Notes on Bolaño’s “Vanguardia inexistente”



Edward Lybeer

University of Pennsylvania

Que aunque el gusto nunca más

vuelve a ser el mismo,

en la vida los olvidos

no suelen durar.

Jaime Gil de Biedma

My first exposure to Roberto Bolaño’s work was a result of provoked chance. As I was leaving one of the bookstores that I like to visit, I happened to note a pile of big books with an enigmatic title. The volume in question was Bolaño’s massive final novel(s), 2666. Attracted by the repeated numbers of the title, the somber picture of the cover and Susan Sontag’s words of praise, I decided to buy this magnus opus of an unknown writer. Time was on my side, and twelve hundred pages did not seem excessive. On the contrary: at a time when most novels can be bought, consumed and forgotten in less than an afternoon, the sheer size of the novel functioned as an incentive to spend, a welcome invitation to the slow pace of ancient storytelling.  Chance soon led to intention, as I spent the following weeks searching for and reading through Bolaño’s extensive corpus: from his early poetry to his short stories (Llamadas telefónicas, El Gaucho insufrible), his award-winning novel (Los detectives salvajes) to his minor novellas (Monsieur Pain, Amuleto, etc).

Less than five years later, Roberto Bolaño has become THE booming Latin American writer of the 21st century. Not only has editorial Anagrama already published two posthumous works (La Universidad Desconocida and El secreto del mal), but the Chilean writer is also the subject of numerous conferences and dissertations in progress. To my veiled disappointment, individual infatuation has turned into collective enthusiasm. The cynical mind may attribute this sudden success to Bolaño’s tragic death at the age of 50, at the peak of his fame. While this explanation may be a valid one, it fails to consider the extent to which Bolaño’s writings have led to the proliferation of more writing, that is, the extent to which Bolaño’s corpus has led to the formation of a disparate readership, a community of anonymous individuals that respond to the same words with their own. Whether in specialized academic journals, local and national newspapers, blogs or other forms of digital media, Bolaño’s name is a source of readerly and writerly desire, the Cesárea Tinajero of many Arturo Belanos, many Ulises Limas. As such, Bolaño’s work seems to realize Jean Luc Nancy’s definition of literature in his essay “La Comparution/The Compearance”:


literature – precisely that which we generally engage in more or less since the period of ‘Marx’ – seem[s] devoted to communicate the common and to offer itself thus as its own space, as the in and the between of the common[.]…In this sense (does it have another?), ‘literature’ offers the in-common (its only reason to be) as a completely buried memory, a memory also totally, invincibly present (386).


But what is that in-common stuff to be found in Bolaño’s text? What is that shared though forgotten memory that so many readers recognize in his writing?

The hypothesis of this essay is that the popular response to Bolaño’s work results from the author’s stubborn relation to what is usually called the historical avant-gardes. At a time when the possibility of utopian or emancipatory narratives is typically seen as a symptom of “lumpenismo: enfermedad infantil de intelectual,” if not with outright suspicion, his writings invite us to question the ideology of resignation that dominates contemporary thinking (Detectives 181). Unlike any author of his generation, Bolaño interrogates our accepted readings of the short twentieth century, and the ways in which its aesthetic and political legacy may still be lurking on the horizon. That is, whether the avant-gardes are as “historical” as we tend to believe. In his short stories, his novels (Estrella distante, Amuleto, Los Detectives salvajes or 2666) or his non-fiction, Bolaño repeatedly returns to the site of the vanguards, which one of his characters describes as a “región imaginaria o real, pero desleída por el sol y en un tiempo pasado, olvidado o que al menos aquí, en París, en la decada de los setenta, ya no tenía la menor importancia” (Detectives 240). In the first decade of the 21st century, the importance of the avant-gardes is more fragile than ever. Whether in metropolitan Paris or “peripheral” Mexico, they are dead and buried, lost in the “extramuros de la civilización” (Ibid). Like the many writers that populate Bolaño’s narratives – from Cesárea Tinajero to Arc(h)imboldi, Pierre Brune to Dunozer de Sergonzac, Auxilio Lacouture to Michel Bulteau, actual founder of the Manifeste Électrique – one is tempted to believe that the avant-gardes may never have existed, “como si estuvieran pero no estuvieran.” (Detectives 329).

