Posts Tagged ‘the savage detectives’

Do you want Mexico to be saved? Do you want Christ to be our king? No. ~Malcom Lowry (Epigraph to The Savage Detectives)

The Savage Detectives is divided into three parts. This entry is about the finale of part I. Mexicanos Perdidos en México (1975) [Mexicans Lost in Mexico (1975)]. The end approaches chaos: García Madero is disillusioned with the Visceral Poets. Maria Font and he are on the rocks. Even Quim (father of the Font sisters) has taken a kind of fall in the young poet’s eyes. We find out the why behind Quim’s helping of Lupe—the sisters’ friend who is a prostitute—and it isn’t exactly altruistic…Quim’s wife asks him for a divorce during their annual New Year’s party for the Mexico City literary elite.

García Madero, as well, is flip-flopping between Rosario, who has been his steady mujer, and a wish to make love to his idealized version of María Font. “Today I went back to the Fonts’ house. Today I did Rosario wrong.” (122) Pancho is crying over Angélica Font. In a scene on pages 122 –124, Madero enters a cafeteria on the Zόcalo (Mexico City’s main square) and to his surprise finds Pancho, lamenting over a night of “whoring” – a test to see if he’d gotten over Angélica (self-described). The two decide to go to the Font’s house together.

Soon, Pancho and García Madero are inside a taxi, speeding through the streets of Mexico City. They pass by the “storefronts of Juárez and Roma Norte.” The reader is reminded of Ciudad Juárez in Mexico where 1000 unsolved murders of young women have occurred since 1993 (stories of these murders form the body of Bolaño’s final novel 2666). Pancho and García Madero have a heated conversation about Pancho and Angélica during the ride:

The whole problem, he confided, gloomy again, had to do with the social divide between his family, who were lowly and working class, and Angélica’s firmly ensconced as they were in Mexico City’s petit bourgeoisie. To cheer him up I argued that although this would surely make it harder to start a relationship, the chasm of class struggle narrowed considerably once the relationship was already under way […] were he and Angélica really two average people, two typical, rigid representations of the petit bourgeoisie and the proletariat?

“No, I guess not,” said Pancho pensively as the taxi we’d caught at Reforma and Juárez headed at breakneck speed toward Calle Colima.

That’s what I was trying to say, I told him, that since he and Angélica were poets, what difference did it make if one belonged to one social class and the other to another?

“Plenty, I’m telling you,” said Pancho.
“Don’t be mechanistic, man,” I said more and more irrationally happy.

Unexpectedly, the taxi driver backed me up: “If you’ve already gotten what you came for there’s no such thing as barriers. When love is good, nothing else matters.”[…]

You go at it with your girl and forget that communist crap,” said the taxi driver.
“What do you mean communist crap?” said Pancho.
“You know all that social class business.”
“So according to you social classes don’t exist.’ Said Pancho.
The taxi driver, who had been watching us in the rearview mirror as he talked, turned around now […]
“For all intents and purposes, no. When it comes to love all Mexicans are equal. In the eyes of God too,” said the taxi driver.
“What a load of bullshit!” said Pancho.

Why have I isolated this conversation? …and pulled such a long quote? Because this conversation is that important to me as a college student, it speaks so fully to my experience. If you’re like me, you went to college, high on idealism, oblivious in some regards, ignorant, but happy and accepting. (Especially if you’re the sons or daughters of hippies). You thought anything was possible, and were determined not to see people through social status, but as fellow human beings. Then you go to college, where year after year in the humanities or social science departments they teach you the social “realities” of class division, race and gender, where the lines and boundaries are etched. You learn words like: “petit bourgeoisie” “proletariat” “commoditization” and see “The Threepenny Opera.” Everything happy becomes a parody of itself and demoralized, you feel your limitations, you understand what you are to others who see you superficially, and you begin to understand others through those same terms. Disillusionment haunts your every step as you play the skeptic, the role that a good, critical education teaches you to do. Cynicism becomes a virtue, speaking to just how much you know you know. And materialist economy seeps into every issue—even love and art.

But for the true idealist, nothing can stop those moments of impending inspiration, and a burst of love will come unanalyzed, and again the inside world will project those vibrant colors and hopes and dreams onto the grimy surface pavement and brilliant steel edifices of the surrounding burbs, even onto the blackened waters of the Gulf. In the Quixotic sense, the windmill is again the giant. Some would call the idealism “innocence,” and say when it’s lost it’s lost—but I see it as possibility. And the conscious choice to believe in possibility, aware of limitation, is not ignorance, but freedom. (Beware: not in a nationalistic sense.)

I isolated this conversation between Pancho, Garcia Madero and the taxi driver because it is about that struggle between self and society. Their voices are a mix of practicality, idealism, and obliviousness (the best probably a balance). It may be parody, it may not, it may reek of deception and foolishness, it may cause you to laugh at over sentimentality, but if you find yourself saying, “who cares?” You have probably lost your spark.


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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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