Friday, April 17, 2009

A Story Within a Story

Arturo and Ulises, two Mexico City poets, vanish and reappear throughout Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives like starving angels. In this chapter Amadeo Salvatierra tells the story of the night they visited his home searching for information on a forgotten 1920s poetess, Cesarea Tinajero, whom they believe may be the source of all that is true in Mexican poetry but seems to have hardly existed at all. She was a member of the defunct Stridentist poetry movement, a small, unpopular, deadly serious group whose work only matters now to Arturo and Ulises's Visceral Realists, who are also small, unpopular and deadly serious about poetry.

By this point in Amadeo's tale they've already finished off two rare bottles of tequila and his story has the sweep of inebriation. But there is clarity in the romanticism (only one tone out of the many voices in Bolano's book), a parable with disillusionment in between the lines of lost innocence, reverence for the humble, forgotten great ones, and insistence that the poetic life is part of a revolution and so a life and death struggle.

Amadeo Salvatierra, Calle Reupblica de Venezuela, near the Palacio de la Inquisicion, Mexico City DF, January 1976.

Luckily, the boys weren't in a hurry. I put the snacks on a little table, we opened the cans of chipotle chilies, I passed out toothpicks, we poured the tequila, and our eyes met. Where were we boys? I said, and they said: in the middle of the full-length portrait of General Diego Carvajal, patron of the arts and Casarea Tinajero's boss, while outside, in the street, sirens began to wail, first police sirens and then ambulance sirens. I thought about the dead and the wounded and I said to myself that that was mi general, dead and wounded all at once, just Cesarea was a blank and I was a tipsy, excitable old man. Then I told the boys that boss was just a manner of speaking, that you had to have known Cesarea to realize that she could never in her life have had a boss or what you might call a steady job. Cesarea was a stenographer, as I've said. That was what she did, and she was a good secretary, but her personality, her eccentricities, perhaps, outweighed her skills, and if it hadn't been for Manuel getting her the job with mi general, poor Cesarea would have been consigned by fate to wander the sinister underbelly of Mexico City.

And then I asked them again whether it was really true (really and honestly true) that they had never heard of General Diego Carvajal. And they said no, Amadeo, never, what was he? Obregonista or Carrancista? one of Plutarco Elias Calle's men or a real revolutionary? A real revolutionary, I said in the saddest voice in the world, but also one of Obregon's men. There's no such thing as purity boys, don't fool yourselves, life is shit, mi general was a wounded man and a dead man all at once, and he was brave. And then I started to talk about the night when Manual told us his plan for an avant-garde city, Stridentopolis, and how we laughed when we heard him, thinking it was a joke, but it wasn't a joke, no, Stridentopolis was a possible city (possible at least in the tortuous pathways of the imagination) that Manuel planned to erect in Jalapa with the help of a general, General Diego Carvajal is going to help us build it, he said, and then some of us asked him who the hell that was (just as the boys asked me the night they were here) and Manuel told us the general's story, a story, boys, I told them, that could be the story of so many men who fought and made a name for themselves in our revolution, men who went naked into the whirlwind of history and came out dressed in the most glittering and terrible rags, like mi general Diego Carvajal, who went in illiterate and came out convinced that Picasso and Marinetti were the prophets of something, of what he wasn't sure--never was boys--but we aren't much surer of anything ourselves.

One afternoon we went to his office to meet him. This was a little before Cesarea joined the stridentists. At first the general was slightly chilly, at first he kept his distance. He didn't get up to greet us and while Manuel was introducing us all he hardly said a word. But he did look us each in the eye, as if he wanted to see deep into our minds or our souls. I thought: how could Manuel have become friends with this man? because at first glance the general was no different from any of the other soldiers who had washed up in Mexico City on the tides of revolution. He had the look of an intense, serious, distrustful, violent person, which is to say, nobody you would associate with poetry, although I know perfectly well that there've been poets who were intense and serious and distrustful and even violent. But back then I was young, too young and idealistic, which is to say I was pure, and that kind of business affected me deeply, so I can't say that I liked General Diego Carvajal right away. But then something very simple happened and everything changed. After he'd pierced us with his gaze and sat through Manuel's preliminaries looking half bored and half alert, the general summoned one of his bodyguards, a Yaqui Indian he called Equitativo, and ordered him to bring tequila, bread, and cheese.

And that was all, that was the magic wand the general waved to win our hearts. The way I've told it, it sounds silly, even to me it sounds silly, but back then, just by clearing the papers off his desk and telling us not to be shy and to pull up our chairs, the general demolished any reservations or prejudices we might have had, and all of us, as you can imagine, gathered around the table and started to drink and eat bread and cheese, which, according to mi general, was a French custom, and Manuel seconded him there (and everywhere), of course it was a French custom, a common habit at the hole-in-the-wall taverns off the Boulevard du Temple and around the Faubourg St. Denis. As I later discovered, Manuel had never been to the City of Light, and neither had mi general, although both of them, I don't know why, professed a fondness or passion for that faraway and presumably intoxicating metropolis that struck me as worthy of better objects.

