There’s awe-inspiring immensity down there. I’m looking out over Mexico City, from thirty-six floors up in the sky, a recumbent giant right before me, shimmering in glorious February sunshine. It’s a miracle I’m here, shacked up in this lux hotel for a few days. Behind triple-glazed glass, I can’t hear a thing; but what a sight to behold, to conjure with. Down below I can see the great green expanse of Chapultepec, sliced apart by Paseo de la Reforma and criss-crossed by the enormous multi-tiered expressway—Circuito Interior—over in the distance, gridlocked with traffic. It looks like the traffic passes beneath a rollercoaster, even passes into this rollercoaster, looping the loop. The city all around seems only to end at the horizon, at the foothills of faraway mountains beyond; at times Mexico City even seems to stretch beyond that horizon, beyond anything as-yet recognisable, as if it’s already staking out some new planetary urban turf. The view is so gripping I hardly want to abandon my perch. Yet I have to get out, into the sunlight, out from behind my glass insulation, plunge into the frantic beast outside.
Immediately outside the door is actually mellow, the leafy upscale tranquility of Polanco’s quietly busy streets. The air is balmy, life-affirming. I’m wandering passageways named after Ancient philosophers and famous writers; one is called Alejandro Dumas, which leads me into Parque Lincoln, a verdant little oasis with its scrubbed white clock tower, pond and peacocks, an aviary and a statue of Abraham, the park’s namesake icon. I stroll along empty paths, cross over the road. Even the traffic is polite around here. I smell a bookstore somewhere. I think of Walter Benjamin, that intrepid urbanist and bookwormer, and understand what he meant when he was unpacking his library: each book on the shelf, he said, was like a little memento of a time spent wandering the city streets, a tiny brick with which he could reconstruct past urban environments and perhaps even imagine new ones to come. “How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!”
Then I find it. Or it finds me: Cafebreria El Péndulo, a city-wide chain, a bookstore-cum-café, though like so many in Latin American it has an inner atrium of immense beauty and taste. Light floods into it, and the sense of space, of openness and solace, is palpable. Exotic vegetation invades the stacks; or maybe books invade exotic vegetation, leafs become leaves. I’m searching for the book I need. Everywhere titles are delicately encased in cellophane. I’m not sure if I can look in. There’s plenty of people sitting in armchairs, drinking Latte; yet nobody reads a book.
Suddenly, I see one I have to have. I prise open its protection, rip it apart. It’s free now, liberated, readable—some 600 pages. Daubed across its cover in black uppercase is: THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES. I think I’ve found my Mexico City field manual; I think I’ve found the field manual for the rest of my days on earth. I’m lost in Mexico but feel I am on the way to finding myself. I settle back into an armchair at El Péndulo, and before long realise that I’m in a bookstore, and a neighbourhood, where no real poet ever bought books: they stole books from these places, pilfered from them.
Roberto Bolaño, the book’s author, died in 2003 at fifty, taken away by liver disease in Blanes, on Spain’s Costa Brava, a bit north of Barcelona, where he’d lived with wife and two kids during his forties. A Santiago native who grew up in Mexico City, Bolaño studied law but dropped out, yearned to be a writer, a poet, and helped establish a combustible group of wayward poets—the Ultrarealists. In the 1970s, they heckled and hassled and threw ripe tomatoes at literary conventionality, doing so as they lusted for literature in life. The Savage Detectives depicts, with a faint fictional patina, his years of youthful torment and turmoil, of catastrophes past and those you can be sure will come.
For 139 pages I listen to a young punk kid, a seventeen-year-old ado called Juan Garcia Madero telling us in his journal about teenage angst, about scribbling a few good refrains and trying to get laid. Each day he reveals his heart. He writes his Mexican Fleurs du mal, documenting his inauguration into a literary world that smoulders under a volcano. He seems more successful at fucking than writing, and manages to get off with two lonesome barmaids who take a shining to this bright young lad. He’s an orphan lodging with his aunt and uncle yet knows all about verse, about classical meter, about pentapodies and threnodies, about rispetti and strambotti. He hangs out at poetry workshops, getting bored, but afterwards, after hours, his real poetic initiation begins, in the city’s grungy bars and cafés, like the crummy Café Quito along Calle Bucareli—which in real life is the Café La Habana with its little rehabbed tables and retro beige and white chequered tile flooring. It’s here where he joins a group of disaffected poets called the Visceral Realists, and befriends The Savage Detectives’ two principal characters, visceral poets whose verse seems better practiced in life than penned on any page: Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, poor, elusive underground men who we know are later destined to vanish into the Sonora desert.
