Realized this morning as I was getting ready for work that one of the central models Roberto Bolaño might have used for some of his novels (particularly Los detectives salvajes and 2666) is Roque Dalton's posthumous novel Pobrecito poeta que era yo (San Salvador: UCA Editores, 1994). Dalton's novel is a masterpiece but unfortunately it has yet to be translated into English.
It's a well-known fact that Bolaño befriended Dalton in El Salvador after he escaped from Chile in 1973. Bolaño also befriended several of the people who ended up killing Dalton. According to this 1998 interview, Bolaño noted that Dalton's "comrades" killed him while he slept, without giving him even the dignity of knowing his fate.
Dalton's murder stands as a reminder that the far left is just as dangerous as the far right. I've read that Dalton's fellow FMLN guerrillas suspected him of being a CIA spy, a suspicion that influenced their decision to kill him. Surely, Dalton's work and his death had an effect on Bolaño's aesthetic and political views.
What connects Dalton's magnificent novel with Bolaño's longer novels is the 6-part structure that the Salvadoran poet used to mold his prose. Pobrecito poeta que era yo is built out of 5 separate narratives that are collaged together (along with an interlude of disparate texts taken from newspapers, magazines, other books and radio broadcasts), creating a sense of chronological discontinuity. Dalton fictionalizes events in his own life to such a degree that the final section of the novel closely recounts his own semi-miraculous escape from a jail outside San Salvador during an earthquake. The novel ends with the protagonist escaping from his CIA captors and reaching the city by foot and bus. The final paragraphs are written from exile in Havana. An exile that Dalton himself lived until he decided to secretly return to El Salvador.
Bolaño's Los detectives salvajes ends with a similarily dramatic series of events. Several friends leave Mexico City and drive up to the deserts of Northern Mexico, where they eventually encounter the criminals who are chasing them.
What I find enthralling about both writers is how their novels are centered on the idea of artistic and political undergrounds. Both writers employ slang and esoteric forms of Spanish, whether it be the Mexican hippie Chilango Spanish of Los detectives salvajes or Dalton's variations of Salvadoran Spanish, from the demotic to the hyper-intellectual. Both writers root their novels in the spoken languages of El Salvador and Mexico. There are moments in Dalton's novel when certain sections are written out in journal form, just as Bolaño does throughout Los detectives salvajes.
Dalton concludes his novel with the following inscription:
"San Salvador, 1964
La Habana, 1971-1973."
Which means that he would have been finished with the novel by the time he met Bolaño in El Salvador during the mid-1970s. One can imagine that the book would have been a topic of conversation among both poets.
The thing I can't quite fathom is how Dalton's novel has been generally ignored over the last few decades. It seems to exist in a vacuum, so that even in Latin America he is known for his poetry but not his fiction. Had Dalton lived longer, I think fiction would have been a form he would have continued to develop. Pobrecito poeta que era yo is one of the great books of the Latin American Boom era. And yet, no one seems to have read it.
I always pay close attention to the opening sentences of certain novels, where the writer is able to set a mood which instantly lures the reader into a parallel universe. I never tire of these opening lines from Dalton's novel, which take place in a bar in San Salvador at noon:
"Hombre joven, ligera (es un decir) mente sofocado por el calor de la calle (este país es un incendio, etc.). Ha entrado en este bar de nombre tan europeo (Chalo Olano lo decoró con maderas arrojadas por el mar, palmas disecadas, playwood en retazos y bellos trastos inservibles traídos de Nueva York y de aquel México de consumo personal donde toto el mundo parecía salvadoreño y podía uno alquilar por mes un apartamento de lujo en las calles de Génova y aspirar realísticamente a viviseccionar los encantos de incipientes estrellas de cine, y la Zona Rosa no se llamaba así y se gozaba más y más barato) precisamente a causa de ese calor anonadante y no ha podido perder aún cierta aureola denunciadora de su prisa santa por llegar de una buena vez a determinado destino final (¿de su jornada, de su vida?) apasionadamente suyo, inentregable."