And now that we've reached this point, allow me to digress: years later, some time after Manuel had let our friendship lapse, I read in the paper one morning that he was leaving for Europe. The poet Manuel Males Arce, the item said, will depart from Veracruz en route to Le Havre. It didn't say the father of stridentism is going to Europe or the leading Mexican poet of the avant-garde is leaving for the Old World, but simply: the poet Manuel Maples Arce. And maybe it didn't even say poet, maybe the note said Mr. Maples Arce, bachelor of arts, is bound for a French port, where he will continue his trip to Italian soil by other means (by train, by runaway carriage!), in order to assume the duties of consul or vice-consul or cultural attache at the Mexican embassy in Rome. Well. My memory isn't what it used to be. There are things I forget, I admit it. But that morning, when I read those few lines and learned that Manuel would see Paris at last, I was happy, I felt my chest swell with happiness, even though Manuel didn't consider himself my friend anymore, even though stridentism was dead, even though life might have changed us so much that we'd have trouble recognizing each other on the street. I thought about Manuel and I thought about Paris, which I've never seen but which I've visited once or twice in dreams, and it seemed to me that his trip vindicated us and, in some inexplicable way, did us justice.

Of course, mi general Diego Carvajal never left Mexico. He was killed in 1930, in a shootout still shrouded in mystery, in the inner courtyard of the Rojo y Negro, a brothel, which in those days was on Calle Costa Rica, a few blocks from here, under the direct protection of a bigwig at the Ministry of the Interior, or so it was said. Killed in the firefight were mi general Diego Carvajal, one of his bodyguards, three gunmen from the state of Durango, and Rosario Contreras, a whore said to be Spanish who was famous in those days. I went to the burial and on my way out of the cemetery I ran into List Arzubide. According to List (who in his day traveled to Europe too), they had laid a trap for mi general for political reasons, which was the exact opposite of what the newspapers said, the press inclining toward a brothel skirmish or a crime of passion with Roasario Contreras in a leading role.

According to List, who was personally familiar with the brothel, mi general liked to screw in the most out-of-the-way room, which wasn't very big but had the advantage of being at the back of the house, far from the noise, near this courtyard where there was a fountain. And after screwing, mi general liked to go out into the courtyard to smoke a cigarette and think about postcoital sadness, that vexing sadness of the flesh, and about all the books he hadn't read. And according to List, the killers stationed themselves in the hallway leading to the main rooms, and there they commanded every corner of the courtyard. Which suggests that they knew mi general's habits. And they waited and waited, as mi general screwed Rosario Contreras, a whore by avocation, or so I understood, since she'd had plenty of retirement offers and she'd always chosen her freedom. Stranger things have happened.

And as the story goes, it was a long and meticulous screwing, as if the cherubs or cupids wanted Rosario and mi general to fully enjoy their last lovemaking, or their last hour on the Mexican part of planet Earth, at least. And so the hours went by, with Rosario and mi general engaged in what young people and not young people today call a lay, or a ride, or a tumble, or a poke, or a balling, or a plowing, or a roll in the hay, or a few laps around the track, although this run would have to last them through all eternity. And meanwhile the killers waited, getting bored, but what they didn't expect was that mi general, who was a creature of habit, would come out into the courtyard with his pistol in his belt or his pocket or tucked between his trousers and his belly. And when mi general finally came out at last to smoke his cigarette, the shooting began. According to List, mi general's bodyguard had already been butchered without further ado, so when the dance began it was three to one and on top of that the killers had the advantage of surprise. But mi general Diego Carvajal was all man and he still had good reflexes too, and things didn't go their way. The first shots struck him, but he had the gumption to pull out his pistol and fire back. According to List, mi general could have kept them at bay indefinitely, because if the killers were staked out in an unbeatable position, the spot where mi general had taken cover behind the fountain was just as good, and neither side dared to make the first move. But then Rosario Contrereas came out of her room, roused by the noise, and a bullet killed her.

The rest is unclear: mi general probably ran to help her, to escort her to safety, or maybe he realized that she was dead and his rage got the better of his good judgment and he rose and strode toward the killers with guns blazing. That's how Mexican generals used to die, boys, I said, what do you think? And they said: we don't know what to think, Amadeo, it sounds like a movie. And then I started to think again about Stridentopolis, about its museums and bars, its open-air theaters and newspapers, its schools and its dormitories for traveling poets, dormitories where Borges and Tristan Tzara, Huidobro and Andre Breton would sleep. And I saw mi general talking to us again. I saw him making plans, I saw him drinking, standing at the window, I saw him receiving Cesarea Tinajero, who had come in with a letter of recommendation from Manuel, I saw him reading a little book by Tablada, maybe the one where Don Jose Juan says: "under fearful skies / keening for the only star / the song of the nightingale." Which is as if to say, boys, I said, that I saw our struggles and dreams all tangled up in the same failure, and that failure was called joy.

1 comment:

brendan said...

Thanks for this. It clarifies.