David Lalé - Masochistic public spectacles, a doomed affair with the beautiful poetess Mina Loy, and finally vanishing without trace

David Lalé, Last Stop Salina Cruz: A Novel (Alma Books, 2008)


3:AM NOVEL OF THE YEAR 2007

«Fleeing from the tedium of his everyday life and the painful memory of a dying father, the narrator embarks on a long solitary journey retracing the footsteps of real-life malcontent and misanthrope par-excellence Arthur Cravan, the nephew of Oscar Wilde. As a lambasting critic, poet-boxer, and Dadaist anti-hero, Cravan wreaked havoc on himself and three continents during the course of a short and spectacular life, which led him across the world in an escalating frenzy of self-destruction. Along the way, our young protagonist encounters every species of grotesque human character blighting Europe, the U.S., and South America, until he reaches the shores of the desolate oil town of Salina Cruz, the site of Cravan’s mysterious disappearance. Only there does the true purpose of his journey become at last apparent.»

«David Lale on Last Stop Salina Cruz:
On the outbreak of the First World War, the notorious poet-boxer and draft-dodger Arthur Cravan embarked on a mad flight that took him from modernist Paris to revolutionary Mexico and the mysterious fate that awaited him there.
Ninety years later I set out in his footsteps in the hope of recovering what really happened to him. The journey took me first to Paris, where Cravan made a name for himself through masochistic public spectacles; to Barcelona, where he fought the legendary World Heavyweight Champion, Jack Johnson; to New York, where he tangled with Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists; and then to Mexico, where, after a doomed affair with the beautiful English poetess Mina Loy, he finally vanished without trace.
I hitch-hiked across Europe and America, but for me this wasn’t a holiday so much as a mission. Beyond my fascination with the legend of Cravan there was another, more sinister motive driving me. As the story takes me further and further from my former life, it emerges that, like Cravan, I was running from something dark, dangerous, and more than a little embarrassing.
The shape of this book is a Prozac-fuelled descent into a nightmare world of motorway sidings, hotel kitchens, and backpackers desperate for small talk; it is a one-way ticket to unrestrained misanthropy and terminal neurosis. The story reaches its climax in the desolate oil town of Salina Cruz, the site of Cravan disappearance. Only here does the true purpose of my project at last become apparent.»

«The endlessly self-publicising poet-boxer (rubbish at being both) and nephew of Oscar Wilde was almost too good – or possibly too awful – to be true. His short, erratic life consisted of constant reinvention and a string of outrageous boasts, and ended in mystery, when he disappeared off the coast of Salina Cruz, Mexico, in 1918.
Lalé's equally misanthropic, Prozac-starved and haemorrhoidtormented narrator opts to replicate Cravan's meandering journey in a bid to escape, once and for all, the suffocatingly banal circumstances of his own life: his wickedly comical, modern anti-travel tale is juxtaposed with Cravan's misadventures throughout.
Lalé is a gifted stylist who makes poetry out of beautifully wrought misery. But there are two books fighting inside one cover here and the large slabs of conventional biographical material on Cravan end up detracting somewhat from the force of his fictional character's gleeful hatred of everything and everyone.» - Siobhan Murphy

«Arthur Cravan was a poet, conman and catalyst for Dadaism. A cousin of Oscar Wilde, Cravan, whose real name was Fabian Lloyd, travelled to Paris and Barcelona, to New York, then across to the west coast of America and down into Mexico where he eventually disappeared. Along the way he would achieve notoriety as a boxer; he proved inspirational to key artists of the period, including Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia; women fell for his brute charm, little knowing they were likely to be cruelly manipulated. His was a magnetic, charismatic personality, larger than life, by reputation if not always in the flesh.
If this is beginning to read more like a non-fiction review than a notice for a novel, David Lalé's debut is most unlike a novel. It is, rather, a biography wrapped around a short story. There is certainly a fictional strand to the narrative and it a very interesting one. The narrator is a depressed young man coming to terms with the death of his father and fleeing from a crisis with his partner. A Cravan enthusiast, he sets off in the footsteps of his hero, encountering poverty and deprivation, much as Cravan had.
In a cheap hostel, the narrator meets an "effete" trilby-wearing Englishman called Martin who is obsessively taking notes for a "travel novel". Martin declares, "My gimmick is a kind of ironic gimmick, sort of a post-gimmick gimmick." Last Stop Salina Cruz proceeds like Martin's travel novel, its storyline determined by the wanderings of Cravan, whose journeying was partly inspired by the need for flight – in his case from the draft. Cravan's friend, the writer Blaise Cendrars, "joked that Cravan believed the [First] World War was being waged against him alone, just to spite him".
Lalé writes attractive, readable prose that occasionally possesses a translucent, cinematic beauty. Hitch-hiking from Paris, the narrator is picked up by a North African: "Driving at night felt like being inside a computer game... sliding through the passageways of bright light, the acute geometries". Lalé avoids sentimentality and the narrator never tries to ingratiate himself with the reader: you'll squirm at his graphic descriptions of haemorrhoids. He is also good on the illusions of travel. Ultimately, the novel's gimmick, tilting the balance heavily in favour of biographical material, slightly undermines Lalé's obvious gift for narrative.» - Nicholas Royle