Bolaño is obviously not the only author to address the many avant-garde movements of the 20th century. A quick search of the term “avant-garde” in the MLA bibliography results in 3062 entries, many of which date from the last few years. And yet, in spite of this growing number of writings about the avant-gardes, one can only agree with Fernando Rosenberg’s assertion that “for more than twenty years now, postmodern criticism has issued a death certificate for the idea of avant-garde, when it didn’t defend it with a gloss of nostalgia” (166). Like often, quantity is not an indication of vitality, but rather a deceptive symptom of the morose tone that characterizes most writings on the topic. Reactive nostalgia is however absent from Bolaño’s retrospective glance at the avant-gardes. Los Detectives salvajes may be read as a fictional account of Mario Santiago and Roberto Bolaño’s actual involvement with infrarrealismo in the Mexican 70s, but as Rosario Alvarez says in the novel, and the Chilean author might repeat, “no tengo dinero para la nostalgia” (Detectives 420). Neither does Bolaño’s interest in the vanguards stem from the denial of historicity, or the necrophiliac tendencies of the archivist. The author’s recovery of “poetas perdidos” and “revistas perdidas” is not about the merely historical and anecdotical, that is, the methodical recording of forgotten names and the groups they were part of (Detectives 240). To quote Ulises Lima’s response to Manuel Maples Arce’s assertion that “el estridentismo ya es historia y como tal sólo puede interesar a los historiadores de la literatura,” “a mí me interesa y no soy un historiador” (Detectives 176-177). More precisely, Bolaño’s prose invites us to consider the present pastness of the avant-gardes, the potential “pirámides” that populate “el subsuelo” of the Mexican desert (Detectives 145). If Bolaño rightly affirms that “todo lo que he escrito es una carta de amor o de despedida a mi propia generación,” it is equally true that the author’s love story is still unfinished (Entre paréntesis 37). Los Detectives salvajes is not only about the author’s former faith in “un ideal que hacía más de cincuenta años que estaba muerto,” or about the failure of the vanguards, but also an intimation of what the avant-gardes could (and should) be(come) (Ibid). An imaginary version of the avant-gardes after their declared death.

For instance, in his piece “Conjeturas sobre una frase de Breton,” the author of 2666 goes back to a buried line from a lost interview of the 70s, in which “André Breton decía que tal vez había llegado la hora de que el surrealismo entrara en la clandestinidad. Sólo ahí, creía Breton, podía subsistir y prepararse para los desafíos futuros” (Entre paréntesis 191).  While this “propuesta, atractiva, equívoca, nunca volvió a ser formulada,” the author notes that “siempre me pareció extraño el tupido velo que cayó sobre esta, llamémosla así, posibilidad estratégica” (192). This is not to say that Bolaño actually believes in the reality of such a far-fetched possibility. The text does not function as an affirmation, as much as a series of questions: “¿Hubo un surrealismo clandestino operativo en los últimos treinta años del siglo XX? Y si lo hubo, ¿cómo evolucionó, qué propuestas en materia plástica, literaria, arquitectónica, cinematográfica realizó?” (192) While these interrogations remain in silent suspension, “en el umbral del misterio,” and it may well be that “los surrealistas clandestinos jamás hayan existido o sean, ahora, sólo una colección no muy numerosa de viejos humoristas,” the very fact of raising this possibility goes against the consensual grain of current criticism and the accepted death of the avant-gardes. Similarly, a passage from Amuleto contemplates the imaginary consequences of an improbable encounter between Ruben Darío and Vicente Huidobro: “tras su fructífero encuentro con Darío, [Huidobro] hubiera sido capaz de fundar una vanguardia más vigorosa aún, una vanguardia que ahora llamamos la vanguardia inexistente” (57-58). Here again, this unlikely scenario remains at the level of mere conjecture. However, both this absent encounter and the idea of a subterranean surrealism force us to reexamine our assessment of what constitutes an avant-garde, that is, to pluralize our understanding of it in order to locate its unrealized potentialities and think though the current moment. Part of the reason behind the rejection of the avant-gardes is indeed due to the fact that “la fin des avant-gardes n’a pas modifié l’idée de l’avant-garde” (the end of the avant-gardes has not modified the idea of the avant-garde) (Meschonnic 86). But as Bolaño suggests, if the avant-gardes are not exactly dead, neither is their definition or configuration. Delineating the contours of this “vanguardia inexistente” will be the topic of this paper.

