A reader's journal: From The Savage Detectives to 2666, Part I

This story is about the experience of reading a book. It’s also about the memories of reading another book. And it’s a story about the life around those readings. And a story about youth and about friendship.

Last Friday, in a coffee shop in central Tallinn, I finished reading 2666, by Roberto Bolaño. As I turned the last few pages, I felt a tightness in my gut, the same kind of tension that grips the body as one goes up a roller coaster, through the metallic whirring, aware of the final drop that awaits ahead. I stood up as I read, and I started walking in circles around the table, without considering for even a second what the other diners might think of me.

Once I finished, I became silent. Very silent. F., who was in the same table with me, working, asked: “So? Did you like it?”. I stared at her disoriented, not knowing what to respond. She couldn’t know, but I thought such a question did not apply to this book. Is a massive book, a 1119 pages novel, a many-headed monster that, I felt, still had its claws around my neck. I mumbled: “I feel as if I had just had ran a marathon and as if I had been hit by a car”.

But we shall go back a bit in time.

I bought my edition of 2666 in my hometown’s book fair in April 2014. For months it stayed on my shelf, unopened, as most of the books I buy. But in this case, it wasn’t because my interest in it diluted – it has happened to most of us, being in a bookstore and finding a title (or many) and thinking we want it, want it with a desire that is unpostponable and that is born out of an intimate and urgent necessity, only to later arrive home, place it on a shelf and slowly begin to forget about it – but because I really wanted to read it, to read it on tenterhooks, to read it as if possessed, to read it as I read when I was a child, and for that I needed time. Finally, in December that year, I went to the beach with some friends. I decided to take the book with me. So, as they acted as sane young men, playing beach volleyball, I laid on a deck-chair and read. Early in the morning, as my friends still dreamt, I sat at the beach, reading. I did not finish it, however. Far from it. I managed only to finish the first part, about four young literary critics, friends obsessed with Benno von Archimboldi, an elusive writer in the way of Thomas Pynchon. Let’s say these were new savage detectives, just as young and anxious, but exquisite and European. A more or less brief inquest of epic breadth that runs across the old continent and ends, incredibly, in a city in northern Mexico. I was both impressed and satisfied.

Unfortunately, the trip was short and the following months tumultuous. I, freshly out of University, was bumping into adult life, getting dozens of little jobs that consumed most of my time. The rest of my time I had to invest it in my thesis. And so, the book was soon forgotten, and a minuscule layer of dust rendered its cover pale.

Time passed as it usually does, unmerciful and fast, but especially it passed unnoticed. As one of those people who leaves a party without saying goodbye and whose absence is only brought into attention much later when someone asks: “Hey, where did so-and-so leave?”. Just like that, before I knew it it was August 2017, I was already 25 and I was packing to come to Estonia.

All of my close friends suggested I brought with me three books tops. A professor and friend advice was to get a Kindle and leave all the paper books. All of them knew in advance I wouldn’t listen. I brought fourteen books. Among them I brought two books over the 1000 pages. One of them, the complete works by Borges, which is like my Bible. The other one was 2666.

One or two days before coming, I posted a goodbye message on Facebook for all those people I didn’t have a chance to see. When I was already on the bus to Mexico City, I got a phone call. The name on the screen shook me since it was someone I hadn’t seen in at least two years. Even before I answered, I could listen two words:

– ¿García Madero?

But we shall go back a bit in time.

It was May 2012. I was leaving campus and I saw a group of young people with a large piece of cloth on the floor. I don’t remember all that was written on the cloth, but I remember the number 132. It was, and I hope you can forgive the corniness, fate. Around those days, maybe just a couple of days before, I had seen the video of the 131 students from Ibero México [1]. It could be said that up ‘til then, I was like a match. Indignation was there, the flammable matter needed for combustion, but only that. That video had been the sandpaper which ignited the flame. A minute and restrained flame, yes, but eager to start a fire. However, not knowing how to, it would have probably had the same death all wasted matches have. I remember I was very uneasy, anxious to do something, to start something, but I had no clue as to what. And then I stumble into these guys at the University gates. The most passionate among them, a guy with long hair and beard and the name Abdiel, handed me a piece of paper with a time and a place to meet. That was how the fire got started.

