Photos by Eunice Adorno
The above image is part of a work in progress by Mexican photographer Eunice Adorno. It’s part of a series tentatively called No Hay Tal Lugar (There Is No Such Place) that’s partially inspired by the fictional city of Santa Teresa, Sonora, which is loosely based on Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and serves as the main setting for Bolaño’s 2666. Eunice’s goal is to create a portrait of a nonexistent city made up of multiple locations ravaged by the country’s war on drugs.
here is a night checkpoint right at the entrance of Kino Bay in the state of Sonora, Mexico. Passing through, two cops stopped us, pointing their flashlights at us in the dark. One of them walked slowly between the headlights of our Expedition, keeping us within the sights of his 9mm pistol; the other one stopped less than two feet away from the driver.
“Where to?” the cop asked.
“To Kino,” our driver answered.
“Do you know what week it is?”
“The unholy week.”
“OK. Watch out.”
Our new friend had a gold tooth, or at least it was gold-plated. He smiled as if he had just killed someone. Our driver, a man experienced in such matters, estimated that he had killed a couple, at the very least. Perhaps the officer’s last victim was a Seri Indian lying on the ground, among cacti, bleeding from a gunshot wound to his back. Or maybe a junkie from Arizona looking for thrills in the small towns of Sonora, and instead getting one right between the eyes courtesy of this murderer with a badge.
Kino Bay was calm on our arrival. Six fat couples in bathing suits were playing volleyball; some kids were drinking Tecate Light and listening to reggaeton next to a bonfire. It was almost serene. Then we noticed the row of bulletproof pickup trucks with blacked-out windows. They were filled with tough guys whose favorite activity is driving down the only avenue in town, listening to norteño music at a worrisome and suspense-inducing low volume.
Smack in the middle of the avenue, which is to say, right in the middle of the town, was another Sonora state-police checkpoint: five cop cars with their lights flashing, piercing the darkness of the night. Inside were ten very annoyed Sonora police officers who looked like they had just been released from a military mental asylum.
For some reason unbeknownst to me, just before arriving at this second checkpoint our driver stopped the music. We had been listening to a CD by Los Cadetes de Linares, a band that’s from the Mexican northeast—near the Texan border—and not the northwest.
He slid in another CD, this time a bootleg, and scanned forward to track 7. It was a Chalino Sánchez tune based on Manuel Acuña’s poem “Nocturno a Rosario,” and its alexandrine verses came belting out of the speakers in a screeching wail. Chalino was a hitman before he became a professional singer. He quickly turned into a star but could not escape his past and, eventually, was shot dead at the age of 31.
This time there was minimal dialogue at the checkpoint; there wasn’t even an attempt at interrogation, and the journey continued. Our final destination, which we hoped to reach by evening, was Lorenzo Pinelli’s hostel. He had surprised us by announcing he had a copy of Pájaro de Calor (Bird of Heat), the legendary 1976 infrarrealist1 anthology that is so rare it may as well not be real. It is a key artifact of the literary movement, and arguably one of the many aesthetic cornerstones of Roberto Bolaño, perhaps the most celebrated contemporary author to write extensively about Mexico, even if he was from Chile.
We arrived at the hostel and met Lorenzo Pinelli, a pleasant Dostoyevskian character exiled in this Siberia of sand: all muscles, thick mustache, and kind eyes, like those of a giant marine insect.
Oddly, Roberto Bolaño never went to Sonora during his lifetime. But Sonora was to Bolaño what Macondo was to Gabriel García Márquez, or Yoknapatawpha to William Faulkner. Bolaño only knew Sonora through maps made by Julio César Montané, a scholarly Chilean who had been exiled in the state since the 1970s. (To put this in context, a Chilean in Sonora is as strange and extravagant as a Finn in Oaxaca.) Montané, a literature professor, historian, and geographer, served as the basis for the character of Amalfitano in Bolaño’s magnum opus, 2666. In the novel there is a long passage in which Amalfitano speaks about a subject that, in Mexico, is as delicate as that of the narcotraficantes.
