Aaron Shulman

El Desencanto

The Irresistible Disenchantments of the Panero Family, Introduced by the Best Spanish Cult Documentary You’ve Never Heard Of

DISCUSSED: Doglike Fervor, The Ideal Readership, An Infelicitous Appellation, Several Metaphoric Patricides, Flamboyantly European Cigarette Consumption, The Movie Bad Guy, Creepy Transferences, Poetry Estranged from the Idea of Poetry, The Epic Legend and the Truth, A Crucible of Contagion

In 2666, Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño’s five-book opus, “The Part about Amalfitano” narrates the contagious influence of a disturbed Spanish poet. The reader is introduced to him via Professor Amalfitano’s recollection of his troubled marriage to his former wife, Lola, who left him on strange, ambiguous terms. “Lola’s pretext was a plan to visit her favorite poet, who lived in the insane asylum in Mondragón, near San Sebastian,” Amalfitano remembers. “A genius, an alien… His legend and his poetry and the fervor of the true believer, a doglike fervor, the fervor of the whipped dog that’s spent the night or all its youth in the rain, Spain’s endless storm of dandruff, and has finally found a place to lay its head, no matter if it’s a bucket of putrid water.” When Lola visits the poet, he listens indifferently to her fantasies about him, and later, as she desperately tries to see him again, he ignores her. Lola then drifts into homeless wandering and slowly loses her mind. “Madness is contagious,” reflects Amalfitano.

This infectiously mad “genius” is a thinly veiled (or outright veil-less) version of Leopoldo María Panero, an infamous Spanish poet who during the 1980s lived in the mental institution Lola visits. (In 1987 he published Poems from the Mondragón Asylum, his ninth collection.) To give an idea of the real-life cult appeal of Leopoldo María’s poetry, it’s useful to cite Bolaño again. In his last interview, when asked if he was ever scared of his fans, Bolaño replied: “I’ve been afraid of the fans of Leopoldo María Panero, who in my opinion, by the way, is one of the three best living poets in Spain. In Pamplona, during a series of readings organized by Jesús Ferrero, Panero was the last on the program, and as the day of his reading approached, the city (or the neighborhood where our hotel was) filled up with freaks who seemed to have just escaped from a mental asylum, which incidentally is the best audience any poet can hope for. The problem is that some of them didn’t look only like madmen. They looked like killers, and Ferrero and I were afraid that at some point someone would get up and say: I shot Leopoldo María Panero, and then plug four bullets into ­Panero’s head—and then with one each for Ferrero and me for good measure.” This anecdote tells you something of Leopoldo María’s subversive standing among Spanish-speaking readers of poetry, yet it tells you nothing of the other central component of his fame: his family and a classic documentary about them.

In August of 1974, during the wa­n­ing days of the Franco dictatorship, a young Spanish director named Jaime Chávarri began work on what he thought would be a documentary short. The subject was the family of Leopoldo Panero, a cultural functionary and the poet laureate of the Franco regime, who had died in 1962. The occasion for the film was the unveiling of a statue of the deceased in his provincial hometown of ­Astorga in Castilla y León. El desencanto (The Disenchantment)—which ended up spilling into a ninety-one-minute feature—​consists mostly of static-shot interviews with the remaining members of the Panero nucleus: Panero’s ill-named widow, Felicidad, and his three sons (from oldest to youngest), Juan Luis, Leopoldo María, and Michi. When he finished the final cut, Chávarri thought he had simply produced an idiosyncratic portrait of a dysfunctional family with a self-­consciously literary sense of itself—his own, Spanish take on the American documentary Grey Gardens. “I wanted to do a movie about the Panero family,” Chávarri told me at his apartment in Madrid in October 2012. “Was I aware of the other implications? Yes. But I didn’t think anyone else would see them.”

