Archive for March, 2010

In the first 60 pages of The Savage Detectives the reader is introduced to the Mexico City literary underworld of the 1970s through the eyes of 17-year-old Juan García Madero. His point of view is that of the desperate adolescent reader: impressionable, impassioned, idealistic and longing. He vies to get the visceral realists acceptance. Not literally because they have already accepted him into “the gang,” but as friends. In their world the stars are the visceral realists, other poets and Cesárea Tinajero, a long-lost poet.

García Madero wants to study literature but his Uncle wants him to be a lawyer, so like many frustrated literature enthusiasts, he signs up for the responsible law school route in the university’s “hallowed halls.” But he also signs up for the poet Alamo’s poetry workshops. García Madero finds the regular workshops mundane until they are interrupted by a visit from two leaders of the visceral realists–a Mexican literary movement, kind of. They are Arturo Belano (arguably a thinly veiled Roberto Bolaño) and Ulises Lima. When they scuffle with Alamo, García Madero shows literary prowess while siding with Belano and Lima and they invite him to join their group.

The Encrucijada Veracruzana, the bar on calle Bucareli, is the local hangout of the visceral realists when not at the upscale Font family house. In the bar storeroom García Madero has his first sexual experience. The waitress Brigada takes him into the storage room where she gives him “a blow job” (Bolaño 16) as he tries to think of The Vampire, a poem he admires for its obscure and dark eroticism. I find this funny.

García Madero alludes to a Santo film when describing the lighting in photos of San Epifanio and Billy. El Santo was a masked professional Mexican wrestler, film actor and folk icon. Above is a promotion for the film Santo vs The Vampire Women

What I especially like about this section is its inclusion of eroticism alongside class tensions. The eroticism of García Madero’s sexual awakening, first with poetry, with the poem The Vampire, precedes his meeting with waitress Brigada, and then finally with María Font. This appeals to the body of the reader, but Bolaño also knew how to appeal to the mind, or at least to make the reader feel intellectually justified in taking pleasure from the sex scenes.

On pages 49 through 55 Garcia Madero walks into the Font’s backyard cottage to find Angélica Font, María Font and Ernesto San Epifanio looking at a series of photos. In the photos San Epifanio is having sex with Billy, the son of a Honduran ambassador. The situation could not be more offensive. Not only is it a sexual act between a man and a boy captured by a mysterious photographer (perhaps Ulises Lima) but the boy’s sister was also present, watching, and it all took place in a run-down hotel with bad lighting “like something from a Santo movie.”(Bolaño 53)

In their usual artistic pretensions the Font sisters are discussing the photos–asking whether they are pornography or erotic art.

“What do you think of the pictures?” Angélica said.
“Hard-core.” I said.
“Hard-core? That’s all?” San Epifanio got up and sat in the wooden chair where I had been. From there he watched me with one of his knife-blade smiles.
“Well there’s a kind of poetry to them. But if I told you they only struck me as poetic, I’d be lying. They’re strange pictures. I’d call them pornographic. Not in a negative sense but definitely pornographic.”
“Everybody tends to pigeonhole things they don’t understand,” said San Epifanio. “Did the pictures turn you on?”
“No,” I said emphatically, although the truth is I wasn’t sure.
“They didn’t turn me on, but they didn’t disgust me either.”
“Then it isn’t pornography. Not for you at least.”
“But I liked them,” I admitted.
“Then just say that: you liked them and you don’t know why you liked them, which doesn’t matter much anyway, period.”(Bolaño 54)

The reader asks his/herself a similar set of questions during parts of the Bolaño novel. Undoubtedly, some readers decide to leave the novel based on their answers–especially those expecting high literature propriety, who may leave with a distaste in their mouth. Overall, I think what is created is a great moment of subversion of the high and low art opposition, which takes place through the novel’s acute self-awareness. One imagines Bolaño wearing a sardonic smile as audience members get up and leave the theater.


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With freedom comes great responsibility.

I am gripping this keyboard, at the edge of a chair in my Mom’s kitchen, asking the figure of a beautiful mulatta woman holding a mango, in a hanging Paul Gauguin print (Vahine no te vi, Woman of the Mango) for a hint of inspiration. I’ve lost it.

