The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño
1998, 648 pp.
Since his untimely death at the age of 50 in 2003, Roberto Bolaño’s literary star has been in constant ascent. Six of his books have been translated into English already; a new one is just out, and there are four more scheduled for 2010, with two following in 2011. A review of the latest book informs me that two more completed novels have been found among his papers in Barcelona, as well as a sixth part to his sprawling opus 2666. It is a very good time to be discovering Roberto Bolaño.
Bolaño, who seems to have had an excellent instinct for literary fun, tends to appear in one guise or another in most of his work. His books also tend to be interconnected, with characters appearing in several books, or perhaps reading poems by a character who appears elsewhere. As more of his books get translated, it is increasingly possible to speak of an entire world he created, a world where the political and personal implications of the state of Latin American literature is of primary concern. For all that, The Savage Detectives must be his most autobiographical novel. It is also fiercely inventive, both in form and in content, to such an extent that (in my opinion) it is evidence of something truly remarkable: that Roberto Bolaño might best be ranked as the last of the great, high Modernists, one of the only contemporary authors who can go toe-to-toe with Musil or Woolf and emerge the better for it. He is not simply stylistically playful, like the postmodernists: he is furiously, vehemently emotional and overflowing with rage and pity at the political and literary figures of his time (to the very limited extent that he recognizes any separation between those two groups). He is deeply sensitive, but at the same time deeply aware of the possible permutations and interpretations of that sensitivity. He does not write a manipulative, purely subjective emotional story, but paints emotion in big, bold colors then stands back to examine it from all possible sides and angles. He gets away with things which shouldn’t be possible, and the result is a splendid read.
The Savage Detectives is a novel in three very unequal parts. The first section (about 150 pages) is the youthful, euphoric diary of Juan García Madero, a 17-year old poet who joins a moment called “visceral realism.” The visceral realists are based on Bolaño’s own “infrarealist” movement of the 1970’s. The infrarealists were guerrilla poets who would stand up in the audience at poetry readings to shout their strange, avant-garde poems over the poor, beleaguered poet on stage. They made wild plans to kidnap Octavio Paz, they stole books from bookshops and libraries, and they were mixed up with Trotskyists. They were the terror of the Mexico City literary world for a while, before they dispersed and fell apart amid drugs and recriminations. During their time they rejected with the utmost vituperation both the state-sponsored, establishment-sanctioned poets like Paz, who received government support, and the so-called “peasant poets,” who they saw as trafficking in poorly-examined, knee-jerk, reactionary “otherness,” who “mask their ignorance with arrogance,” and who, for all of their complaints of persecution, lived comfortably on university salaries. The infrarealists were a maligned third force, and Bolaño kept with that literary position his entire life. He had nothing to do with the famous Latin American Boom and had no time for the fairy tales of magical realism, but neither was he associated with the bitterness of the anti-Boom writers. Instead, if one is to speak of Latin American literature separate from the dialectic of the Boom, one must speak of Bolaño. He fills the same position on the literary spectrum as did Victor Serge, George Orwell, and Albert Camus in politics: radical left with a conscience.
Anyhow, García Madero joins the visceral realists, who are led by Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. Immediately Bolaño’s autobiographical jokes start to crop up: Ulises Lima is based on Bolaño’s friend Mario Santiago, who published one collection of poetry in his life, now long out of print. Arturo Belano is based on Bolaño himself, but so too is the young García Madero. Leave it to Bolaño to give us a book with not one fictional alter-ego, but two. García Madero’s diary describes the social scene around the founders of visceral realism: their friends, their lovers, their families. He has a lot of sex and writes a lot of poetry. It is an intoxicating 150 pages, and Bolaño knows it. He is well aware that after that euphoric induction into the world of the visceral realists, neither you nor García Madero will ever be able to leave. The diary ends on a cliffhanger: García Madero and Lima and Belano in a car with a sweet prostitute friend named Lupe, going a hundred miles an hour out of Mexico City. On the one hand, they are fleeing Lupe’s outraged, dangerous pimp. On the other hand, they are headed for the Sonora Desert, in search of the lost works of Cesarea Tinajero, the mysterious 1920’s poet who the visceral realists consider their founder.