El desencanto premiered at Madrid’s Palace e Infants theater in September 1976, less than a year after Franco’s death (on November 20, 1975). At the time, a Spanish journalist wrote, “The Paneros made a scandal of a movie… where they sell out their intimacy, making an auction out of privacies and memories… It is the only murder of a father that has ever been filmed and Freud would have loved to see it.” Though critics roundly dismissed it, some locked onto those “other implications,” reading the documentary as much more than just an on-camera postmortem performed by a family dissecting its ghosts. It was an autopsy of the era of Spanish history that had just come to an end, and conjured up memories of that larger, still-present national ghost: el franquismo. The deconstruction of the Panero patriarch’s legacy lent itself as a metaphor for the dissolution of Franco’s autocratic, machista Spain as a whole and the fifth of Franco’s governing principles specifically: “The national community is founded on the man, as the bearer of eternal values, and on the family, as the base of social life.” The father figure—be it the caudillo (leader or strongman) of the sacred institution of the Spanish family or the caudillo of the Panero clan as its real-life embodiment—was dead. It was time for truths to be told, however ugly, even if it meant Chávarri would nearly be assaulted at a showing in Granada, and that Michi Panero would receive angry anonymous phone calls from old-guard fascists voicing their own disenchantment with the film. And all this just as the country was beginning its three-year transición toward democracy.

Today, Chávarri’s documentary is a cult classic in Spain. Young people still run up to the director on the street, calling, “Hey, you’re the guy who made El desencanto!” The film is a black-and-white throwback to a past era, a badge of cool for the literary set, and an anecdotal curio of Spanish cultural history recalled by older generations. It is a fascinating historical document but above all a singular work of art, both purposeful and accidental. This is largely due to the Paneros themselves, as Chávarri himself will admit. They were a singular work of art. Not just Leopoldo María, but the whole family.

El desencanto opens with a still photo of the Paneros while the credits roll. Felicidad—fatigued ­looking, middle-aged, attractively beak-nosed, with pale skin and an elegant neck—sits posed in a shadowy parlor with her three sons. The room possesses the air of a past lost to time. Their staid postures invoke familial obligations of a different era—nobility dutifully submitting to the social convention of the flashbulb—when combined with the three-piece suits the two older boys have been squeezed into, old-timey vests and all. No one looks happy, not even little Michi, with his painfully cute mop of curls. All four gaze with collective gloom off to their left, away from the camera, perhaps at the person conspicuously missing from the photo: Leopoldo Panero, paterfamilias and poet.

This visual lacuna, a theme established so early on, is fitting and intentional, since père Leopoldo’s likeness will not appear even once in the hour and a half of footage to come. Over the course of El desencanto, his absence becomes an increasing presence. The closest we come to seeing him is in the next shot, as the portrait dissolves into a piece of rope tied tightly around a tarp, an image whose creepiness deepens as the camera pulls back with stylized patience to reveal that we are beholding the contours of a statue wrapped in plastic, like a cadaver about to be tossed into a river. A fold of the tarp falls directly over the location of the statue’s mouth, like a piece of tape silencing a hostage.

Jump forward a decade and then some to August 1974 and the next shot: the ceremonial presentation of the statue in Astorga, complete with a crowd of hundreds, children in folkloric dress, and pompous trumpets. Felicidad sits with her sons Juan Luis and Michi (Leopoldo María is missing, a second absence, nested in that of his father) as she melodiously, almost girlishly describes what it was like to be the wife of the hometown hero, an uncomfortable contrast to the haunting image of the gagged, hog-tied statue that still persists in the viewer’s mind, not to mention in Chávarri’s as well, nearly forty years later. “This guy doesn’t have the right to talk,” he said, recalling the symbolic impression of the film’s opening image. “He’s there, but he’s not going to say anything.”

But oh boy do the sons talk.

The next scene introduces us to Michi and Juan Luis as they sit at a garden table in chilly autumn. Each has a drink and is smoking: two of the flamboyantly European number of cigarettes consumed over the course of the film. Michi is all boyish good looks and floppy curls, wearing a dark coat with an upturned collar, bristling with the confidence that being twenty-­three is all about. Juan Luis is balding and vaguely trollish, aged beyond his thirty-two years. He leans back into his chair with a weary seniority reinforced by the coat draped regally over his shoulders.

The conversation sets off at a boozy sprint with a startlingly meta concern: how the film we’re watching, this documentary, would be different if their absent brother, Leopoldo María, had been more involved. This brazenly hints at the Paneros’ collaboration with Chávarri, and at their agency in their own mythologization. Indeed, even Felicidad, who presents herself as a dulcet and unassuming mother, has apparently taken care to prepare her reminiscences. According to J. Benito Fernández, Leopoldo María’s biographer, she was the driving force behind the curation of her family’s legacy. “Felicidad was immortalized as a great actress, but she wasn’t the good, beautiful mother she seems,” he emailed me. “Felicidad was a little witch who was very attuned to the posterity of her sons and fomented it.” Writer Juan Antonio Masoliver has known the Panero family since he was a child, and when I queried him about El desencanto, he prefaced his response by saying his answers would be “brief,” only to dash off a biting one-thousand-word assessment of the family. “The myth has been created by them,” he claimed.