Why? The question is one of how to discuss my favorite novel The Savage Detectives on this blog. This is the assignment and it is totally free and up to me. It is a dream assignment. Since my first year when I read the novel I have wanted to engage it. As of now there are no limits. Professor Labrador-Rodriguez only said I need to set them myself, defining a practice for digesting the 577-page novel, introduce it here on the blog and move forward recording the ensuing journey. There should be no problem; it’s my favorite novel. Still.

To change the subject for a minute, Cerca y Lejos (this blog) is at the halfway point and the first mod of the semester at New College is over. I’m home on spring break and I’m thinking this blog has been a huge help. I have refined and deepened my interests, practiced reading and translating in Spanish and decided on what will hopefully be my senior thesis topic.

New College is amazing and as a student there, the freedom in academic pursuits is incredible—also incredibly scary. An art history professor once told me what sets academics at New College apart from the intellectual journey of other undergraduate programs is an emphasis on students creating their own knowledge in their work, not summarizing and reiterating the work of others.

Natasha Wimmer translated the novel into English.

Bearing that in mind, I begin to consider framing my reading of The Savage Detectives as a “reader-response” and taking off the pressure to produce something that seems “literary” with all the right terminology, and replacing it with my reflections on reading the novel. American literary critic Stanley Fish is associated with reader-response theory, which says the meaning of a text is not in author intentionality but in the meaning created by the act of reading–in the reader. Following this theory there is no one “correct” reading of a text and I am free to be affected by The Savage Detectives and record that here.

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Man or ghost? Daniel Melingo's stage presence says it all.Never heard tango music? Now is a good time to tune in. Daniel Melingo is a classically trained, punk rocker musician from Buenos Aires (where else) who is resuscitating the folk music form with life, mixing its rich tradition with musical innovation and a voice comparable to that of Tom Waits or Nick Cave. His songs are heart-wrenching melodies that feature the host of unsavory characters and seedy nights fitting of the genre.

Many of Melingo’s song lyrics are directly influenced by the verse of Lunfardo poets of old Buenos Aires, where tango has its roots. Lunfardo was the slang of criminals and prisoners before it assimilated into general Porteño (Buenos Aires) culture. Melingo claims that the slang developed between inmates who didn’t want to share conversations with prison guards.

Melingo’s latest album, Maldito Tango, was recorded in Paris and Buenos Aires. Most songs are set in city backstreets at the turn of the twentieth century, the historical moment that gave birth to tango in Buenos Aires and Montevideo. It includes the tracks Pequeño Pariah “a prayer for a child raised in loneliness.” A Lo Magdalena, the story of an abandoned girl, saved by a nun, who eventually falls back into disgrace, crying when she hears the tango, remembering her past. En Un Bondi Color Humo is the story of the arrest of a pickpocket.

Some have called it low-life soap opera. England’s Independent newspaper called it cool.

Currently on tour through Europe, most of Melingo’s audiences won’t understand the Spanish lyrics anyway. The music seduces enough on its own: the mixture of wailing violin, birdcalls, rhythmic double bass, and twanging guitar, all shuffling, mixing, and turning with the bandoneόn (similar to an accordion, but a little different) accompanying the scruffy yet tender, charismatic voice of Melingo, is more than enough to keep listeners intrigued, even turned on.

In the genre of world music, in which Melingo fits, other artists are at work on similar projects converting traditional music into newer, edgier forms. One of these groups is Gogol Bordello. The nine person group plays eastern European gypsy music, turning it into high-energy punk rock. This turning of folk culture on its head led to a backlash for Gogol Bordello by purist, traditionalists. Not the same for Daniel Melingo, who won the 2009 best male artist tango album with Maldito Tango at the Premios Gardel a la Música in Argentina. Another common ground between these artists: theatrical and over the top on-stage performances that excite audiences. Melingo has a background in theatre, which shows in his on-stage presence as the eminent tanguero.

Melingo’s music is a bridge into tango for today’s and tomorrow’s generations. It is more accessible to modern audiences than tango’s classic performers, such as Carlos Gardel, Astor Piazzolla, Alfredo De Angelis, Miguel Calo, yet retains the sentiment–the reek of nostalgia, cologne, and the dim lights of the tango club.


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