Lima and Belano aren’t much older than Juan yet are already men of the world haunted by grown-up demons. They talk about Compte de Lautréamont as if he’s still their best pal. They’re on the trail of another phantom, Visceral Realism’s mythical poet Godmother, Cesárea Tinajero, who, back in the 1920s, had herself disappeared into the lost sands of the Sonora. Lima walks everywhere, never takes the bus or Metro, walks towards the unknown. Every book in the world for him is out there waiting to be read. Lima reads in his sleep, even reads in the shower. Belano, meanwhile, carries frayed and folded photocopies of Raymond Queneau’s verse in his back pocket, paper so scrumpled that it looks more like Origami, “a startled paper flower with its petals splayed towards the four points of the compass.” Visceral Realists want to negate all hitherto existing Latin American poetry, clear away what Lautréamont called “the poetic whimpers of the century”; they’re stuck between Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda, the rock and the hard place.
Nighttime now. I’ve wended my way back to my aerial den. I’m reading on my bed, propped up by a pillow, staring out the window at the twinkling galaxy of lights, the liquid movement of red and yellow flows, oscillating and interlocking into some still-undiscovered chaotic constellation. I’m looking at Mexico City while reading about Mexico City. I’m here, physically present, in the real Mexico City, in this great seething, sprawling metropolis; yet I’m inside Bolaño’s great seething, sprawling metropolis, too, inside a book where places and words congeal into a singular literary reality: a life in literature becomes a literature of life.
After a while, I start to think about one of the characters in The Savage Detectives who’s about my age, Quim Font, a tormented adult, father of precocious and promiscuous daughters, Maria and Angelica, talented poets, dancers and painters; Maria beds Juan one night at dad’s house, a little fortress property in La Condesa, which turns in on itself with an inner courtyard and two houses. The daughters have their own separate quarters. Quim was once a successful architect but we quickly get wind of his downward drift; his psychological disposition is what we might describe as troubled. He’s moody and melancholic, frequently babbling bizarrely. At the end of the first part of Bolaño’s book, Quim lends Ulises and Arturo his old Impala sports car, so they can make a fast getaway with Juan and Lupe, a young prostitute whose psychotic pimp, Alberto, is threatening to kill. They take leave on New Year’s Eve 1975, with Quim losing his mind as well as his car.
It’s hardly surprising that when we next hear from him, after the narrative of The Savage Detectives splinters into dozens of polyphonic testimonies, a 400-page musing on what actually happened to Ulises and Arturo on the road, circa 1975-1996, Quim is now certified—a resident inmate of El Repose Mental Health Clinic. Yet institutionalisation seems to be doing Quim good. He’s calmed down a lot, although maybe it’s the medication. Anyhow, now he declaims with lucidity about books he’s read over the years, read when bored and when calm, but also when happy and sad, when thirsty for knowledge, even when desperate.
The latter are books that Ulises and Arturo want to write, Quim says. Their big mistake! You can’t live your whole life in desperation, Quim thinks. He’s learned that lesson the hard way, being desperate for so long himself. The passage from adolescence to adulthood is one from desperation to serenity, a regenerative process, he says, learning how to embrace Proust and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. When I hear this I’m not sure whether it’s the grown-up Quim talking or the grown-up Bolaño. Ultimately, Quim—or Bolaño—believes that a literature of desperation is “a literature of resentment,” “full of sharp instruments and lynched messiahs”; it “doesn’t pierce the heart the way a calm page, a carefully thought-out page, a technically perfect page does.” Quim warned everybody. He lost his mind doing so, was driven mad. “Seek oneself,” he says, “lose oneself in strange lands. But with a guiding line.”