As Henri Meschonnic explains in Modernité Modernité, both the supporters and detractors of the avant-gardes ground their respective judgments in a shared universalization of the term. Because of their insistence on using avant-garde in the singular, the multiple and often contradictory meanings covered by the military metaphor are typically lost in ahistorical value judgments. More importantly, this standardizing gesture  “oublie que la distribution dans le temps et dans l’espace, et la valeur, du terme avant-garde, est loin d’être partout la même” (forgets that the spatial and temporal distribution and value of the term avant-garde is far from being the same everywhere) (84). According to this unitary and mythical discourse, the idea of the avant-garde is synonymous with Marinetti’s Futurist movement. At the level of temporality, this futurist bias means that the avant-garde is usually understood as a radical effort to erase the past and the dusty weight of tradition. Not only the past, but also the present, hence the need to project the future and the production of the new in the shape of aggressive manifestos and grand promises. The time of the avant-garde is then structured by a linear narrative of progress, and the antiquated opposition between  “la isla del pasado…donde el peso de lo ilusorio era tal que la isla se iba hundiendo cada día un poco más en el río” and “la isla del futuro…cuyos habitantes eran soñadores y agresivos, tan agresivos…que probablemente acabarían comiéndose los unos a los otros” (Detectives 367). The ancient is opposed to the modern, the old to the new.

While persistent, such a simplistic reading ignores the dialectic between present and future that structures the temporality of avant-garde art. In spite of the avant-gardes’s frenetic production of manifestos, and the indefatigable succession of -isms throughout the 20th century, the time of the avant-gardes is that of the radical present, the here and now, immediately: “un groupe d’avant-garde est ce qui décide un présent” (an avant-garde group is that which decides a present) (Badiou 191). Of course, this doctrine of the present and new beginnings raises a series of doubts, among which the possibility that the present be nothing but a pale replica of the past, that the imagined “commencement” be only a “recommencement” (192). It is in the context of this anxiety of repetition that one must read the imperative of manifestos. More than actual guidelines for the creation of the new man, or the shape of art to come, they function as rhetorical defenses against the fragility of the present, the awareness that “le présent est constamment sous la menace du passé” (the present is under the constant threat of the past) (189).

In contrast, the present of Bolaño’s avant-garde is grounded in the productive use of repetition, and the acknowledgment that the past can only be traversed by being repeated: “los actuales real visceralistas caminaban hacia atrás…[d]e espaldas, mirando un punto pero alejándonos de él, en línea recta hacia lo desconocido” (17). And indeed, in Los Detectives salvajes, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima’s foundation of realismo visceral in the 70s presents itself as a repetition (with difference) of the homonymous movement that was founded by Cesárea Tinajero in the 1920s. This is not to say that Bolaño’s “vanguardia inexistente” denies the singularity of the present, or the possibility of the new, but rather that this actual novelty is charged with the active residues of past generations, “por el fantasma, mejor dicho, de Cesárea que aún bailaba en aquellos establecimientos aparentemente moribundos” (297). The novel is then structured by two contradictory (though inseparable) lines of flight. On the one hand, it offers a polyphonic account of realismo visceral from the 70s to the 90s. On the other, this movement forward is undercut by the search for Cesárea Tinajero, which is also a search for the remains of the past. In one of his diary entries, dated January 1st, Juan García Madero describes this chiasmic temporality, and the constant overlap between past and present, yesterday and today: “hoy me di cuenta que lo que escribí ayer en realidad lo escribí hoy: todo lo del treintaiuno de diciembre lo escribí el uno de enero, es decir hoy, y lo que escribí el treinta de diciembre lo escribí el treintaiuno. Lo que escribo hoy en realidad lo escribo mañana, que para mí será hoy y ayer, y también de alguna manera mañana: un día invisible” (557).

If “hoy” bears the traces of “ayer,” it is “también de alguna manera mañana.” And yet, this future can only be “un día invisible.” In other words, if the present of Bolaño’s vanguard is traversed by the pull of the past and the figure of repetition, there is no need to envelop it in the fictive future of “manifiestos, proclamas, refundaciones [y] mayor claridad ideológica” (Detectives 323). The present cannot be reduced to “a proyecto prefijado” but only regress forward towards “lo desconocido,” because as Luis Sebastián Rosado explains, “la otredad era dable de ver en cualquier parte” (228, 278). What matters is not the outcome, but simply the act of doing, the gesture, whatever that may be: “todo es empezar, dice el refrán” (296). In that sense, Bolaño’s refusal to name the shape of things to come echoes with Breton’s assertion that “la rébellion porte sa justification en elle-même” (rebellion itself bears its own justification) (qtd. in Badiou 201). The value of the avant-gardes cannot be measured according to their supposed failure. On the contrary, the crucial import of the vanguards consists in the affirmation of the immediacy of the present and self-sufficiency of rebellion, regardless of what Badiou calls “la pragmatique des résultats” (the pragmatic of results), that is, the language of “lucid” realism: “que es como decir, muchachos…que veía los esfuerzos y los sueños, todos confundidos en un mismo fracaso, y que ese fracaso se llamaba alegría” (Detectives 358).

