Plato's Phaedo relates the last afternoon of Socrates, spent in his jail cell with friends, discussing the nature of the soul.
Borges, in the text of a lecture he gave towards the end of his life, says that Max Brod says that one sentence in this dialogue is the most moving that Plato ever wrote. It is spoken by Phaedo himself as he enumerates the friends who shared Socrates's last hours: 'Of native Athenians there were, besides Apollodorus, Critobulus and his father Crito, Hermogenes, Epigenes, Aeschines, and Antisthenes; likewise Ctesippus of the deme of Paeania, Menexenus, and some others; but Plato, if I am not mistaken, was ill.'
'Plato, if I am not mistaken, was ill'. Why did Plato write this inexplicably heartbreaking phrase? We must surely conclude that, even if he himself were dying, Plato would have found a way to share his master's last moments. So why did he say he wasn’t there? Borges offers various readings, among them that it may have been to allow himself greater creative freedom, as if Plato was asserting 'I don't know what Socrates said in the last afternoon of his life, but I would have liked him to have said this', or, 'I can imagine him saying these things.' We might also take it as a gesture of self-effacement, a suggestion that Plato saw himself as a mouthpiece, an amanuensis. Borges’ characteristic conclusion is that Plato simply felt the 'unsurpassable literary beauty' of saying 'Plato, if I am not mistaken, was ill.'
His brief treatment of this passage is one of those rare moments when Borges (or Brod) nods, in asserting that it is the only point in all his writing that Plato mentions himself by name. There are actually more examples, as when in Apology of Socrates Plato has Socrates cite him as one of the youths who would have been corrupted by his teaching, or later in the same text when Plato is mentioned as one of several men who offered to pay a fine to abrogate Socrates' death penalty. What is true, however, is that this sentence is the only time in which Plato uses his own name to achieve a certain narratorial effect.
The nature of this effect is and will eternally be open to question. But there are two observations we can make without reservation: that Plato deploys it at a symbolic crux in his oeuvre, the description of the death of the man whose teaching his lifework it is to expound; and, secondly, that it serves to create a sensation of his own absence, his own invisibility, or at the very least to problematize his role as narrator: if Plato wasn’t there, then where did he get his information from? What gives him authority to speak? It anticipates in nuce one of the central questions of Western literature, that of the authorial voice, of the infinite dialectics of presence and absence the act of writing engenders.
There is a curious echo of this effect in the penultimate monologue of the second section of Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives. The second section of Bolaño’s masterpiece is, of course, an expansive patchwork of what look like transcripts of monologues, each one portraying a different moment in the rootless lives of the novel’s two antiheroes, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima. Many but far from all of the people who speak are poets or otherwise related to the literary world; many have lived fully.
The speaker in the monologue we’re going to look at here is rather a banal, grating character, a certain Ernesto García Grajales, an academic who claims 'in all humility' to be the world's only authority on the Visceral Realists. Something occurs in his discourse of which, depending on your criteria, there are only twenty-five other brief examples in the book – he apparently repeats a question of an interlocutor.
Now, in the course of all the long second section of The Savage Detectives, we intuit but see little evidence for a presence conducting the interview. The interviewees sometimes address them, as 'señor' for instance, or by asking rhetorical questions, or checking that they are making themselves understood. Only very rarely do we come across the journalistic technique of putting the interviewer's question in the mouth of the interviewee, as if they were repeating it in order to clarify that they heard correctly. (This technique is generally employed by transcribers of interviews to avoid breaking up the text with a subsidiary question: ‘He was a friend of Tom’s. Was he a friend of mine? I guess you could say he was a friend.')
García Grajales is giving an account of what the different Real Visceralists ended up doing when the interviewer apparently interrupts him to ask about Juan García Madero. His response is unequivocal: '¿Juan García Madero? No, ése no me suena. Seguro que no perteneció al grupo.' ('No, I don't recognise that name. He definitely didn't belong to the group.') The interviewer evidently persists, eliciting an indignant reply from García Grajales: 'Hombre, si lo digo yo que soy la máxima autoridad en la matería, por algo será... Hubo un chavito de diecisiete años, pero no se llamaba García Madero... se llamaba Bustamente.' (‘Bro, I'm the absolute authority on the subject, and if I'm saying it there must be a reason... there was a kid who was seventeen, but he wasn't called García Madero... he was called Bustamente.') (551)
What are we to make of this detail? Perspicacious readers notice it, but I have yet to come across a comprehensive critical treatment of its ramifications. Consider Juan García Madero. He is the narrator, in a sense, of the first and third sections of the book, playing a central role in the proceedings. But he is entirely absent from the second section of the novel, apart from here. Nowhere else is his name mentioned.
