“Oh, I Was So Much Older Then…”

A Bitter Regis Debray Meets Roberto Bolaňo's Visceral Realist Poets in the Literary Deserts of Our Mind

Two books published in their original languages in the 1990s were recently released in English translations. The first book is fiction and details the doings of a band of poetic revolutionaries; the other is autobiographical and details the doings of an individual who hung out with a band of revolutionaries that the world considers poetic. Debray still lives, while Bolaño died in 2003. Both authors were participants in various leftist political revolutions in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, although Debray’s participation was certainly on a more involved level. Debray’s pronouncements as of late included a call to vote to the left of the mainstream left in France, yet he ultimately decided to vote for Royal.

Both of these books represent the same period of the 20th century, yet their tone could not be more different. Bolaňo’s autobiographical novel The Savage Detectives is written as if it were an oral history. This picaresque novel features a storyteller who is an interviewer traveling the world in search of the history and meaning of the visceral poets movement — a movement that exists as such only in the novel. It is told with a humorous cynicism while The Presence of the Lords is just cynical. Debray’s look backwards at his life among the Guevarist revolutionaries and other such sorts reminded me of the line from Bob Dylan’s song about toeing a party line during his early folksinging phase titled “My Back Pages.” The chorus of the song goes “I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.” Yet, there is a difference or two between Dylan and Debray’s take on the matter. Dylan was laughing at himself as much as he was disparaging those he saw as party hacks. There are no chuckles from Debray. Furthermore, Dylan left behind the jackets others wanted him to wear for a set of clothes that ended up changing things even more than his primarily political work ever could. Debray, on the other hand, seems to have traded the somewhat colorful fatigues he shared with Ché for a modern French intellectuals suit worn most recently by the faux socialist Francois Mitterand. Out of the jungles of Latin America and into the jungles of the French bureaucracy, as it were.

Bolaño’s protagonists in The Savage Detectives, Arturo Belano, Ulises Lima and their poetic compatriots, would never even consider such a move. Between their rambling around the world, their poetry writing, their participation in various leftwing movements and uprisings, and their lovemaking and weed smoking, these visceral realists — the Yippies of the poetic world — live a life of liberation. Their story is not only entertaining, it is inspirational. Like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or Ché Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries, this is a tale that makes one want to leave their day job and go on the road. Or, if not on the road, at least to that part of the universal city where no one works except when they have to and life is truly free from the strictures that day jobs require.

Despite Debray’s cynical, often bitter hindsight, his narrative makes for quite interesting reading. Indeed, almost any writer would be hard put to tell the story of his life with Ché in Bolivia or sharing cigars and wine with Fidel in Havana and render it boring. The tales Debray relates provide a look into the early energy of that island revolution which became so much more. His breathless and sometimes garrulous narrative describing the flair of the guerrilla contrasted with the stodginess of the Soviet bureaucrats is even humorous. Where the book fails is in the analysis of the revolution in Cuba and the revolutionary surge around the world that took place in the wake of World War Two. Too much emphasis is placed on the individuals involved and their shortcomings and not enough emphasis is placed on the international situation of the time and the liberating zeitgeist of the period. If I were to put a label on this historiography, I would call it bourgeois history making, if for no reason other than that Debray is obsessed with individualistic interpretations of what was happening all around him. Of course, as any leftist historiographer will tell you, individuals do matter , but economic and political circumstances matter even more, though one would never know it from reading The Presence of the Lords. That Debray ignores this would seem counter to his credentials.

Debray himself says his political adventures were part of his search for a father. From the men he chose as father figures, it is obvious that he felt he needed a strong one. In a diatribe only Freud could have imagined, Debray slays his father figures one by one. Althusser, Fidel, and Mitterand… bang, bang, bang. At least Bolaño’s visceral poets didn’t want a dad. Or a mother. They just wanted to do what they pleased in the name of poetry and revolution. Their family is the one they created amongst themselves. Poets, lovers, Trotskyists, rich students and poor ones, winos and pot dealers, and a Stalinist or two make up this family of coincidence. A family that shared a common interest in the joy of life, but only occasionally blood.

The protagonists of The Savage Detectives are naturally idealist, as was Debray. Yet the difference is that Debray transferred those ideals to men while the poets and rascals in The Savage Detectives didn’t. The visceral realists never took themselves so seriously that they felt wronged by the twists and turns of the lives they chose. Indeed, they reveled in the ironies life cast upon them and moved on. Debray, on the other hand, presents himself as something of a humorless individual whose only salvation is his incredible intellect. Emotions in Debray’s case are restricted to anger and a sense that he was wronged, while the visceral realists emotions run the gamut from uproarious humor to love, anger and back to a giddily detached enjoyment of what it means to be part of the human condition.. The visceral poets of Bolaño’s novel are poets of their own revolution. The revolutionaries that Debray lived with in Cuba and Bolivia were part of a revolution that stemmed from a poetic vision. Debray’s hindsight forgets that vision in favor of a retelling that suffers from disappointment, a sense of (probably unwarranted) betrayal, and an emphasis on the revolution’s bureaucratic and military aspects. Bolaño’s poets understand that the poetic and political revolutions they were part of are over, but they continue to live their lives as if they were lines from poems they certainly meant to write. No sense of betrayal, only a sense that they were the ones on whom the joke was played — HA HA. Is it fair to contrast fiction with biography? When both forms are speaking to a particular spirit — a zeitgeist — I have no doubt that it is. After all, neither text will be confused with formal history.

Perhaps one lesson to be learned here is that revolutions make better stories before they succeed and even better ones when they fail. In other words, as an elder hero of the visceral realists tells the interviewer in the novel as he recounts his life and a visit with Arturo Belano, Ulises Lima and a couple other renegade poets: “Like so many Mexicans, I too gave up poetry… From then on, my life proceeded along the drabbest course you can imagine.” Likewise, when a revolution loses its poetic vision, it too becomes the drabbest thing you can imagine.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.