A photograph is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know.
— Diane Arbus
IN DEATH, he is like an apparition. He shows up inconspicuously, tactfully, in a way he never did in life. No matter how deep you look into his past, you won’t find much because most of what he did was impromptu, without a script. He lived in the present, unencumbered, and he left behind a trail of anger and destruction.
He was born in Mexico City in 1953. He called himself Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, and was commonly referred to as Mario Santiago, although his real name was José Alfredo Zendejas Pineda. He chose his nom de plume in part to distinguish himself from the Mexican pop singer José Alfredo Jiménez. His choice, at least in part, wasn’t arbitrary: Santiago Papasquiaro, a town on the slopes of the Sierra Madre in the Mexican state of Durango, was an homage to the purported birthplace of his idol, writer José Revueltas, a political activist and author of the novel Human Mourning (1943). Except that Revueltas’s siblings were from there, but he was born in a nearby village, Canatlán.
Those who knew Mario Santiago describe his bohemian lifestyle, saying that he was often delirious, wrathful, and abrasive, “un ser que daba miedo,” a person at once fearful and frightening. And they recount that he wrote constantly on whatever was at his disposal — napkins, old newspapers, walls. The consensus is that, more than his oeuvre, Santiago himself was a work of art.
From the age of 15, he was an alcoholic. And he died drunk in Mexico City in 1998, after being hit by a car. That’s also the year his best friend Roberto Bolaño, whom he hadn’t seen for a while, published The Savage Detectives, in which Santiago shows up as Ulises Lima, the other savage detective and companion to Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s alter ego. The novel is the source of much of Santiago’s mythology.
Santiago and Bolaño were the founders and principal promoters of Infrarrealism, an aesthetic (also called Visceral Realism) that was also a form of terrorism. Influenced by the Beatnik counterculture, the Infrarrealists opposed mainstream literature in Mexico City from the 1970s onward, and considered Octavio Paz their “great enemy.” Some of its members, including Jorge Hernández (“Piel Divina”), Pedro Damián Bautista, Rubén Medina, Mara Larrosa, José Peguero, Bruno Montané, Claudia Kerik, Guadalupe Ochoa, Juan Esteban Harrington, and Mario Raúl Guzmán — all names that, with some variations, are recognizable to readers of The Savage Detectives — would descend on public readings by “Pazitas,” the protégés of Paz’s circle, disrupting them with horrifying slogans.
Personally, I love The Savage Detectives for many reasons, chief among them the fluidity of its style. It is the best Mexican novel of the late 20th century. The fact that it is written by a non-Mexican makes it even more delicious. And that Bolaño placed a lumpen littérateur at the heart of the period is sheer genius.
Some suggest it is a mistake to let Bolaño set Santiago’s agenda. An army of anti-Bolañistas has coalesced to prove the degree to which — even through the prism of his generosity — Bolaño wasn’t altogether kind to Santiago and other Infrarrealists. Of course, that Bolaño ended up the chronicler of the movement is the result of sheer ambition. He matured as an artist the way nobody else in his group did: in sustained fashion and in the public eye. But his critics forget that he wrote fiction, not histories.
At any rate, it is essential to return to Santiago, to listen to his voice in unadulterated fashion. Unfortunately, only one slim volume of Santiago’s poetry, Aullido de cisne (Swan’s Howl, 1996), as well as a chapbook, Beso eterno (Eternal Kiss, 1995), were published during his lifetime. And they are virtually impossible to find in print today.
It is known that before Bolaño died in 2003, he was looking for ways to bring out an anthology of his friend’s most representative verses. A couple of acquaintances, Juan Villoro and Alejandro Aura, completed the task: the volume, released under the aegis of Fondo de Cultura Económica and edited by Santiago’s widow, Rebeca López, and his Infrarrealist friend Mario Raúl Guzmán, is called Jeta de santo: Antología poética, 1974-1997 (Saint’s Face, 2009). It is a valuable compendium. And there is also another one, Arte & Basura (Art & Garbage, 2013), edited by Luis Felipe Fabre.
It is a measure of Santiago’s own self-estimation that he should remain an apparition. The place where he belongs, the place he fought for, is in the margins. He wasn’t a flashy renegade like Bolaño. Any attempt at granting him a more central role betrays his ambition. He was a hell-raiser, un poeta maldito, an appellation that comes from Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Verlaine (poète maudit). One never knows what to expect from posterity, but it is my hope that Santiago will remain a footnote, an after-thought, yes, a shadow — like Felisberto Hernández, Calvert Casey, and other desconocidos, unknown Latin American authors whose existence comes to us mostly by means of innuendo. Otherwise, Santiago’s entire enterprise would be undermined.
In “Carte d’Identité,” an autobiographical poem, Santiago describes himself, in the tradition of Chile’s Nicanor Parra, as an “anti-poet & incorruptible idler / fugitive from Nothingness / giant salamander in a cascade of wind.” His third-person self-profile also states that “his profession is: coming to realization, his truth / none at all,” and “his fondest dream: putting in a goal from the corner in the flagrant absence of the wind of God, Champion of the Field.” Santiago adds: “He writes like he walks / to the rhythm of a barrio brass band / with a steady stride & without let up.”
According to his widow and to Mónica Maristain, who wrote a biography of Bolaño, El hijo de Mister Playa (Mister Playa’s Son, 2009), Santiago wrote frantically, maybe even spastically. Poetry was his raison d’être. And not just any poetry, but an anxious, automatic poetry without filters, a defiant poetry, a poetry of anger and hallucination that takes a compulsive anti-establishmentarian stance. He lived dangerously, at all times pushing his mind into the abyss, which is where he believed true art was to be found.