This absence could in part be explained by the fact that his involvement with Visceral Realism was, in fact, extremely brief – from the 2nd of November, 1975, to the 15th of February, 1976, after which point he separates from Belano and Lima, they leave Mexico, and the movement falls apart. Although García Madero experienced an intense involvement with some of them, we might imagine that for most of the Visceral Realists he was another hanger-on, another young, unpublished poet who drifted in and out of the scene, and as such was easily forgotten or simply unworthy of mention.
The 'chavito' Bustamente, the kid who García Grajales assumes his interlocutor is thinking of, seems to have been another such hanger-on. Another character also remembers Bustamente but calls him Bustamante, and he is not mentioned by name anywhere else in the novel. It seems that Bolaño wants us to understand that Bustamente and García Madero were two of a number of essentially interchangeable young poets who orbited the main Visceral Realists. García Madero's deeper involvement with Belano and Lima might thus have been a consequence simply of his being in a certain place at a certain time.
We must ask why it is that the person who interviewed García Grajales asked him about Juan García Madero, particularly given that he never published anything (at least not during the span of the book) and apparently disassociated himself from all of the group's members after the episode in the desert (had he been present, wouldn’t he have participated in the forlorn attempts to reform Visceral Realism after Belano and Lima's departure). Why does Bolaño give this detail such prominence, breaking from the style which defines most of the second section of The Savage Detectives, at such a key moment?
The answer is that it is precisely Juan García Madero who is interviewing the academic Grajales. We may take the mention of his name – and the denial of his involvement – as a clue hidden in plain sight by Bolaño. We might even sketch some details of what happened, of how the interview progressed: irked by Grajales' insistence that he is the only scholar with any interest in Visceral Realism, and thus the ipso facto world authority, García Madero asks him about his own existence, which Grajales denies. The indignant 'Hombre, si lo digo yo...' can only have been elicited by García Madero's insistence on this point.
And then there is the 'You didn’t know?' Would it be too much to imagine García Madero's ironic 'Oh, really?' when the academic tells him about the original Visceral Realists in the North? García Madero was there, he met the original Visceral Realist, and then she was killed protecting him. And now this liliputian academic tries to establish his superiority by sharing this fact with him. Let's imagine García Madero, his voice dripping with sarcasm which the other man is immune to, telling him that it must have been a coincidence (how could it possibly have been a coincidence?).
There are two conclusions that we are undoubtedly meant to infer from this detail. First, that García Madero conducted this and, possibly, some of the other interviews which make up the second part of the book (although he cannot have conducted all of them). Secondly, that the three months he spent with Belano and Lima in 1975/6 marked him for the rest of his life: García Grajales' monologue is dated December 1996.
Based on these conclusions, I would venture a third: that García Madero is, in fact, present throughout all of The Savage Detectives, but not as a protagonist. It is he who traces the peregrinations of Belano and Lima, it is he who conducts the majority of the interviews, editing the texts into monologues and scrupulously removing all mentions of his name (if, indeed, there are any), only in this crucial section allowing himself to appear.
The tragedy inherent in the testimony of García Garjales is that it marks the death knell of Visceral Realism: the movement has finally been co-opted by everything it fought against and despised, the world of stale, provincial academia. Garjales himself is the anti-Visceral Realist par excellence, a vain self-serving academic only interested in publishing his little book. García Madero's ire is thus twofold – against what Garjales represents, and against his ignorance of the fact that in reality it is he, García Madero, who is the world authority of Visceral Realism, having dedicated his life to documenting the movement and its members, above all the heroes of his youth, Roberto Belano and Ulises Lima. It is his irritation which leads him to depart from the meticulous editorial technique he employed in the rest of the interviews, and allow his own name to appear; a brief, easily-overlooked shout of defiance, self-affirmation, anguish. Like a Medieval architect, he put a tiny portrait of himself at the heart of his vast, anonymous cathedral.