That same evening, I went to the Cultural Forum down town, to the tiny amphitheater in the middle of the Arts Esplanade. There were, probably, around ten people and I’m being generous. But the lack of quorum was compensated with enthusiasm. Particularly Abdiel’s enthusiasm who spoke with the passion of someone who still believed words can change the world. I listened, quiet. A little later someone else joined the group. It was a young man with a short beard, glasses, denim pants and a black jacket and backpack. I don’t know why, but it seemed to me like an IT guy. It might have been because of the backpack and the glasses. At some point, Abdiel dictated we should divide into groups to delegate responsibilities. As it goes, the moment that stopped being just an illusion and the shadow of commitment was cast, nervous looks loomed up, already signaling those who would leave the group before it was even formed. They asked who had skill as a writer. I raised a shy and shaking hand. The guy in black raised a confident one. He also noticed my own hand in the air and gave me a look I did not know how to decipher. Then, like an elementary school teacher, Abdiel told us to work in our teams. Our writing team (I have forgotten if there was someone else there) had the task of writing a press release about the first 132 meeting in León and the official constitution of a Leon 132 cell. I have completely forgotten what the content of our first collaboration was, but I remember that, following some of my suggestions, the guy in black, who by this point had already introduced himself as David, gazed at me. The meaning of that gaze was becoming clearer: it was the gaze of an experienced boxer who, seeing a rooky move on the ring, distinguishes some isolated punches and thinks to himself: “hmm”.

That evening was the beginning of the most intense and earnest period of my life. But contrary to what it’s usually said about periods like these, it wasn’t burned into my memory. It rather seems a distant dream of which I can only recover disorderly shreds. The events followed one another like an avalanche. The organizing period lasted a second and the next we were already in deep in the logistics of a cultural fair at the City’s House of Culture. The content of the fair was entrusted upon me, an assignment I accepted in the same way Forest Gump accepted all the enormous responsibilities in his life: without a clue of what the hell was happening. We began to meet daily. Slowly, the steady members of the group were defined as well as the meeting points. These places were: El Kino Bar, at that point in the heart of the city center, sometimes a reggae and ska bar next to El Kino Bar (this one was closed short after), David’s house and, from some point on, my house which would practically become the head quarters for the 132 movement in León.

Meetings and reunions tended to extend deep into the night. We were all either studying or working or both, but by means of an alchemy, very much in the tone of “I come here to offer my heart”, we turned our exhaustion into an incentive to carry on. We were working on full steam with unwavering passion. We felt what we were doing was important. We felt we were a small part of a bigger change. We organized marches, protests, installations and happenings; we delivered fliers with important information to cast a vote[2], we designed and facilitated workshops for children and youngsters, we communicated constantly with other cells across the country.

During these excessive times, of course, we became friends. Many of the most selfless, brave, authentic, and also strange people I’ve met were in that group. To this date they remain dear friends who, in spite of time passed and physical distance, come at the first call if needed.

But a book could be written about that and neither my memory nor my talent would be sufficient for such a task. This is the more modest story of that guy with a short bard, denim pants and black jacket who gazed like a boxer hardened on the boxing canvas. This is David’s story.

My friendship with David was different. It was different because it was marked by literature. In what I believe was our second meeting, we gathered at his place, a small apartment on Panorama avenue. When I came in, the first thing I noticed was: a stencil of Pablo Neruda’s silhouette with a fragment of one of his poems. On that afternoon, David made a deep impression in me. With remarkable confidence and presence, he spoke as if he was writing. Every sentence he uttered, it seemed he had pulled it out of a 70’s Latin American novel. But there was something more, something beyond that. Rhetoric ability is not that common, but it’s not that rare either. It was something in his demeanor, in the form that revealed the content, a certain air of challenge that did cast an unusual light on him. The guy who had seemed before like an IT technician, suddenly appeared as something far more interesting and far more tragic: a poet.