The most intriguing aspect of this conversation between Michi and Juan Luis is the air of mystery and conflict it creates around their brother, Leopoldo María. When Michi says Leopoldo’s name for the first time, Juan Luis makes a multistage facial expression that can be described only as… fucking crazy. It’s a comic-grotesque mash-up of emotional states: childlike fright, unbottleable rage, innocent hatred, and involuntary distress. There’s a slow sideways slide of his eyes, raised eyebrows below troughs of forehead wrinkles, a sui generis grimace, and a labored inhalation. I had to study his expression more than ten times just to fail to describe it. It is one of my all-time favorite cinematic moments. Michi and Juan Luis become increasingly agitated as they discuss Leopoldo, so it looks like someone has ratcheted up the rate of the reel’s frames per second—​Michi gesticulates operatically, while Juan Luis grumbles unintelligibly and shakes his head with such fierce urgency that it looks like a Mach-force wind is rippling the skin of his face. They argue about which better defines the current state of the Paneros: their father’s death or their brother, Leopoldo María’s, life.

For his part, Juan Luis categorically denies that Leopoldo María’s tendency to be a “troublesome character” is central to the family’s current identity, and drags the spotlight back to his side of the ring. It’s clear that there are some serious sibling-rivalry issues here. Juan Luis underlines his status as the first son, the primogenitor. Tellingly, the two brothers allude to “el fin de raza”—the end of the bloodline—and there is the clear suggestion that they are impotent. We gather that none of the three siblings has borne an heir to the Panero legacy. This revelation abruptly casts an altered light on the film: is El desencanto the last will and testament of a literary raza soon to be extinct?

The next portion of El desencanto, thirty-four minutes in length, is all about first-act narrative: exposition, character-building, and anecdotal snapshots of the family history. In this nostalgic, idyllic interlude (or what passes for idyllic in the Panero universe), we learn that both ­Leopoldo María and Juan Luis are poets, like their old man (the source of their rivalry?), whereas Michi is a dilettante with fractionally executed interests ranging from philosophy to film. We hear about how Felicidad once killed a litter of puppies by throwing them into a river, but before doing so poked breathing holes for comfort in the box where they were kept. We find out that Leopoldo Panero was not an easy man to be married to: moody, domineering, and solitary; when he was social, he gave all his time to his friends, not his wife, and Juan Luis brags in a poem about his father’s exploits at bordellos. When Michi asks his mother about her personal life, Felicidad says, “I didn’t have friends after marrying your father. I didn’t have anyone.”

What we come to understand more than anything else is that the Paneros are great actors. Not that they are telling lies (though surely they are), but that they know how to work the eye of the camera, to hold the observer’s attention, to bring a scene to life—in short, they have mastered a skillful, seamless performance of being the Paneros. “They are shown how they really are,” says Masoliver, “though they do overact. Histrionic, emphatic, with dramatic and affected voices, sharp-minded and with egos that don’t fit inside the screen. The director saw how claustrophobic they are, and how exhibitionist… It’s a parody, a melodrama, and a drama, all at the same time.” Chávarri agrees. “The four function on the screen like actors. The film was a game of masks,” he says, before complicating this idea by insinuating that the Paneros’ masks were as much them as their real, hidden faces. This squares with Masoliver’s claim that on celluloid they come across as they truly were: actors at a life.

The star (and subsequent jester) of this introduction to the family is undoubtedly Juan Luis. In his outdoor conversation with Michi, he had revealed a crevasse of raw emotion, but he doesn’t let this happen again, instead constructing a wall of caricature around himself as the swaggering villain of the film, the Panero bad boy with a persona that is a mix of Iberian cad and European dandy, equal parts macho bullfighter and Parisian flaneur. “Juan Luis was very smart,” says Chávarri. “He wasn’t at all convinced by the idea of the movie. Instinctively he adopted a role that wasn’t him, and it fits very well because it provides a contrast. You suddenly say, ‘This guy’s stupid.’ But he wasn’t at all stupid.”