The literary establishment of the 1970s in Mexico City was stultifying, tied as it was to the even more stultifying political establishment. Even when I came of age a decade later, it was impossible to ignore this fact. The student massacre in 1968, just as the Olympic Games were about to commence, was evidence of a tyrannical ruling party, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), with little interest in democratic exchange. The PRI held onto power with an iron fist.
Not that dissent was outlawed. You could speak your mind, even on radio, TV, and the printed media. But major industries were tightly controlled by the government. And elections were rigged. Everyone knew it. Mario Vargas Llosa, during a visit, called the system “a perfect dictatorship.” (And then he had to leave in a rush.)
You just couldn’t do anything about it. In the intellectual and artistic spheres, the division was sharp: either you were with the government or you were against it. If the latter, your chances were slim in terms of exposure. A liberal in his youth, Octavio Paz, fashioned by the PRI as the favorite intelectual público, had made a pact with the devil. His personality pretty much resembled that of the ruling party: either you were with him — like historian Enrique Krauze, who ended up assuming Paz’s mantle after he died — or you were an enemy.
In other words, the extreme strategies of the Infrarrealists were also those of the status quo. It was only natural that people left. Santiago adored Mexico, as he describes in the opening of “In the Gateway of the Clouds”:
My homeland is this juice-laden cactus that I snatched from the very mouth of the desert :: Lophophora Williamsii ::
/ Universe of buttons flowering the palms of my hands /
Leap and dance my destiny
Like a dog celebrating the punctual blessing of his feeding
The tongue of God firmly kisses me
& turns & goes & spins
devouring the honeycomb of the pupils of my eyes.
Between 1976 and 1978, Santiago lived in Paris, Vienna, Barcelona, and Jerusalem before returning to Mexico City. Bolaño also left — in his case, for good — settling in a small town not far from Barcelona. But he couldn’t get Santiago out of his mind. As he wrote in his poem “Burro,” “At times I dream that Mario Santiago / Comes to get me, or is a faceless poet, / A head without eyes, or mouth, or nose, / Only skin and will, and I don’t ask anything…”
Needless to say, I’m aware of the trap I have set for myself: introducing a volume of Santiago’s verses in English translation by Arturo Mantecón defeats the enterprise of secrecy that safeguards Santiago’s reputation. The epigraph from Diane Arbus I use at the outset is apt: the best secret is the one not even its owner knows about. I get the impression Santiago was such a combustive artist, his own limits were unknown to him.
My task is not unlike that of the teacher of mysticism, attempting to define or distill the numinous tradition for his students. Mysticism thrives as a secret. It is only for a select group of the initiated. Spreading the word about it is an aggression against its very core. Likewise with Santiago’s verses: they decidedly aren’t for the mainstream. Their themes and cadences are harsh, unpolished, and, well, very visceral, even though I’m the first to recognize all this as a conceit.
For instance, the poems give the appearance of raw spontaneity while they are in fact extraordinary displays of craftsmanship. Look at “3 Seconds Sober & I Go Mad,” “I Would Give Everything, Everything, Everything,” “Bataille Reincarnate,” or “Mallarmé Assaulted,” and you see that they work hard at being fresh, unaffected, seemingly unplanned — like the poems of Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and Kenneth Rexroth. Any other approach would make them pretentious.
Santiago was a poet of chance. He disliked anything remotely resembling a pre-fab structure. Yet there is order to his chaos and structure in his apparent amorphousness. Beauty is freedom, but freedom is the capacity to do as one pleases within certain constraints.
Arguably Santiago’s most famous poem — and the war horse in this book — is “Advice from a Disciple of Marx to a Fanatic of Heidegger.” A hard-boiled existentialism filtered through the prism of Mexican pop culture, peyote trips, and urban alienation, the poem unfolds itself in dialogue with Latin American explorations of the self, like those of Ernesto Sábato, Julio Cortázar, and others. Even the epigraph by W. H. Auden (who said, “poetry makes nothing happen” in his elegy, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”) maps the route the poem is ready to take. Words upside down and inside out: they are everything and nothing. More than a poem, it is a shriek of despair. One recognizes in it the Infrarrealist aesthetic, whose message rises like the clenched fist of a manifesto.
Actually, the first line has become a mantra: “The world gives itself to you in fragments / in splinters.” The advice of Marx’s disciple to Heidegger’s fan — that is, from a hyper-materialist to an obfuscating phenomenologist — is rather straightforward: “To live is to hold one’s breath.”
I’m in awe of Santiago’s approach to the Spanish language. It is easy to see why Bolaño was such an astounding ventriloquist: he learned the rhythms from his pals. The parlance of Mexico City in the 1970s is superbly invoked here: the innocence, brutality, arbitrariness, and poise of sounds forming meaning in an attempt to explain reality, which is nothing but a concoction in the poet’s mind while he is simmering in his own mendacity.
Reading Santiago’s toils makes me want to scream. The more I read him, the less I know him. He makes me feel as if I’m back in Mexico City, boiling in oil. I regret that I didn’t know him. But then again, it is good to get his passion, his luminosity, and his destructiveness tangentially. In a variation of the Diane Arbus view, George Orwell believed that if you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself. One gets the impression that Santiago did just that.
Ilan Stavans is a Mexican-American author and translator, the publisher of Restless Books, and Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College.