It is this detail, combined with various other slivers of evidence, which demonstrates conclusively that, far from disappearing, García Madero is in fact present throughout the entirety of The Savage Detectives. It is he who traces the peregrinations of Belano and Lima, he who conducts the majority of the interviews, editing the texts into monologues and scrupulously removing all mentions of his name (if, indeed, there are any), only in this crucial section allowing himself to appear.
There is of course no question that Bolaño was familiar with Phaedo. Another question is whether this familiarity is grounds enough to hypothesize that the interjection 'Juan García Madero?' is a conscious echo of 'Plato, if I am not mistaken, was ill.' It may constitute a leap of faith, but for several reasons I believe it is indeed a deliberate reference.
First, let us mention that Mexican critic Oswaldo Zavala has sketched with great elegance the correspondences that exist between the Salvatierra sections of The Savage Detectives and, precisely, the Symposium (note, though, that even a critic as perceptive as Zavala pays little attention to the question of Salvatierra’s ‘anonymous interviewer’).
Then there are the parallels between the two ‘narrators’, the curators of these texts. Like Plato, García Madero apparently effaces himself from his own writing – his work is to trace the biography, to document and re-present the example of his master(s). Like Plato, he was a youth when he encountered the spiritual authority that was to give his entire life meaning; Socrates, like Belano and Lima, was persecuted by society as a corrupting influence. Like Plato, Juan García Madero allows his name to appear only when death is imminent – in the case of Socrates it is a literal death, whilst for Visceral Realism it is the conceptual death outlined above. In both cases, the use of the name serves to highlight through negation the name of the one person who really was there, the one person who truly understood the dying master's message. Another detail supports this possibility. Immediately before, García Garjales had been listing the names and fates of the core group of the Visceral Realists, just as Phaedo had been listing the names of Socrates's followers present at his death…
These are all more or less fanciful conjectures. Their main value lies in showing that, whether or not this commentator has understood it, there is a vastly complex conceptual machinery at work below the surface of The Savage Detectives. They suggest also the extent to which Bolaño is as sophisticated as he is brilliant an author, a fact that certain readings of his writing underplay.
Catalan critic Josep Massot has argued that Bolaño’s similarities to Kerouac are at the root of his success in the US. This strikes me as a rather facile argument. Misogynist, racist, nationalist Jack Kerouac’s writing has largely been consigned to the purgatory of male adolescents’ reading lists, while Roberto Bolaño, the greatest novelist of his generation in any language, now sits with Sterne and Voltaire in pacifists’ Valhalla. Kerouac’s artistic reputation is based on one trick, one voice; Bolaño is as cosmopolitan and encyclopedic as Borges or Joyce. Jack’s books are flaccid, directionless, episodic; Bolaño’s philosophical and creative project fuses all of his writing into a breathtaking arc, a total statement of unique power, vision and complexity. In short, to compare Kerouac to Bolaño is a little like setting the Sex Pistols against Pink Floyd. It is true, nevertheless, that it is above all as a ‘Latin American Jack Kerouac’ that Bolaño has been sold (and his success explained away) in the English-language market. This would be laughable were it not so insidious.
The fact is that ‘mainstream’ US literary culture remains on the whole unable to process a Latin American writer on their own terms, too often reducing them to ingenious exoticizers of an established gringo mode, quaint index of what happens when foreigners play at being American, like a salsa cover of My Way (consider the reception of the recent first publication in English of Carlos Velázquez).
Happily, Bolaño’s star is beginning to wane in the English-language publishing industry. Perhaps once the enchantment has faded, critics will return to his work with the rigor it demands, and prove to an English-speaking readership what Spanish readers already know, namely that Bolaño is as myriad-minded as any of the best writers of the Twentieth Century, in Europe or the Americas. Both Bolaño’s life and his writing embody a universalism, a generosity of culture, that bind him to the most ancient and most humane traditions in world literature, and it is in this light that his work must be approached.
* John Z. Komurki es editor de Mexico City Lit
* John Z. Komurki es editor de Mexico City Lit