I’ve got to get a grip on things myself. I need to write this last quotation of Quim’s down somewhere, pin it near my work station. Some days I feel as troubled by the world as Quim, looking over the edge, trying not to fall down. Maturity isn’t about rediscovering lost youth in middle-age; it’s transforming youthful impulses, propelling them into the here and now, using them to help stake out what lies ahead, giving these youthful impulses a richer, more mature meaning. I’m glad I’m a grown-up fifty-something, with a daughter; I wouldn’t want to go back. I want to be a Visceral Realist as well as a Magical Marxist, a radical poet of pandemonium, but who, as Guy Debord once said, “speaks as coolly as possible about things that have aroused so much passion.” I need that guiding line, that invisible thread.
The next morning, bright and early, I head off on foot for Quim’s old neighbourhood, La Condesa, my favourite part of Mexico City, hiking across Chapultepec, past the National Anthropology Museum and the Zoologico, traversing some scary traffic arteries, passing over the Circuito Interior on a rusty footbridge, into the backstreets of hip and arty Condesa, with its pavement cafés and trendy boutiques. Things here are chic but with just enough Bohemian grunge to give the area an edge, to ward off cleansed bourgeoisdom. As ever, there are some stunning bookstores, like the hyper-modern space at Cultural Bella Época, an Art Deco jewel of a building, with a cinema, cultural centre and obligatory ace coffee shop. It’s said to be Latin America’s biggest bookstore, with 35,000 titles, and a 2,000 square-metre glass ceiling that looks as if it’s been transplanted from Amazonia. At ground floor level you can relax on big leather sofas amid the vegetation, and read under a flood of radiant white light.
After an early lunch, taken on a sidewalk terrace at Milo’s Bar & Grill, a stone’s throw from Parque Espana, watching the weekday late-morning world gently go by, listening to a chorus of chirping birds, I go off in search of another bookstore, this time for Anglophones, “Under the Volcano,” a literary haven on Calle Celaya. At first I can’t find it, walk by it. It’s discreet. From the outside it looks like somebody’s house, colonial-style, with striking blue-arched iron-grilling over its windows. You enter through an ornate archway entrance and pass into a darkened, somewhat dingy hall, with exotic looking Gauginesque artwork on the wall. A staircase leads you up to the bookstore itself, really one small room, lined wall-to-ceiling with used books.
The stock is rich and ample, well-organised and up-to-date—good condition American editions. Somebody knows what they’re doing. A young American guy mans the till, standing in for the store’s owner who’s out of town on a trip. Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives is third on its bestseller list, behind Nabokov’s Lolita and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, though ahead of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano—eponymous inspiration for the bookstore—and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. “Under the Volcano” professes to be “an embassy for the soul of the English-speaking world—its literature in Mexico…a web-free, Kindle-less island of analog time in a digital sea; a community centre for Commonwealth and American expatriates in the most exciting, vibrant and accessible city on earth.”
I don’t beg to differ. I browse the Bolaño section and tell the young American I’m currently reading The Savage Detectives. He tells me to check out Bolaño’s poetry; Bolaño always saw himself as a poet, a better poet than novelist: his poetry made him blush less, he himself said. The American treasures his bilingual collection of Bolaño’s verse, keeps it at home and wouldn’t put in up for sale any day. Look at The Romantic Dogs, he recommends. “I’m here with the romantic dogs/ and here I’m going to stay.” Bolaño wrote poetry in “the land of idiots,” scribbled outpourings in the “silent wing of the Unknown University.” Accreditation here is a life-journey spent under the stars, not a certificate you gain at graduation.
I remember The Savage Detectives’ epigraph, from Malcolm Lowry: “Do you want Mexico to be saved? Do you want Christ to be our king?” “No…” I tell the American that Lowry originally hailed from Liverpool, like me—well, actually he came from New Brighton, across the River Mersey from Liverpool itself, close by, although unlike me Lowry was a rich kid, the son of a wealthy cotton merchant. I used to go to New Brighton for my summer vacation as a kid in the 1960s, take the ferry across the Mersey. Lowry, like Bolaño, like Ulises and Arturo, was searching for something his whole life, glimpsed it, even grasped it, yet was never able to deal with what he’d found. He destroyed himself. He was happier living in his art than living in his life. Like Quim, somewhere en route he lost his guiding line. He stepped over the edge, plunged down the abyss he’d been staring down way too long.