In one key scene, alone in a study, Juan Luis enumerates a series of objects that are important to him. He flicks open a switchblade, saying that it has saved his “pellejo” (skin) on two occasions. “I bought it in Paris in 19— No, it wasn’t in Paris. It was in Geneva. In Paris I changed the spring for the second time.” (Not to enter into tired United States–versus–Europe stereotyping, but it’s hard to imagine anyone other than a European talking about a switchblade with such aristocratic pretension.) Then he holds up a Stetson and spells out how we are to think of him from now on: “I love the sensation of the movie bad guy which infects it.” Obediently, the film confects an exterior shot of him shooting and shattering a bottle with a pistol, a rare moment of edited-in artificiality. Then Juan Luis slips into a singsong Argentine accent, imitating Jorge Luis Borges, before he closes this virtuosic mini-performance by holding up a picture of F. Scott Fitzgerald. “Alcoholic, as myself,” he says, the last two words in English. “With a horrible wife, as myself.”

What stands out in wordless parallel during this getting-to-know-us interlude is the creeping sense of decay surrounding the Paneros, from the interiors of the house in Astorga, full of stale air you can almost smell, to the Gothically derelict structures Felicidad takes in while on a walk on a cold day. You can’t help but think of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” with its “mansion of gloom” and “unredeemed dreariness of thought.” The narrator of Poe’s story could be talking about the Panero home when he writes of “an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn—a pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible and leaden-hued.”

“The Fall of the House of Usher” also concerns the end of a family line. “I had learned, too,” Poe’s narrator says, “the very remarkable fact, that the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch.” It is fitting, then, that El desencanto’s transition to a darker terrain, more pestilent and Usher-­esque, is introduced by a shot of Michi talking about his father—the last arm of the time-honored Panero tree to put forth any new branches. He sits in the kitchen, a bottle of clear, potent-­looking alcohol near him. With a devilish glimmer, Michi describes how after his father’s death he cried for three days and yelled over and over again: “We were so happy!”

This is when things start to get weird.

A  popular reading of “The Fall of the House of Usher” calls out the latent theme of incest in the story. Payback for this particular sin comes in the form of lineal extinction and the symbolic collapse of the old mansion into the “deep and dark tarn.” The Paneros, in their self-aggrandizing ne’er-do-well style, are so determined to be provocateurs that they seem to want to scandalize the viewer by suggesting that the Paneros could be Ushers.

This information lands so lightly that you think you’ve misheard it. Michi and Juan explain that after the death of their father, Juan Luis took over the role of family patriarch, acting as a surrogate husband to his mother, even to the extent that once, in Barcelona, a waiter mistook him for her gigolo. “This sexually aroused me,” Juan Luis boasts with a rascally leer. Michi broaches this topic with Felicidad herself, referring to mother and sons as being like “newlyweds.” She says, twinkling ironically: “Me still with that air of the widow which I had to adopt, sometimes sad, other times less.” On the one hand this jab at her dead husband is understandable, even admirable, as being a wife and mother under Franco essentially meant self-erasure; it suggests that her sense of liberation obscured the grief she felt after so many years of crushing matrimony. On the other hand, Felicidad seems splashily comfortable with the insinuation that some creepy transferences were going on between her and Juan Luis.

Then strains of Schubert’s Sonata for Piano in A, D-959 rise up, announcing a sea change. If Juan Luis inherited his father’s bride, middle son Leopoldo María was left with a more lasting legacy: his literary gifts, the ultimate inheritance in a writerly family obsessed with self-presentation and posterity. Alone at the kitchen table, Michi tells of how Leopoldo María came into his own as a poet after their father’s death, upsetting the newly established family dynamic as he became a literary threat to Juan Luis, the hitherto heir apparent. “Two things go awry in Juan’s primitive and perhaps unconscious approach,” Michi says, ashing his cigarette every few seconds. “The sons don’t accept him as a father. The wife, which would be my mother, accepts him as this father those first two or three years, but later, consumed by tremendous jealousy, she begins to distance herself from him… His literary career is frustrated by the conduct of Leopoldo [María]… because Leopoldo does a series of things which Juan Luis hadn’t done, perhaps because of a lack of courage, apart from the fact that, seen now in retrospect, the literature of Leopoldo seems much more interesting to me than that of Juan Luis.” He then goes on to criticize even Juan Luis’s past suicide attempts—they were excessively “literary,” more theater than reality when juxtaposed with Le­opoldo’s, which were in earnest, and from which he nearly died on two occasions.