This vanguard without promises (and results) brings me to the sociological definition of the avant-garde. It is well known that avant-garde means “group” and organized political intervention. This also entails the leadership of strong leaders, the most cited of whom is usually André Breton and his authoritarian “governing” of the Surrealist group. In the early pages of Detectives salvajes, Belano’s attitude seems modeled on the example of the author of Nadja. We are thus told that “Belano ha empezado a echar a más poetas del grupo….Belano se cree Breton (100-101). And yet, this “primera purga en el realismo visceral” soon proves to be a joke, a comical nod towards the impossibility of collapsing the aesthetic and the political – ultimate dream of the “historical” avant-gardes (97). As Jacinto Requena explains, “la mayoría de los expulsados… ni siquiera saben que han sido expulsados (101). This is not to say that the “expulsados” were not part of realismo visceral, but rather that they never wore a membership card, that their belonging to it was never officialized or written down. In the final decades of the 20th century (and the early years of the 21st), the alignment of aesthetic avant-gardism with party politics was (is) nothing but “un ideal que hacía más de cincuenta años que estaba muerto” (Entre paréntesis 37).

In fact, even at the time when this ideal was still alive, not all of the –isms that fall under the avant-garde rubric adhered to the militant conception of the group that we find in Surrealism or Futurism. For instance, an Expressionist text from 1913 openly rejects this received definition of the avant-garde: “Wir sind Einzelne, die sich hier in gleichem Strebem zusammentum, um doch Einzelne zu bleiben” (We are individuals who assemble in a common effort, but in order to remain individuals) (qtd. in Meschonnic 94-95). In this passage, individual and community do not function as antithetical, but rather as coextensive terms. The preserving of individuality appears as a necessary condition for the existence of a viable community, just like the sense of community prevents individuality from turning into individualism. In Los Detectives salvajes, Bolaño’s account of realismo visceral also oscillates between the longing to be part of a group and the awareness of the excess that constitutes the individual. For instance, even though the accumulation of recorded voices to be found in the text revolves around a same center, a same “punto microscópico” - namely, realismo visceral, the author, date and location of each source is carefully marked and individualized (106). More importantly, the framing narration is offered by Juan García Madero, an absent member of the group. As Ernesto García Grajales, “único estudioso de los real visceralistas que existe en Mexico,” tells us: “¿Juan García Madero? No, ése no me suena. Seguro que nunca perteneció al grupo. Hombre, si lo digo yo que soy la máxima autoridad en la materia, por algo será….Yo tengo sus revistas, sus panfletos, documentos inencontrables hoy por hoy” (551). García Madero was of course part of realismo visceral, but Grajales’s ideological and textual conception of what defines an aesthetic group or community does not account for the margins that both exceed and delineate the page. In that respect, it may also be useful to mention “el primer y ultimo número de Caborca,” edited by Cesárea Tinajero, and in which “la mayoría de los publicados no son del grupo” (271). If Belano and Lima’s realismo visceral can and should be read as a movement or community, it is then a peculiar one, in which “ocurría algo raro, faltaba algo, la simpatía, la viril comunión en unos ideales, la franqueza que preside todo acercamiento entre poetas latinoamericanos.” (151).

As suggested by the lack of virility of realismo visceral, Bolaño’s critique of avant-garde groupism relates to the mysoginist subtext that undergirds our received definitions of aesthetic communities, in which there is no room for Gertrude Stein, Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, Alice B. Toklas, Unica Zurn, Joyce Mansour, Marianne Moore and other members of the “Movimiento Feminista,” which never was a “movement” (Detectives 100). And indeed, it is no coincidence that the literary luminaries of Bolaño’s poesía mexicana are all women: Auxilio Lacouture, María and Angélica Font, Laura Jauregui, Cesárea Tinajero and the late Laura Damián. Bolaño’s rejection of communal masculinism is further illustrated by Belano and Lima’s asexual tendencies, Piel Divina’s homosexuality and Ernesto San Epifanio’s memorable genealogy of “el panorama poético” :


dentro del inmenso océano de la poesía distinguía varias corrientes: maricones, maricas, mariquitas, locas, bujarrones, mariposas, ninfos y filenos. Las dos corrientes mayores, sin embargo, eran la de los maricones y la de los maricas. Walt Whitman, por ejemplo, era un poeta maricón. Pablo Neruda, un poeta marica. William Blake era maricón, sin asomo de duda, y Octavio Paz marica. Borges era fileno, es decir de improviso podía ser maricón y de improviso simplemente asexual. (83)