"It’s an old story, the relationship of Mexican intellectuals with power. I’m not saying they’re all the same. There are some notable exceptions. Nor am I saying that those who surrender do so in bad faith. Or even that they surrender completely. You could say it’s just a job. But they’re working for the state. In Europe, intellectuals work for publishing houses or for the papers or their wives support them or their parents are well-off and give them a monthly allowance or they’re laborers or criminals and they make an honest living from their jobs. In Mexico, and this might be true across Latin America, except in Argentina, intellectuals work for the state. It was like that under the PRI and it’ll be the same under the PAN. The intellectual himself may be a passionate defender of the state or a critic of the state. The state doesn’t care. The state feeds him and watches over him in silence… They only hear the sounds that come from deep in the mine. And they translate or reinterpret or recreate them. Their work, it goes without saying, is of a very low standard. They employ rhetoric where they sense a hurricane, they try to be eloquent where they sense fury unleashed, they strive to maintain the discipline of meter where there’s only a deafening and hopeless silence. They say cheep cheep, bowwow, meow meow, because they’re incapable of imagining an animal of colossal proportions, or the absence of such an animal."
A 1947 map by Julio Montané from a gargantuan atlas of Sonora that was discovered at a bookstore a few blocks away from the VICE office in Mexico City. While we can never be sure, it is likely that Bolaño used this very same edition to inform the backdrop of The Savage Detectives and 2666.
Despite Bolaño’s unofficial but indisputable status as the laureate of northern Mexico, the northernmost point he ever reached was Gómez Palacio, in the state of Durango, where he spent a few days teaching a short-story workshop. Yet anyone who’s read his works knows that he was obsessed with the arid region that’s been a stronghold of the cartels for years.
“The Deserts of Sonora” is the title of the vertiginous third and final section of The Savage Detectives, Bolaño’s 1998 novel about a decades-long quest for an elusive Visceral Realist poet among many, many other tangents and scenarios revolving around both Mexico’s literary elite and the country’s most contemptuous individuals. In the book, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, Bolaño and Mario Santiago Papasquiaro’s alter egos, travel trough Sonora, looking for the disappeared poet Cesárea Tinajero, knowing only that she had produced the Visceral Realist anthology Caborca, which is named after a border town near Arizona. To get there, the Savage Detectives travel the federal highway from Mexico City all the way to Santa Ana, Sonora, before taking a detour west, passing trough Pueblo Nuevo and Altar. When they finally arrive in Caborca, they search for Cesárea but can’t find her, so they carry on with her journey.
Scans of the cover and interior pages of the elusive Pájaro de Calor (Bird of Heat). It was published in 1976 and is perhaps the earliest compendium of infrarealist literature.
Many other towns in Sonora appear in Bolaño’s work. The main setting of 2666 is the town of Santa Teresa, Sonora, a place inspired by Ciudad Juárez, located in the neighboring state of Chihuahua. Bolaño wrote much of his work inside apartments in Barcelona and Blanes, armed with maps of Sonora that were scattered about the floor and sometimes taped to the walls. These maps supplied him with the phonetics and names that became essential to his work. These names, which may seem spontaneous to readers, were more calculated than any of the murders in Woes of the True Policeman, Bolaño’s final (at least for now) posthumous novel. The violence of the region is another one of Bolaño’s themes: One of the last things he wrote, before his death at the age of 50, was “El Policía de Ratas” (“Police Rat”), a short story that describes a shocking murder in an idyllic community of rodents. (It also shares multiple parallels with “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” Kafka’s last short story.)
Kino Bay doesn’t appear in any of Bolaño’s books. But it was here, on this particular evening, that we paid the author tribute in the form of a spontaneous reading of his poetry. The critics consider the poems bad, especially when compared with the Chilean’s narrative work, and Bolaño himself admitted as much in an interview: “I wrote poems that can’t stand the passage of time. My trip to Europe made me look at my own poetry differently.” Some of his verses, however, gain more poetic sense when one is familiar with Sonora, especially if one is currently standing within its borders.