This comparative evaluation of the quality of suicide attempts is shocking, never mind antithetical to how we would expect such a grave issue to be discussed in a family. But then again, this isn’t just any family, and one can’t help but think of Bolaño’s portrait of contagion in 2666, insanity spreading like gossip from the poet to Lola, perhaps the way suicide was passed from one Panero boy to the next. It all seems to reek of a cultural decadence that rhymes with that moment in the castle episode in Fellini’s La dolce vita when Maddalena is giving Marcello a gossipy walking tour of the socialites present at the party, inventorying their inherited wealth and dissipation, and of one woman says, as blasé, weltschmerz-y praise: “Little Leonora. Eighty thousand hectares. Two suicide attempts.”

Luckily, soon Leopoldo María will get to speak for himself.

If Leopoldo María is the Panero who drew crowds that filled readings and freaked out Bolaño, this fact must pay its dues to his legendary “performance” in El desencanto, which makes the movie. “It’s not a coincidence that among his contemporaries he is the only one who has had a biography written about him,” says Tua Blesa, a professor at the University of Zaragosa and the foremost expert on his work. J. Benito Fernández, the author of his biography, El contorno del abismo (The contours of the abyss), agreed when I wrote him: “Leopoldo’s poetry has reached many more readers since his stellar appearance in El desencanto.”

The poetry of Leopoldo María can best be described by a phrase from one of his first published poems: “burned music.” Tua Blesa characterizes him as “writing about the end… the end of the world, the end of poetry, estranged from rules, from the very idea of poetry.” Leopoldo María’s poems at times feel like an encounter between Rimbaud and William Burroughs, like a beat poet with a European air taking the reader on a transgressive journey through a blazing dream­scape of doom. His work is thanatotic and cadaver-obsessed, pansexual and preoccupied with anuses, toads, and semen. To wit, from Poems from the Mondragón Asylum (my translation): “From dust something was born. / And this, ash of toad, bronze of cadaver / is the mystery of the rose… Under me / lies a man / and the semen / over the cemetery.” Indeed, his sensibility falls far, far afield from that his father, whose poetry is still respected for its “desire for elevation, closeness to God,” as Tua Blesa puts it. And yet there are ribbons of beauty through his work—“the ridiculous porcelain of Time” stuck with me—as well as an omnivorous and almost compulsive allusiveness that takes in everything from Mallarmé to Speedy Gonzalez.

Leopoldo María’s poetry is harrowing and mesmerizing, yet he has his critics, among them the side-­taking, myth-shattering Masoliver. “Leopoldo María is a very overrated poet, and that’s because the person creates the poet. Those who don’t read poetry or read very little feel attracted by the cursed poet he creates from using insanity as a profession,” Masoliver claims divisively. “The problem is that his poetry, which has moments of true intensity, falls into exhibitionism, games, cleverness, an unjustified fragmentation. The alcoholic Dylan Thomas didn’t write alcoholic poems. Neither does Juan Ramón Jiménez’s power come from his insanity but rather the experience of insanity. Insanity is an illness and poetry cannot be ill, just like it can’t be drunk. Drunks drink; they don’t write.” (On Juan Luis, however, Masoliver is firm: “For me he’s one of the best poets of his generation and the generations that followed.”) A milder take on Leopoldo María’s lesser work comes from Fernández: “Leopoldo’s big problem is that he publishes too much, which is the fault of editors who know that he sells, because insanity sells.” Contagion yet again, only this time as a literary marketing technique.

Note that the word problem appears in both men’s remarks about Leopoldo María (in the Bolaño interview as well, come to think of it), as if echoing the conflicts he has always engendered, dating back to the days of El desencanto and his family role as enfant terrible. Today, Leopoldo María’s renown assures his position as the Panero poetic heir. In his poems you find only one sly, misleading reference to his feelings about the film that brought him cult fame: in the prose poem “The Man Who Thought He Was Leopoldo María Panero.” It is a poem riddled with apparitions, and winkingly mentions “his displeasure with Chávarri’s movie El Desencanto.” The trope of phantasms is fitting, since Leopoldo María is the ghost that haunts the first half of the film—a living ghost, which is perhaps more threatening than the dead father. When finally he does appear in the flesh, one feels a sense of satisfaction that the Karamazovian trope of the three brothers has at last been fulfilled. “He didn’t want to appear in the film at first,” Chávarri recalls, “but it caused him a total morbid fascination.”