Against the virile community of sympathy and shared ideals, Bolaño posits the “filena” community of chance encounters and improvised intimacies. The members of realismo visceral are not only the signatures of García Grajales’s “documentos inencontrables,” but also and mainly the migratory voices that traverse Los Detectives salvajes, regardless of place, time and occupation: those who read and write, but also the “pandilla de analfabetas funcionales” who accompany them; the teenage prostitute, the neonazi borderline, the French sailors, the small-sized bullfighter, the African guerrilla fighters and many more (56). In brief, all of those who once spoke the same words, who once shared their own disctinctive argot, “que en el fondo era la única llave – junto con el dinero – que servía para todo” (531).

Speaking of argot, I would now like to locate the reciprocal relation between community and individual at the level of Bolaño’s language. More specifically, I am thinking of the author’s distinctive use of orality. Instead of an actual narrative or linear story, Los Detectives salvajes is structured as a series of accumulated fragments and scattered entries. While the first and third sections of the novel consist of Juan García Madero’s diary notes, the middle section can be described as a discordant symphony of voices and characters. Among them, we find “Manuel Maples Arce, paseando por la Calzada del Cerro, bosque de Chapultepec, Mexico DF, agosto de 1976”; “Auxilio Lacouture, Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, UNAM, Mexico DF, diciembre de 1976” (she is also the narrator of Bolaño’s novella Amuleto); “Joaquín Vázquez Amaral, caminando por el campus de una Universidad del Medio Oeste norteamericano, febrero de 1977”; “Daniel Grossman, sentado en un banco de la Alameda, Mexico DF, febrero de 1993”; “Jacobo Urenda, rue du Cherche Midi, Paris, junio de 1996”. As indicated by the specific date and location of these few examples, the second section of the novel reads as a series of transcribed interviews, or what Reinaldo Laddaga calls Espectáculos de Realidad. Bolaño’s writing is thus marked by all the linguistic detours of spoken speech: colloquiallisms, unfinished sentences, repeated phrases, amnesic lapses and distorted syntax. In that sense, Bolaño’s novel can be read as a performance, an effort to produce the illusion of live presence. The same could be inferred from the author’s corpus as a whole, in which the many intertextual nods and constant rewritings function as emulations of the storytelling tradition. The unusual length of Bolaño’s two major novels (Los Detectives salvajes and 2666) also points to the needed time of storytelling, the lack of which was mourned by Walter Benjamin in his famous essay “The Storyteller.” And yet, Bolaño’s writing of extensive works and his use of first person narration cannot be reduced to a longing for presence. In other words, Bolaño’s “syntaxe oratoire” (oratory syntax) – a term that, coincidentally, Alain Badiou uses to describe the language of avant-garde manifestos – also cancels the claim to presence, authenticity or individual autonomy (Le Siècle 196).

In reference to Lima and Belano’s extraneous syntony, Amadeo Salvatierra mentions that “tenían las mentes y las lenguas intercomunicadas. Uno de ellos podía empezar a hablar y detenerse en mitad de su parlamento y el otro podía proseguir con la frase o con la idea como si la hubiera iniciado él” (142). While this unusual phenomenon refers to the two founding figures of realismo visceral, it also applies to the other characters of the novel, many of whom complete unfinished sentences from others, regardless of place or time. Similarly, many voices repeat the exact same phrases or fragments, on which they then improvise. A good example of this process can be found in chapter 23, in which the various actors finish their account with a different riff on the same chord: “todo lo que empieza como comedia acaba como tragedia,” “todo lo que empieza como comedia acaba como tragicomedia,” “todo lo que empieza como comedia acaba como ejercicio criptográfico,” “Todo lo que empieza como comedia acaba como un responso en el vacío” (484-496). As much as the respective entries are individualized, the intercommunication between voices and systematic use of repetition also contributes to blur the source of speech, to dislocate the subject and turn it onto a de-individualized machine (a similar procedure can also be found in Amuleto, where narrator Lacouture loses her teeth and needs to cover her mouth as she speaks her tale). With its use of what can be called “machinic orality,” Bolaño’s work can then be read as an avant-garde revision of the “historical” avant-garde, and particularly surrealism, in which the use of broken syntax, sounds, onomatopeias and other textual markers of orality functions as a primitivist return to origins, the unconscious, and other signifiers of authenticity. In Los Detectives salvajes, this backward attitude is made clear by Manuel Maples Arce’s fear of the depersonalizing effects of the “magnetófono,” of hearing “su propia voz, los pasos de uno mismo, los pasos del enemigo” (176). In contrast, García Madero marvels at the wonders of the “tocadiscos,” in which “sonaba la voz de Olga Guillot y no la de Billie Holiday,” which emanated from the same machine on the previous day (38).