«The NAFTA era has finished off whatever was left of Mexico´s mythical status as a no-man´s-land where troubled foreigners escape to redefine themselves, lose themselves, or die.
You can still die here if you´re so inclined, but the modern transplant in Mexico - artist, journalist, business type or retiree - generally hangs on to her or his lifelong identity and comes to live more, not less.
Still, we tend to remember the ones who don´t make it.
Because he was fictionalized in print and film, the U.S. journalist and wit Ambrose Bierce most often represents the romantic notion of the tired angel who disappears into Mexico´s "good, kind darkness." But another candidate has recently emerged - or rather, re-emerged - to fill the prototype of the mysterious stranger who made Mexico his last address under curious circumstances.
Arthur Cravan, born Fabian Avenarius Lloyd, crossed at Nuevo Laredo three years after Bierce´s 1914 disappearance. But he wasn´t American. Cravan was a Swiss-born, Irish-descended, French-speaking poet.
He was also a boxer and bon vivant who fled Paris for New York to avoid military service in World War I. He then fled the United States at age 30 for the same reason. The New York poet Mina Loy later met up with him in Mexico City, where they were married.
Cravan may indeed have come here to redefine himself, because he had been doing just that all his life.
He claimed to be Oscar Wilde´s nephew, which was only a slight exaggeration since he was indeed the nephew of Oscar Wilde´s wife. His boasts along the Paris café circuit were as legendary as they were unlikely, and once rooted in Mexico City, he would describe himself variously as, among other things, a thief, a muleteer, a chauffeur, and a gold prospector.
As for losing himself, there wasn´t much chance of that. Cravan stood 6 foot 4 inches and weighed about 250 pounds, with short blond hair, big shoulders and a menacingly square jaw. He had, according to his wife´s memoirs, "the air of a Viking."
The dying part came, as far as anybody knows, in October of 1918, less than a year after his arrival. He went to Salina Cruz, the Oaxacan seaport on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, looking to buy a boat. He was never heard from again. What happened to him, and whether he did indeed survive and take up a new identity, is the stuff of legend.
The reason it´s legend is that we don´t have much in the way of written sources on Cravan´s brief, intense life, least of all on the Mexican phase of it. Mina Loy´s remembrances are sketchy and poetic. Most of his poetry was published in France in a short-lived literary magazine called Maintenant. Much of it has been translated into English in a book called 4 Dada Suicides (Cravan´s work is sometimes considered Dada-esque).
There is an obscure 1932 fictionalized memoir by one Bob Brown, apparently based on the "slacker" crowd Cravan and Loy hung out with in Mexico City. A 1993 biography in Spanish by María Lluisa Borrás exists, but I haven´t been able to find it. A docu-drama entitled "Cravan v Cravan," in which that same author appears, came and went several years ago. Also, a biography in English by Roger Lloyd Conover, "the leading Anglophone Cravaniste," is in the works.
In the meantime, we are fortunate to have Charles Nicholl´s account of Cravan´s last year, which appears in the latest issue of the London Review of Books to make it across the pond, dated March 9. Nicholl, a brilliant author and journalist, now mostly writes biographies of big historical figures (his latest subject is Da Vinci). But his 1980s portrait of life in Colombia´s cocaine corridor, the Fruit Palace, still stands out in my mind as a shining example of what non-judgmental, you-are-there reportage can accomplish.
Nicholl´s modus operandi is to explore the locations he writes about, so we get something close to a Cravan Tour of the Historic Center. Cravan had once fought Jack Johnson in Barcelona, and he made his living in Mexico City as a boxing instructor and sometimes prizefighter. (The sweet science seems to be a common cultural causeway linking Mexicans with Americans and Europeans; a certain type of ex-pat reflexively seeks out the Mexican boxing scene).
Cravan´s boxing school, the Escuela de Cultura Física Sandow, stood on Tacuba Street, and is still standing, according to Nicholl, "elegantly refurbished, with tall French windows illuminating the former gym on the first floor." An address would have been helpful here.
Nicholl describes Tacuba as quieter than the nearby and parallel "fashionable shopping streets of Cinco de Mayo and Francisco I. Madero." "Fashionable" isn´t a word I usually associate with either of those streets, but a 1930s description by Graham Greene of Tacuba as a street "where you can buy your clothes cheaper if you don´t care much for appearances" seems current in spirit if not actual reality.
Cravan lived first at the Hotel Juárez, also on Tacuba, but when Loy arrived they set up home on Calle de Soto, which is behind Reforma Avenue near the current Guerrero Metro stop.
Nicholl followed Cravan and Loy's route to Salina Cruz, finding the station their train pulled in at to be deserted, "a bordered up ticket-office in fake red brick, a girdered terminus rampant with shrubbery." It reminds him of some translated lines of Cravan´s poetry, about a train that "whistles infinitely across the valleys, dreaming of the oasis: the station with a sky of glass."
Salina Cruz has turned into a major oil-moving seaport in the nearly 80 years since Cravan, and Nicholl´s found little of the old fishing village that Cravan knew. But as he sat on a hill overlooking the Gulf of Tehuantepec, he became convinced, as others have, that Cravan indeed died on the waters between Salina Cruz and Puerto Angel, either capsized by the notorious tehuantepecanos, as the sometimes hurricane-force autumn winds are called, or was murdered by pirates.
Some like to believe, however, that Cravan survived and changed his name from A. Cravan to B. Traven, thus producing the body of work attributed to the even more mysterious German-American turned Mexican citizen. The idea is absurd on its face, but it gets repeated in every account of Cravan´s Mexican disappearance (including this one) because it´s so much fun.
Others contend that Cravan re-emerged as one Dorian Hope, a vagrant poet who sold forged Oscar Wilde manuscripts in New York and Paris in the early 1920s. That sounds like something Cravan might have done, but Nicholl points out how unlikely it is that nobody in Paris would have recognized the very recognizable former man about town.
A full-length work by Nicholl on Cravan's Mexico finale would be most welcome, but if his research was meant for anything beyond the London Review article, nobody´s telling us about it yet.
Those of us inflicted with curiosity about foreigners´ experiences in Mexico will wait instead for Roger Lloyd Conover´s biography, and keep searching for María Lluisa Borrás´ book.» - Kelly Arthur Garrett

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