There is no preamble to Leo­poldo María’s arrival—his face just appears, close up, humorously talking about a suicide attempt while he was in solitary confinement in prison. He tried to hang himself with the lining of his coat, only to have it tear, causing him to tumble to the floor in a “phenomenal” fall. When he looks up, halfway through the story, you meet the clammy face of one of Bolaño’s lost poets, of someone with a troubled relationship to the story he’s telling, and surely to many other things as well. His nose has clearly been broken sometime in the past. He has wavy hair, thick eyebrows, and a gurgly voice. Then we cut to Felicidad and hear her say with a touch of pride, “The truth is, I always regarded the literature of my sons with a certain fear.” With this ominous declaration we are delivered to the courtyard of the Liceo Italiano, the childhood school of the Panero boys, where we will spend almost the entire remaining thirty-seven minutes of the film with Felicidad, Michi, and Leopoldo María sitting together outside.

The Liceo is a space charged with the past, full of nostalgia and disenchantment. Birds chirp. If El desencanto has been a performance stage-­managed by Felicidad, Michi, and Juan Luis, that stops now and the film becomes something rawer, more authentic, and—yes, finally—less scripted. From a millennial TV viewer’s perspective, there is a visionary quality to the collaboration between Chávarri, his crew, and the Paneros in El desencanto, and it becomes most pronounced in this scene, which anticipates the lurid flood of shows like The Real World, The Jerry Springer Show, and Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, which have saturated us for years now. Only unlike reality TV, this feels real.

With her cheerily wistful elegance, Felicidad tells of a grade-school teacher of Leopoldo María’s who said that the boy could be either “everything or nothing,” to which Leopoldo responds with a mixture of amusement and shame: “I think he was right, above all in the latter, because where I’ve ended up is in the most absolute failure. The thing is, I consider failure the most resplendent victory.”1 Curiously, Felicidad answers with unexpected sympathy, hinting that the level of familial frankness is about to intensify. “I think that a bit, too,” she says. But strangest of all, Michi, previously cocksure and knowing, is suddenly timid and quiet in Leopoldo María’s presence. It is now, to quote our foundational American reality show, “when people stop being polite and start getting real.”

“There are two stories that can be told,” Leopoldo starts, avoiding the gaze of his mother. “One is the epic legend, as Lacan calls one’s own exploits, and the other is the truth. The legend of our family that I imagine was told in this film is likely beautiful, romantic, and weepy. But the truth is, it’s a very, well, depressing experience. Beginning with a brutal father, and continuing with your cowardice… This is the other face of the legend.” And now the corrida gates open, impaling not only what remains of the mythos of the Panero family but the very idea of family itself in Spain. We learn that Felicidad stuck Leopoldo in the loony bin after his first suicide attempt without even asking him what was wrong; that she medicated him into isolation when she discovered his adolescent drug use; that Leopoldo missed out on the coming-of-age staples of youth because he was always institutionalized. When Felicidad pushes back against this onslaught of grudges, asking why he didn’t have any teenage loves, Leopoldo replies: “Because in an insane asylum it’s very difficult.” Pause. “Well, I can tell you that I did have a few, because in the one in Reus the retards sucked me off for packs of cigarettes. Those are the loves I had.”2

This exchange in the courtyard of the Liceo left Chávarri and his crew shocked, but then, as if in a bid of one-upmanship to out-Freud Juan Luis, who is nowhere to be seen, Leo­poldo María goes even further and picks up the subject of mother-­shagging where his elder brother left off. Standing alone in a bar, he explains that since “the happy death of our father”—this phrase is the finishing blow to taboos in the Spain of that day—he sees himself as the “anti-­Oedipus,” all liberated id, a kind of post-shame Usher. “What I would like to do,” he says matter-of-factly, “is sleep with fa—… my mother, which is the negation of Oedipus. Oedipus is the repression of precisely what I plainly and consciously desire.” Wow.