While it may be a coincidence, this brief though crucial reference to Billie Holiday and jazz may help us clarifying the different points heretofore discussed. Similarly to Bolaño’s imaginary avant-garde, jazz music stands in a productive relation to the past, one that consists in the constant rewriting and signifying of the musical tradition. Here, I am referring in particular to the centrality of jazz standards, which, like realismo visceral, are sites of both the déjà vu and jamais entendu. As Julio Córtazar writes in the opening lines of La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos, jazz music is “esa invención que sigue siendo fiel al tema que combate y transforma e irisa” (7). Fidel, because artists like Duke Ellington, Lester Young, John Coltrane or Albert Ayler have all played the same title, blown the same name; combatively inventive, because each of them gave it his own respective coloring, his own distinctive sound, regardless of the “cangrejo de lo auténtico” (7) Of course, the most cited example of this “palimpsestuous” process is Coltrane’s masterful interpretation of “My Favourite Things,” in which the saxophonist both extended and disfigured Gerschwin’s insipid pop tune. The temporality of a jazz performance is thus a multi-layered one, in which the past, present and future coalesce in the intrusion of the now (the new). This sonic future is however an unpredictable one, an invitation to the vagaries of “lo abierto…esa respiracion de la esponja en la que continuamente entran y salen peces de recuerdo, alianzas fulminantes de tiempos y estados y materias que la seriedad consideraría inconciliables” (7). To the chagrin of the serious mind, the day after tomorrow cannot be determined or promised, but only improvised, whispered in-between the notes. If we now turn to the idea of community, jazz improvisation is also analogous to the excessive dialectic between individual and group that we find in Bolaño’s “vanguardia inexistente”. This is particularly true of “free jazz,” in which the individual heroics of bebop were supplanted by a return to the collective improvisation of the early days of jazz. Here again, the paradigmatic example is probably Coltrane’s “big band thing” in the seminal album Ascension, where the two long tracks (40:23 and 38:31) can be described as sonic waves of simultaneous solos. The juxtaposed sounds cannot be traced back to their originary sources, their individual site of production. Finally, this musical detour brings me to the third and last segment of this paper, in which I will focus on Bolaño’s relation to the market and the ways in which it informs his vision of the literary.

Theodor Adorno’s rejection of African American music was based on an acute observation: jazz musicians never defined themselves in opposition to the culture industry and the logic of mass consumption. On the contrary, the development of jazz and its eventual consecration as a legitimate artform (i.e. America’s classical music) was made possible because of its dissemination through the music industry and the rapid growth of reproducible technologies in the early decades of the 20th century. In that sense, the popular (if not populist) thrust of jazz music differs from the heroic understanding of art that informed many avant-garde groups. In spite of their aesthetic co-optation of advertising techniques and the language of the new media, the avant-gardes still adhered to a romantic conception of art. They considered the production of the beautiful as the highest form of life, and a means of resistance to the homogenizing forces of the consumerism. As Perry Anderson writes, “the market as an organizing principle of culture and society was uniformly detested by every species of modernism,” from the avant-garde to its other manifestations (qtd. in Rosenberg 7). If Fernando Rosenberg is thus right to affirm that “one of the main features of the avant-gardes…is the questioning of the place of the arts in society,” this questioning was mainly a response to the decentering effects of commodification, a last attempt to salvage the imagined autonomy of the artistic field (166). Bridging the gap between art and life may be THE common denominator of the avant-gardes, but this effort was too often grounded in a conception of life as pristine purity, imaginary elsewhere. In brief, in an artistic conception of life, rather than a lively conception of art. Even today, the critical efforts to valorize the avant-garde still seem to be “based on a nostalgic quest for the lost place of art as a master arbiter of cultural value” (Rosenberg 15). Such an idealized, anti-commercial vision of art (and particularly literature) as space of transcendence cannot be found in the writings of Roberto Bolaño, which relentlessly question the “sacred” status of literature.