Under the Volcano, published in 1947, takes place in 1938 on the Day of the Dead, in Cuernavaca, a small town south of Mexico City. The book immortalises the hard liquor mezcal, and the trembling hand of the “Consul,” the defrocked English civil servant Geoffrey Fermin, Lowry’s alcoholic alter-ego abandoned by his wife, a man who drank his mezcal down to the worm. He was one of Guy Debord’s literary heroes. “Nothing in the world was more terrible than an empty bottle!” the Consul says. “Unless it was an empty glass.” “How, unless you drink as I do,” he says, “can you hope to understand the beauty of an old woman from Tarasco who plays dominoes at seven o’clock in the morning?”
The atmosphere of tropical heat and sweaty bodies, of sapping humidity and overhead fans, of colonial castoffs and quirky barflies steers Lowry’s Under the Volcano towards Gabriel García Márquez; yet Lowry’s dramatic tension is more brutal and destructive, more menacing, wrenching him nearer to Faulkner. The volcanoes loom everywhere, and vultures, adding to the sense of impending doom: “The volcanoes seemed terrifying in the wild sunset…and vultures hovered there like burnt papers floating from a fire.” The Consul leans on a bar and stares into “his second glass of the colourless ether-smelling liquid. To drink or not to drink—But without mezcal, he imagined, he had forgotten eternity, forgotten the world’s voyage, that the earth was a ship, lashed by the Horn’s tail, doomed never to make their Valparaiso.”
Bolaño’s cast likewise search for their Valparaiso, for their own eternity, as they down another mezcal—“Los Suicidas,” they ominously call it—toasting the Consul’s memory silently in their dreams. “Christ,” says Fermin, shot at the end of Lowry’s masterpiece, thrown down a ravine with a dead dog, like Kafka’s Joseph K., “this is a dingy way to die.” The spirit of Nietzsche haunts, the Nietzsche of Gay Science, who spoke of “preparatory men,” of people of the future wanting “their own festivals and weekdays, their own periods of mourning” and whose “greatest enjoyment is living dangerously,” sailing into uncharted seas, building a city under Vesuvius, under a volcano.
Ulises and Arturo build their house under a volcano. They, too, go searching for their own weekdays and periods of mourning. They crop up all over the place, all over the world—Barcelona, Kigali, London, Madrid, Managua, Paris, Rome, San Diego, Tel Aviv—going their own separate geographical ways, wandering in the wilderness; yet, somehow, no matter where they go, Bolaño joins them together ontologically. They do every odd job under the sun, from washing dishes to camp site watchmen, having adventures galore, cropping up in Liberian civil wars and Nicaraguan revolutions, seemingly doing it all with no money nor with any fixed abode. We hear nothing about their writings; indeed, they seem to have given up the act of writing altogether. Their poetic blush is now living, alive, inscribed into practical everyday verse, viscerally real. As one testimony put it, theirs is “the riddle of the poet who’s lost and survives.” The truth is “I don’t remember anymore, but don’t worry, the poet doesn’t die, he loses everything, but he doesn’t die.”
Ulises shows up twenty-years later, still apparently youthful but he must be in his forties now, prowling Mexico City’s Parque Hundido, with its floral clock, a shadowy poet fugitive who has an affecting rendezvous, a pure make-believe rendezvous, with old man Octavio Paz, by then a Nobel Laureate. Paz is accompanied by his faithful housekeeper who recounts the secret event. Lima and Paz shake hands, sit down on a park bench. “How long did they talk? Not long. And yet from where I was sitting it was clear that it was a leisurely, calm, polite conversation.” They spoke of Cesárea Tinajero, whom Paz remembers by reputation. A little later we find out what really happened to Tinajero, because The Savage Detectives flips back in time, to New Year’s Day 1976; we’re on the road again, a day on from where we left off, all those pages ago, with Ulises and Arturo and Juan and Lupe blasting along in Quim’s Impala, hurtling through the Sonora desert.