And so in this way El desencanto begins to wrap itself up, Michi offering this downer of a life’s assessment as he sits beside his mother in the house in Astorga: “To be disenchanted you have to have once been enchanted,” the words desencantado and encantado here more or less meaning “unhappy” and “happy.” “I can’t remember more than four or five very fragile and very fleeting moments of being encantado.” During the family therapy session at the Liceo, it was revealed that Michi has schizophrenia (which Leopoldo calls “a lovely thing,” a moment of odd brotherly tenderness), a fact that reinforces the feeling that this family is a tragic crucible of contagion—from the rancid national values of el franquismo transferring to the domestic values of a household dictator, from the mental illness of one brother bleeding into the suicide attempts of another. And yet tragedy suits the Paneros so very well—and they seem to know this, and even to revel in it. But in spite of their seeming embrace of decadent decline, they win us over effortlessly, as does the film itself. Apart from being messy, charismatic originals, it’s as if they are inviting us into their family, tempting us into their enchantments and disenchantments, literary and otherwise. If we’re not careful, we could all end up like Amalfitano’s Lola, a fan infected by obsession. Or, to put it in a rosier light, to reflect the dear, intimate place literature and the people who create it occupy inside us: the reader becomes family, and, in this case, the viewer becomes a blood relative.

When it comes down to it, the Paneros are the stuff of fiction, which is the best type of reality: the kind that humbles the imagination of novelists but doesn’t deter them from trying. Several works of fiction related to the Paneros have been published, such as Enrique Vila-Matas’s novel Lejos de Veracruz (Far from Veracruz) and Miguel Barrero’s Los ultimos días de Michi Panero (The last days of Michi Panero); Barrero also codirected a documentary about Michi’s death, in Astorga. And El desencanto birthed its own sequel, Despues de tantos años (After all these years), a species of where-are-they-now documentary checking in on the Paneros twenty years after Chávarri’s legendary time with them.3 So in the end, the Panero brothers have proved potent at fathering literary offspring, even though they have disappeared from the human gene pool. When I started writing this essay, both Juan Luis and Leopoldo María were still alive. Tua Blesa gave me Leopoldo’s phone number at the mental institution where he lived, in the Canary Islands, and I spent over a year imagining the conversation we might have, but even when Juan Luis died, in 2013, I still couldn’t get up the guts to call. Would he be insulted or just exhausted by another stranger wanting to know about El desencanto? Would he obligingly answer my questions, confirming my fear that I had become one more Panero opportunist (much worse than a groupie) with a transaction to carry out? Would he mix me, an American, into his paranoid CIA fantasy, which I’d read about? Or would he simply stonewall me the way his Bolaño avatar, Amalfitano, had done to his lost Lola? Then, in March 2014, Leopoldo passed away. The Panero fin de raza had already been a foregone conclusion, and now the last branch had died. And yet the tree was still intact—and in fact it was still alive, just as the Paneros had planned, and I was and still am tangled up in it.

To close El desencanto, we are given the text of the poet and father’s epitaph, which he (surely very shrewdly) wrote himself. It is both a quixotic dying plea to the family whom felt he failed them and an unwitting rebuke to them for having collaborated on a film he never would have approved of.

He died
riddled by the kisses of his sons,
absolved by the sweetest blue eyes
and with a heart more at peace than on other days,
the poet Leopoldo Panero,
who was born in the city of Astorga
and grew up under of the silence of an evergreen.
Who loved greatly.
drank greatly and now,
eyes blindfolded,
waits for the resurrection of the flesh
here, under this stone.

1. This epigraph-worthy aphorism is the first of a treasure chest of lapidary gems Leopoldo will toss out before he’s done rewriting the family history. On school: “It is an institution that teaches us to forget our infancy.” On a famous Artaud quote: “All enjoyment begins with self-destruction.” On growing up: “During childhood we live, and after that we survive.” On incarceration: “Prison is the only place where friendship is possible… The odious dichotomy between the public and private is broken down… [It] is the maternal womb.”

2. This dialogue was cut from the theatrical release of El desencanto and only later found its way back into the film. Chávarri believes this expurgation was the last act of censorship carried out by the Franco regime.

3. Michi hoped Chávarri would direct the film, but he passed, handing the baton off to Ricardo Franco. Michi wanted to title the sequel El desconcierto (The bewilderment).

Aaron Shulman is a writer based in LA. He is hoping to release El desencanto in the United States, and is working on a book about the Paneros for Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. You can find him here on Twitter.


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