If André Breton and his Surrealist cohort conceived of literature as the guiding site of the revolution to come, Bolaño’s texts repeatedly point to the constitutive insufficiency of the literary. For instance, in Amuleto, Auxilio Lacouture’s literary “profecías” are preceded by her affirmation of the “no-poder” of literature, and particularly poetry (134). Similarly, Los Detectives salvajes is not exactly about the writings of Belano, Lima and other members of realismo visceral, but rather about their wandering journeys across the globe, from Latin America to Africa, Europe to Asia. Cesárea Tinajero, founding member of the first wave of the group, also turns out to be a poet without poem, a writer without words. Or rather, her only poem consists of three enigmatic lines: “una línea recta,” “una línea ondulada” and “una línea quebrada” (399). This does not mean that one should stop writing or reading, but simply that words should not be privileged, that books too are disposable commodities, unexceptional artifacts. This is made comically clear by Ulises Lima’s profane relation to his friends’ libraries. As the outraged Simone Darrieux remarks: “escribía en los márgenes de los libros….Y hacía algo todavía más chocante que escribir en los márgenes. Probablemente no me lo crean, pero se duchaba con un libro. Lo juro. Leía en la ducha” (237). Even more explicitly, Lisandro Mosales once shares his disenchanted view of literature, and his impatience with “los literatos”: “la vida hay que vivirla, en eso consiste todo. Me lo dijo un teporocho que me encontré el otro día al salir del bar La Mala Senda. La literatura no vale nada” (301). Examples of such phrases could be accumulated. However, more than in these recurrent outbursts, Bolaño’s awareness of the inescapable immanence of literature comes forth in his own development as a writer, as well as the increasingly transitive nature of his language.

Bolaño himself liked to repeat it: while he is most famously known as a fiction writer, he always considered himself a poet. Even though most of his poetry was published after his success as a novelist, he started his literary career by writing hermetic poetry. These poetic and experimental residues of Bolaño’s early days as a writer are still visible in his novella Amberes  (published in 2002 but written in the early 80s), a highly fragmentary and modernist book in which the only sense of narrative continuity arises from the verbal and occasional thematic echoes between the various sections. Amberes can thus be described as one of these “poemas largos” or “poemas-novela” that Lima and Belano describe to the editor of La Chispa (151). In contrast, the vast majority of Bolaño’s short stories and novels are marked by a shift towards increasing narrativity and traditional storytelling. Indeed, towards a new kind of literary “realism.” As previously noted, Los Detectives salvajes is still structured as a series of fragments, but the fragments are here carefully dated and ordered chronologically. In the same vein, the language of Bolaño’s famous novel is characterized by a level of semiotic transparency that stands in sharp contrast with the linguistic opacity of Amberes. Finally, the many references to be found in the text resist classification in a distinctive literary genealogy. Unlike Amberes, and its obvious debt to James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and other luminaries of modernism, the literary lineage of Detectives salvajes is a hybrid one. Not only does it refer back to the formal experimentalism of the avant-gardes, but also to popular genres such as detective novels, crime stories, science-fiction, dime novels and pornographic fiction. In that respect, the “profecías” of Amuleto are particularly revealing: not only do we find the names of Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, Vicente Huidobro, Cesar Pavese or Nicanor Parra, but also, and on the same plane, those of Jean-Pierre Duprey, Gilberte Dallas, Ilarie Voronca and Alice Sheldon, “[que] firma sus libros con el seudónimo de James Tiptree Jr.” (136).  It is at this stage that one can only repeat, “qué curioso, qué curioso, algunos de los autores que nombrás no los he leído” (136). And indeed, all of these improbable names cover the real pages of actual writers. While Duprey, Dallas and Voronca were minor members of different avant-garde groups, Alice Sheldon was an American science-fiction writer, “most notable for breaking down the barriers between writing perceived as inherently "male" or "female," says Wikipedia. But how to account for Bolaño’s shift from experimental and poetic avant-gardism to prosaic and “realist” avant-gardism? How to explain the juxtaposition of such disparate genres, such disparate names?