Ulises has learned how to drive like Dean Moriarty and Juan returns as a Sal Paradise narrator. They bivouac in the fictional border town of Santa Teresa—centre of action for Bolaño’s final, incomplete novel, 2666—where they at last encounter Cesárea Tinajero. “She looked like a rock or an elephant,” Juan writes. “Her rear end was enormous and it moved to the rhythm set by her arms, two oak trunks.” She’s lived on her own for years in a modest adobe house in the middle of nowhere, a tragic woman who seems content; she radiates “immense humanity.” She hurls herself at Alberto, helps kill him, though takes a bullet in the chest doing so, losing her own life. They bury her afterwards and discover her valedictory poem, her only written poem. Did she ever need to write another?
Amazingly, it’s just a few rows of lines, lines not words. It’s wordless, made up of straight, wavy and jagged pen movements, zigzags resembling life’s elemental path, verses of ups and downs and powerful feelings. What does the straight line mean, they wonder? The horizon, maybe, calmness, still seas? And the wavy one? Hills on the horizon, movement, change? And the jagged? Shark’s teeth, mountains on the horizon, choppy seas tossed by a gale? The poem says it all. It’s also where The Savage Detectives trails off. We’re none the wiser about what happened to its stars, whether they lived beyond the 1990s? Is it true that poets never die? The closing sequence of Bolaño’s great book lingers, the dénouement to a novel of exquisite artistry that’s finished yet unfinished. We watch the detectives even while we’re kept guessing, even while we never quite know what they were investigating. “What’s the mystery?” somebody asks. “Then the boys looked at me and said: there is no mystery.”
The Savage Detectives filled my head for the remainder of my stay in Mexico City, spent looking at its golden Angel, at the crumbling pyramids near the Plaza de la Constitución, at Diego Rivera’s stunning mural on the stairwell and walls of the National Palace, depicting Mexico’s ancient and modern history. And I wander into more bookstores, dozens of them, along Calle Donceles, chaotic, dusty bookstores that don’t seem to have acquired much new stock since the mid-1970s. I venture further east, to the edge of Mexico City’s historic district, to the traditional market of Merced, a vast roofed labyrinth of narrow alleyways piled high each side with fruit and vegetables; with chillies and chillies and more chillies; with mountains of beans and onions; with garlic and herbs and cheeses; with giant cacti leaves—nopals—whose spines little old women sit around slicing off, skinning them. Then I wander outside, along Anillo de Circunvalación, where there’s a sidewalk bazaar—a super-kinetic tianguis in full motion and commotion, with “unofficial” street hawkers peddling their wares, their jeans and tee-shirts, their mobile phones and candy, their quesadillas and tostadas, poor people selling to poor people. Huddled discreetly in doorways, meanwhile, are scantily-clad young prostitutes, touting business in this renowned “tolerance” zone.
Mexico City literally brims with intense life everywhere; everybody hustles, usually quietly, frequently courageously. Life is a song and dance without much song and dance. I’m sorry I’ve got to leave, sorry I’ve got to put Bolaño down. But I know I’ll come back to him again and again even if I can’t come back to Mexico City again and again. He’ll be my perpetual upper in times of downer. Perhaps it’s just me, but those downers seem more frequent these days. It’s not a great moment for humanist poets, for visceral realists intent on art and literature. Of course, there’s never really ever been a good time for humanist poets; there aren’t too many job openings, never will be. Ulises and Arturo teach us that we should forget about whether there are job openings or not, forget about expectations of “success”—why should a society that rewards liars reward us anyway?—and get on with practicing our art while living our life, creating something that resists by the very nature of its own honest creation. In that sense, it’s true, poets never die, because their spirit will always live on; their art will prevail come what may. Bolaño creates a crazy world of restless romantic dogs, inspiring for younger guys out on the mooch, but likewise inspiring for older guys, too, for people like me, who still want to keep our noses close to the ground, spending our days digging for buried bones.