishing industry and subvert its rules – dangerously begin to lose their attractiveness and range. From the outside they seem to be generous openings, but begin to stop seeming so. The alley has no window to the outside, but still one will have to know how to get off the ropes. Any poet poet ends up spending a lot of time in the dark alley, will experience a machine of stealthy anonymity wherever they may be. There they rob you, hassle you, follow you, ask you for a light, rip you off, suck you off, scare you, shoot you. There is nothing beyond the alleyway, only the memory of happy days, days in which energy was building up (‘I still keep mute’, wrote the young Nabokov, ‘and in the hush grow strong. The far-off crests of future works, amidst the shadows of my soul are still concealed like mountaintops in pre-auroral mist’) with the aim of being able, at last, to have one’s say, deferred so many times, to be able to say that you… to say that you were always Jack the Ripper. Yes, that’s where it starts. And precisely there it ends.
Not long ago, at the Paraty festival, Brazil, I delivered a radical address on the state of world literature in the present day. I titled it ‘Music for Underachievers’, and in it I said, among other things, that in fact, with regards to literature, everything is already over; although maybe, with luck, this can be explained, it is undeniable, I said, that prose has turned itself more into a product for the market: something that is interesting, distinguished, earnest, respected but, inevitably, insignificant…The question remains, I said, as to whether writers shouldn’t just be read instead of being seen, because I’ve always thought that at the precise moment writers start to be seen, all is ruined.
The next day the Brazilian press said I had put the Paraty festival itself into question, where so many writers had gone to be seen, including myself. It seemed I hadn’t been understood, or perhaps the opposite, had been dangerous and enormously understood and the vengeance of the oval office had already been set in motion. Come nighttime I asked myself why, why all this, what was the point in that radical address proposing the possible ways out available to the contemporary writer who wants to be free. What had I achieved with my tirade? All I’d done is astonish a large group of Brazilian ladies and, to top it all, all continued as before to the extent I gave the impression – something I wasn’t looking for in the slightest – that I am someone who unnecessarily complicates life.
In the hotel, at dinner time, I watched the North American and English writers, so globe-trotting and famous – Franzen, McEwan, Kureishi – and I realised that for them everything was much simpler, they devoted themselves to writing and didn’t waste time on useless and seditious positions, old Marxist polemics and all the other revolutionary jargon of yesteryear. And, what’s more, they were rich, famous and happy.
When I mentioned this to a Brazilian journalist, he surprised me by saying I was mistaken. Don’t think that’s the way things are, he said, this morning I talked to McEwan and it turns out all isn’t well, he told me that he’s unhappy at times because he yearns for the years when nobody knew him and he could write in peace.
I paused for a moment. I smiled. It seemed that in Paraty that day I’d come a little closer, moving with the utmost deftness, to knowing how to get off the ropes. And so it was I couldn’t help but think of Bolaño, jealous to think of him free at last from all this rubbish, poet now forever, far from the flies in the old butcher’s in Blanes. Neither temples nor gardens. Neither mafias nor alleyways. Free now, like an admirable Trojan poet.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
J.S. Tennant works for PEN International. Previously he worked as a ghost writer, in publishing, and was poetry editor of The White Review. ‘From a Cuban Notebook’ is part of a longer, ongoing, project.