Considering Roberto Bolaño and Woes of the True Policeman
I absolutely hated Roberto Bolaño the first time I read him. I’d heard the endless hype surrounding the release of translation after translation, a kind of post-death onslaught in the manner of some literary Tupac who kept pumping books out after losing his life too young. I tried not to be automatically skeptical, but it’s hard, particularly when the man seemed to come from out of nowhere despite legends of being one of the most revered authors in Chilean history. Finally I buckled and bought a copy of The Savage Detectives. I dug in lying face up on my bed, waiting and waiting for the alleged fireworks to come alive. I made it straight through the first 150 pages before getting angry and taking the book back to the store.
It was a long time before I read any Bolaño after that, and I talked a lot of shit during that time. I couldn’t understand what was so regaled and vital about a novel whose first third centered around a bunch of overly-romantic young male writers going on and on about the beauty of poetry, how they wanted to be famous poets, and trying to get laid amidst their self-worship. Everyone kept telling me that the book changed completely and became something else after the opening, but I wasn’t interested in seeing it any other way. Despite not having read any of his nearly 20 other books, I was convinced the Bolaño craze was a sham around a mediocre foreign writer who died young and was being fetishized by profile-worshipping Americans who thought he had done something new when really he was just another boring narrative writer. Sure, the man could turn a sentence, but it was nothing that would carry forward over time. We get sold a lot of shit in this country by jacket babble and stupid awards, and I figured this was just another big dull wash mirage.
A BIRD OF HEAT IN KINO BAY - THE SEARCH FOR THE INFRAREALIST HOLY GRAIL AND THE ESSENCE OF ROBERTO BOLAÑO IN THE NORTH OF MEXICO
The above image is part of a work in progress by Mexican photographer Eunice Adorno. It’s part of a series tentatively calledNo Hay Tal Lugar (There Is No Such Place) that’s partially inspired by the fictional city of Santa Teresa, Sonora, which is loosely based on Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and serves as the main setting for Bolaño’s 2666. Eunice’s goal is to create a portrait of a nonexistent city made up of multiple locations ravaged by the country’s war on drugs.
There is a night checkpoint right at the entrance of Kino Bay in the state of Sonora, Mexico. Passing through, two cops stopped us, pointing their flashlights at us in the dark. One of them walked slowly between the headlights of our Expedition, keeping us within the sights of his 9mm pistol; the other one stopped less than two feet away from the driver.
“Where to?” the cop asked.
“To Kino,” our driver answered.
“Do you know what week it is?”
“The unholy week.”
“OK. Watch out.”
Our new friend had a gold tooth, or at least it was gold-plated. He smiled as if he had just killed someone. Our driver, a man experienced in such matters, estimated that he had killed a couple, at the very least. Perhaps the officer’s last victim was a Seri Indian lying on the ground, among cacti, bleeding from a gunshot wound to his back. Or maybe a junkie from Arizona looking for thrills in the small towns of Sonora, and instead getting one right between the eyes courtesy of this murderer with a badge.
Kino Bay was calm on our arrival. Six fat couples in bathing suits were playing volleyball; some kids were drinking Tecate Light and listening to reggaeton next to a bonfire. It was almost serene. Then we noticed the row of bulletproof pickup trucks with blacked-out windows. They were filled with tough guys whose favorite activity is driving down the only avenue in town, listening to norteño music at a worrisome and suspense-inducing low volume.
Smack in the middle of the avenue, which is to say, right in the middle of the town, was another Sonora state-police checkpoint: five cop cars with their lights flashing, piercing the darkness of the night. Inside were ten very annoyed Sonora police officers who looked like they had just been released from a military mental asylum.
For some reason unbeknownst to me, just before arriving at this second checkpoint our driver stopped the music. We had been listening to a CD by Los Cadetes de Linares, a band that’s from the Mexican northeast—near the Texan border—and not the northwest.
He slid in another CD, this time a bootleg, and scanned forward to track 7. It was a Chalino Sánchez tune based on Manuel Acuña’s poem “Nocturno a Rosario,” and its alexandrine verses came belting out of the speakers in a screeching wail. Chalino was a hitman before he became a professional singer. He quickly turned into a star but could not escape his past and, eventually, was shot dead at the age of 31.
This time there was minimal dialogue at the checkpoint; there wasn’t even an attempt at interrogation, and the journey continued. Our final destination, which we hoped to reach by evening, was Lorenzo Pinelli’s hostel. He had surprised us by announcing he had a copy of Pájaro de Calor (Bird of Heat), the legendary 1976 infrarrealist1 anthology that is so rare it may as well not be real. It is a key artifact of the literary movement, and arguably one of the many aesthetic cornerstones of Roberto Bolaño, perhaps the most celebrated contemporary author to write extensively about Mexico, even if he was from Chile.
We arrived at the hostel and met Lorenzo Pinelli, a pleasant Dostoyevskian character exiled in this Siberia of sand: all muscles, thick mustache, and kind eyes, like those of a giant marine insect.
Oddly, Roberto Bolaño never went to Sonora during his lifetime. But Sonora was to Bolaño what Macondo was to Gabriel García Márquez, or Yoknapatawpha to William Faulkner. Bolaño only knew Sonora through maps made by Julio César Montané, a scholarly Chilean who had been exiled in the state since the 1970s. (To put this in context, a Chilean in Sonora is as strange and extravagant as a Finn in Oaxaca.) Montané, a literature professor, historian, and geographer, served as the basis for the character of Amalfitano in Bolaño’s magnum opus, 2666. In the novel there is a long passage in which Amalfitano speaks about a subject that, in Mexico, is as delicate as that of the narcotraficantes.
"It’s an old story, the relationship of Mexican intellectuals with power. I’m not saying they’re all the same. There are some notable exceptions. Nor am I saying that those who surrender do so in bad faith. Or even that they surrender completely. You could say it’s just a job. But they’re working for the state. In Europe, intellectuals work for publishing houses or for the papers or their wives support them or their parents are well-off and give them a monthly allowance or they’re laborers or criminals and they make an honest living from their jobs. In Mexico, and this might be true across Latin America, except in Argentina, intellectuals work for the state. It was like that under the PRI and it’ll be the same under the PAN. The intellectual himself may be a passionate defender of the state or a critic of the state. The state doesn’t care. The state feeds him and watches over him in silence… They only hear the sounds that come from deep in the mine. And they translate or reinterpret or recreate them. Their work, it goes without saying, is of a very low standard. They employ rhetoric where they sense a hurricane, they try to be eloquent where they sense fury unleashed, they strive to maintain the discipline of meter where there’s only a deafening and hopeless silence. They say cheep cheep, bowwow, meow meow, because they’re incapable of imagining an animal of colossal proportions, or the absence of such an animal."