At the reading, some of the poems were recited with the accompaniment of norteño music in the background. The night’s readers included Alejandro Almazán, an author who had just completed a novel about the world’s most-wanted narco-trafficker, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera; Carlos Sánchez, who runs a literary workshop at the Hermosillo jail for women accused of murder; Felipe de Jesús Larios, the best journalist in Sonora, who always describes his lovers as sicarias (hired assassins) and never as girlfriends; and José Luis Valencia, author of the truly infrarealist short story “La Poeta Gorda” (“The Fat Poet”), dedicated to a poet whose naked body adorns the covers of her books. Lorenzo Pinelli, our host, also read a few poems not far from the Sonora cops. A splendid night.
In addition to Bolaño’s poetry, the night included conversations about proctologists from the town of Agua Prieta and fishing boats full of cocaine en route to Los Angeles, and stories told by an old man who looked like a shadow. When he talked, he did so with sand in his eyes and at the edges of his mouth. He told us his name was Pedro Carrillo and that he was born in Navolato, Sinaloa. It’s also the hometown of Carrillo Fuentes, the capo of Ciudad Juárez, but he assured us that they were not his relatives, but with that last name and gloomy face, no one believed him.
As the night wound on there was also a conversation about a fearsome gang known as Los Ponis, and about Uncle Celerino, that sinister character from the countryside who told his stories to one of his nephews, the celebrated Mexican author and photographer Juan Rulfo.
Later, there were the tales about two strippers from Mexico City. One of them was born in Mérida, Venezuela, and the other in Ciudad Obregón, Sonora. The Venezuelan was short, and the Sonoran was tall—she fled because her sister was murdered and, on top of that, strip clubs had been banned in her state. Her sister was killed for dating a narco, and the narco was shot 12 times in the street, but he survived and relocated to the US under a new identity. But the stripper’s sister was shot seven times, though she was dead after the first bullet pierced her temple, a perfect shot. Someone recalled talking to the tall stripper one night, while she was leaving work in the ritzy Mexico City neighborhood of Polanco, and she expounded at length on the ABC Daycare fire in Hermosillo, Sonora, which killed 49 children. She was outraged that the governor had banned strip clubs in Sonora but was OK with daycares operated by his corrupt political friends, even when that led to the deaths of half a hundred kids.
Another photo from Eunice Adorno’s Santa Teresa-inspired series.
All of a sudden, at dawn, Lorenzo Pinelli slowly recounted an encounter with Roberto Bolaño. Of course, everyone was dubious, even if Lorenzo was the right age and was surrounded by enough mystery for such a meeting to have taken place.
As he realized we thought he might be full of it, Lorenzo stopped talking and walked to a backroom where he poked through a mess of Pink Floyd tapes, weed, Bukowski books, and keys to locks he had never tried to open. Finally he returned to the party, a little yellowish book in his hand, the ink a bit faded but still readable.
The cover read:
Pájaro de Calor (Bird of Heat)
Ocho Poetas Infrarrealistas (Eight Infrarealist Poets)
Mexico—Lora Del Rio
1976 Here it was, the endangered infrarealist specimen—the locus of it all. The first collection from the infrarealists, the movement that Bolaño helped found, with an introduction by Juan Cervera that reads as follows: INFRAREALIST POETS:
Before reading these young poets, gathered under the curious banner of what they called infrarealism, one gets tangled up in questions. Ask yourselves: What is this movement about? And it turns out that once we read what they express, the definitions are unnecessary. These eight poets, infrarealists or however they call themselves, are nothing more than eight wills and eight feelings that talk to us with faith and enthusiasm of life with a beautiful load of liberated sensuality. It made me wonder whether Lorenzo really was friendly with Bolaño, and whether perhaps the author himself bequeathed this fabled anthology to him. It was too good of a story to question, so I didn’t ask.
1 Infrarealism, or infrarrealismo, was a literary movement founded in 1974 by a group of poetry students who had been expelled from Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) over disagreements with their professors. They were inspired by the Beats, the Dadaists, and Rimbaud, among others, and sought to revolt against the hidebound Mexican literary establishment and the “official culture.” Bolaño’s first infrarealist manifesto, “Leave Everything Behind, Again,” was inspired by and named after an André Breton poem.