Tag Archives: Roberto Bolaño

Tlatelolco and Bolaño’s debt to Poniatowska

On October 2, 1968, just ten days before the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Mexico City, soldiers opened fire on a demonstration of some 10,000 students at the Plaza of the Three Cultures in Tlatelolco, in the heart of the city. At least forty-four people were killed (the actual number has never been determined) and hundreds wounded. Thousands were detained and over 1,200 arrested, some to be imprisoned for days and months without trial.

Plaza de las Tres Culturas

Then as now, the Plaza de las Tres Culturas contained a 16th Century church and pre-Conquest ruins, surrounded by urban housing projects and government ministries. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The massacre exposed the enormous rift between the government, ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for forty years, and Mexico’s youth. The government, which was so anxious to portray Mexico under its leadership as an emerging industrial democracy, instead revealed to the world its own dark, corrupted soul.

La escritora Elena Poniatowska

Elena Poniatowska (Photo credit: Casa de América)

Journalist Elena Poniatowska understood the significance of the tragedy and quickly went to work collecting the testimony of people who were there. In her 1971 book, La Noche de Tlatelolco (in English retitled Massacre in Mexico), she weaves together hundreds of eye-witness accounts to create a tapestry of horror. (Government documents released in 2001 would corroborate much of what Poniatowska described: that army snipers on rooftops began shooting into the crowd on a pre-arranged signal. Worse, they showed complicity for the order to fire at the highest echelons of the government.)

The accounts of the massacre occupy the second part of her incredible book. The longer first section uses the same narrative technique to explore the origins of the student movement. Like a documentary filmmaker, Poniatowska interweaves individual narratives to create a larger, more complex and heart-rending collage. She records the distinctive voices and their amazing stories without editorializing. By letting the voices speak for themselves, she captures the movement’s optimism, idealism and naiveté, as well as the manipulations of some of its leaders and the consternation it created among the older generation.

This is oral history at its finest and most powerful, and I believe it had a direct influence on an aspiring young writer who would emerge as one of Latin America’s great modern novelists: Roberto Bolaño.

the-savage-detectives-roberto-bolanoIn The Savage Detectives, Bolaño uses the same techniques to produce a similar documentary effect. His young Mexican narrator of the novel’s first section, Juan García Madero, possesses all of the idealism and naiveté, even the postured ennui, of those young people from the 1968 student movement.

In the second section of the novel, like Poniatowska Bolaño creates a collage of interwoven narratives to tell the larger, sadder story of the dissolution of the “infra-realist” poetry movement and the disillusionment of its two leaders, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. There is even a narrator in this section based on a legendary woman mentioned by Poniatowska who, during the student protests of ’68, remained on the university campus by hiding in a bathroom for weeks after the army evicted the students and shut it down. Bolaño takes that story and riffs on it in his own inimitable way, turning the woman into a poet whose voice adds more cumulative details about the demise of Lima and Belano.

The narrative arc of Poniatowska’s non-fiction and Bolaño’s fiction is the same. From ebullient, youthful optimism the reader travels across the emotional spectrum, while a compelling gravity draws each story to its inevitable outcome, culminating in violence, disbelief and dismay. Both books, one through meticulous reportage and the other through febrile imagination, brilliantly capture the history of a generation.

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Bolaño’s expanding legacy

Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives is a comic masterpiece—a 21st Century Don Quixote. It pits young, rebellious would-be poets against a world of drugs and sex, literature and philosophy, pimps and whores, menial jobs and aimless wanderlust. Imagine two disenfranchised youths who actually believe poetry should matter, then imagine them searching for a surrealist poet in the Sonoran desert and you have the sad arc of the story. Told in a series of first-person narratives, many of them masterful short stories in themselves, the novel gradually records the protagonists’ inevitable loss of illusion. What starts with youthful exuberance ends in a desert landscape of existential despair and imminent violence, with the outcome already foretold in the middle section.

With this prize-winning book and his novellas By Night in Chile and Distant Star, Chilean-born Bolaño burst upon the literary scene at the start of this century. He was working furiously to finish what he hoped would be his magnum opus, 2666, when he died of liver failure at the age of 50 in 2003. Since his death, in addition to 2666, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, his heirs have released a number of short story collections and several unpublished novellas and novels. The Third Reich is one of the latter.

The Third Reich possesses many of Bolaño’s addictive charms: his compelling narrative drive, his vivid and sometimes terrifying imagery, his biting sense of humor. It also contains themes that would later become obsessions: crime stories, people living in alternate realities that verge on the fantastic yet are mundanely detailed, unpredictable violence (real or imagined), and sublimated fascism (in people, games, literature).

The Third Reich is about a German tourist in Spain who is a champion wargamer (before the internet and World of Warcraft) of a board game that reenacts World War Two. Told in the first person—Bolaño’s favorite point of view—it is a suspenseful story that keeps you reading. While it lacks the thematic layering of his mature work, it is a mash-up crime story and mystery that still reads well twenty years after it was written. Odd and ominous things are happening in the Costa Brava resort town, and we’re not sure if they stem from the narrator’s imagination or are real. Meanwhile, the game must be played, and a disfigured novice gamer whom the narrator meets on the beach ends up threatening the champion. Bolaño plucks the dissonant chords of anxiety to keep the suspense going throughout. The ending is the most disappointing aspect—the story’s many threads don’t quite tie together.  At this stage in his career, Bolaño has not quite mastered his art but you can see the mastery coming. If you haven’t read Bolaño, start with his story collection, Last Evenings on Earth, or The Savage Detectives, and you will likely be drawn to his lesser stuff like The Third Reich.

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