A passage from Detectives salvajes may offer the beginning of an answer. Talking about the burgeoning of “libros escritos para desesperados” - read experimental poetry or poemas-novela such as Amberes, Joaquín Font says:


¡Claro que se los lee! Sobre todo si son buenos o pasables o un amigo se los ha recomendado. Pero en el fondo lo ¡aburren! En el fondo esa literatura amargada, llena de armas blancas y de Mesías ahorcados, no consigue penetrarlo hasta el corazón como sí consigue una página serena, una página meditada, una página ¡técnicamente perfecta!...¡No agotar un filón! ¡Humildad! ¡Buscar, perderse en tierras desconocidas! ¡Pero con cordada, con migas de pan o guijarros blancos! (202).


In other words, at a time in which the figure of Che Guevara is the promotional icon of countless commodities, the radical experimentalism of Duprey and Voronca can only be a formula for failure and anonymity. This does not mean that one should not “buscar” or that the only viable literature will have to follow the model of Sheldon’s science-fiction novels. It does mean, however, that formal experimentation needs to be attuned to the logic of mass consumption. If literature is one day to exert its “no-poder,” this will only result from books that are consumed, from words that can move the largest possible readership, the most heterogeneous audience. Font’s insistence on technical skill and the concomitant idea of professionalization also suggests that literature is only one among many competing cultural goods, one more form of entertainment, though an intelligent one: “un ejercicio de inteligencia, de aventura y de tolerancia. Si la literatura no es esto más placer, ¿que demonios es?” (Entre paréntesis 105)

In conclusion of this section, it should be repeated that Bolaño’s critique of the avant-gardes’s anti-commercial “purity” is not so much a revision as a revisiting of the vanguards. The Latin-American avant-gardes of the 1920s had already “integrated with and accomodated themselves to the logic of mass production and consumption” (Rosenberg 5). While Rosenberg attributes this unusual “accommodation” to the postcolonial locus of enunciation of Latin American writers and their acute awareness of the “circulation of goods, discourses, and peoples,” the same could be said of Antonin Artaud or the members of the Collège de Sociologie, all renegades of Surrealism. Similarly, though the idea of the avant-gardes is usually synonymous with formalism and experimentation, Louis Aragon’s Traité du Style already imagines the formal future of surrealism as a movement towards realism, though an updated version of the 19th century. Here again, Bolaño’s attempt to imagine the present and future of the avant-garde results from a productive return to the past, and a careful re-reading of the many texts and authors that were left on the unfinished margins of literary history: “‘Después de siglos de filosofía, vivimos aún de las ideas poéticas de los primeros hombres,’ escribió Breton. Esta frase no es, como pudiera pensarse, un reproche sino una constatación en el umbral del misterio” (Entre paréntesis 193). 

After this tentative analysis of Bolaño’s “vanguardia inexistente,” a legitimate question comes to mind: Why keep calling it an avant-garde? Why situating Bolaño’s work within that specific tradition, if most of his work can be read as “una carta de amor o de despedida” to that very tradition (Entre paréntesis 37)? As logical as these interrogations may sound, the need to voice them is precisely the source of the problem, the reason why the avant-gardes keep being thought of as relics of the past. Lima and Belano’s decision to name their “movement” after the one that was founded by Cesárea Tinajero in the 1920s is not only a gesture of formal or nominal continuity, but also an indication of the fact that fidelity to a name is the only way to modify the content of that name while keeping its driving force; that keeping a sign alive is the only way to overturn it and operate what Breton once called “un changement de signe” (a change of sign) (qtd. in Badiou 200). Giving up the term “avant-garde” would then be more than a mere terminological disagreement. It would be a call to impotence, an open letter to the language of resignation. But as Bolaño once wrote, “la hora de sentar cabeza no llegará jamás” (Entre paréntesis 93).

Works Cited

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Badiou, Alain. Le Siècle. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2005.


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Córtazar, Julio. La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos (Tomo I). 1967. Buenos Aires: siglo xxi editores, 2004.


Laddaga, Reinaldo. Espectáculos de realidad: Ensayo sobre la narrativa latinoamericana de las últimas décadas. Buenos Aires: Beatriz Viterbo editora, 2007.


Meschonnic, Henri. Modernité Modernité. 1988. Paris: Gallimard, 2005.


Nancy, Jean-Luc. “La Comparution/The Compearance: From the Existence of ‘Communism’ to the Community of ‘Existence.’ Trans. Tracy B. Strong. Political Theory Vol.(20), No.(3) (August 1992):



Rosenberg, Fernando J. The Avant-Garde and Geopolitics in Latin America. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006.