Soon thereafter, during dead times or whenever we needed to clear our heads and rest, David and I would smoke and talk at length about novels, short stories, writers, poets and poetry, about our literary ambitions. We also spoke about our childhoods, so dramatically different, his with his mother and brother, with difficulties in a chaotic Mexico City; mine, quiet and only slightly lonesome, in the suburbs of León. Childhoods, nonetheless, dramatically similar in other aspects because childhood is, almost always, the same geography of innocence and expectations. He always spoke exuberantly, with enviable metaphors that came to him as naturally as “like’s” and “so’s” and “ehhh’s” come to the rest of us. That’s how I remember him: threading literary imagery amidst scrolling smoke. I, on the other hand, have always been a terrible speaker. I stumble with words with the same noteworthy frequency as I stumble walking. I stammer and I mumble as I wait for a cutting simile, for a musical anaphora, for at least a random alliteration, but the sole things that arrive are platitudes.

Even so, in the writing field, he saw something in me. We exchanged publications. I gave him a short-story that was published by the Municipal Institute of Culture in 2011. He gave me a Punto de partida[3]number in which a wonderful chronicle about a Real de Catorce concert by him was published. I recall that, when I read it, I discovered, with a heavy heart, that David was being too nice with me, but he was in another league. I felt ashamed of my short story. A cocky kid showing off his circle of fifths to a gifted guitarist.

But the friendship kept growing. Because of the significant gap in age (9 years if I recall correctly) and because of the even more significant gap in experience, our friendship became more like the relationship between a younger brother and an older brother. That’s how I loved and admired him. As the older brother who is many, many steps ahead on the staircase, and who turns around constantly from his horizon, comes back stretching his hand and smiles as if saying: “What’s the matter? Don’t fall behind!”.

On June the 25th 2012, on my 20th birthday, the 132 group in León threw a party for me with cake, music and dancing. By the end of it, David gave me a book. It was a bulky novel with a bright-red cover, with the silhouettes of three slim men with hats in that cover, all slightly blurred on the edges, as if they were walking across the burning heat of the desert. The title was The Savage Detectives and it was written by Roberto Bolaño.

[1] On May 12, 2012, during his presidential election campaign, Enrique Peña Nieto visited the Iberoamericana University in Mexico City. He expected to find a compliant audience since the majority of students there come from affluent families. However, when the Q&A session came, a large group of students, who had researched in depth into the history of repression and human rights violations during Peña Nieto’s period as Estado de México’s government, put him in the corner. Peña Nieto and his team were booed out of stage and he was so diminished, he hid in a bathroom. Students recorded this and uploaded it in social media. The news, however, told another story. They said those were not students, but actors hired by the opposing party. As a reaction, 131 students from the University, edited a video showing their ID’s confirming them as students. This video became viral and it sprung a series of videos of more students around the country saying: “I am the student 132” in support. This became the largest student movement in Mexico since the student movement of 1968, which we all know, ended in a massacre.

[2] Unofrtunately, a large percentage of the population in Mexico does not know even the minimum of their rights to vote. Moreover, most of them only received political information from the two controlling TV networks which have historically been allied with the PRI (Revolutionary Institutional Party in English). In addition, the massive purchase and/or cooptation of votes is common practice. So, these fliers contained both the due process to vote, the rights and obligations of the voters, ways to protect their votes and information about the candidates and their promises extracted from diverse national and international media.

[3] Prestigious literary magazine edited by the National Autonomous University, UNAM, where the best short-stories, essays, chronicles, poems and literary translations by students of the university are published once a year.