The second section is 445 pages, twice as long as the other two sections combined. It is made up of several hundred brief fragments given in the first person narration of about four dozen narrators, over 25 chapters. It reads like unedited documentary footage, like interviews that take place over twenty years. Some of these dialogues refer to others, as though the speakers were in the same room or watched the previous interviews. Some tell stories, some recite poems, and almost all speak around or about their encounters with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano during their wanderings in the twenty years after their return from the desert. Some narrators recur, some appear only once, some talk for many pages, some for only one paragraph. Each is different and memorable, which is the truly remarkable achievement. In his sublime By Night in Chile, Bolaño proved that he could sound like a dying man, a conservative priest, and like José Saramago. Here he is like one of those voice actors showing off that he can run through fifty characters. He can sound not just like women, but young women, old women, happy women, sad women, and dying women. He can sound like gay people, mentally disabled people, old people, successful people, failed people, and married people both before and after a divorce. He can sound like anyone. One is Auxilio Lacouture, the narrator of Bolaño’s book Amulet. Many of the narrators are characters we met in the opening diary, and many appear in each other’s interviews. They mostly flesh out the lives of the two founders of visceral realism, but also flesh out each other’s lives, and the world they live in: brilliantly, accurately, each speaker is more concerned and more interested with themselves and their own lives and perceptions than with everyone else's. Through this anarchic oral history, we follow Lima and Belano all over the world: Mexico City, Barcelona, Paris, Provence, Tel Aviv, Vienna, San Diego, Malagua, Luanda, Kigali, Monrovia. They meet, they part, they meet again, they fall in and out of love, they begin to grow old. They are not universally beloved—one ex-girlfriend says of visceral realism, “The whole thing was a love letter, the demented strutting of a dumb bird in the moonlight, something essentially cheap and meaningless…Visceral realism was his exhausting dance of love for me.”
Through all this, Belano and Lima emerge as fascinating characters. Belano seems to be every young poet’s dream: he’s tough and rugged and loves poetry so much he reads it in the shower. Every woman he meets wants to have sex with him, and towards the end of the book, he has a knife fight with a critic. But the interviews paint a worse picture of him than they do of Ulises Lima, who is presented as a sort of beautiful, mysterious aesthete, the one whose genius seduces everyone into joining visceral realism. There is a heartbreaking moment towards the end, when Lima meets the once-detested Octavio Paz in a park. They speak briefly, and Paz is very kind, but obviously has no idea who Lima is. But both Belano and Lima have their foibles: Belano eventually is impotent, Lima mugs people in a park in Vienna, both live in constant poverty and irresponsibility, and both (it turns out) finance their short-lived poetry magazines and their Mexico City lifestyles by selling a kind of marijuana called “Acapulco Gold.”
The brief third section returns to García Madero’s diary, detailing their search through the Sonora Desert. In these closing pages, the book’s theme becomes readily apparent: The Savage Detectives is a book about the failure of young, romantic dreams, and a group of people who never outlive the loss and disappointment. It is a book about how sometimes finding what you want is worse than not finding it, and how few things ever live up to our imagined ideals. It is a sad book, and all the sadder because it was written by Bolaño, prematurely dead, as a lament for his dreams and his friends from his youth. It is also beautiful and relentlessly talented in a way few books ever are, and it has more honest things to say about the confluence of life and literature than anything written in the last fifty years. And it is intimately concerned with the implications of a life devoted to art, and to the honest expression of life through art. We spend 648 pages reading about Lima and Belano, two poets whose poems we never read, as they try to find Cesarea Tinajero, whose poems they never read, in an effort to develop a true and genuine poetic movement. As we read the oral history section, we realize that the diarist of the first and last parts is never mentioned: nobody remembers him, or has heard of him. Cesarea Tinajero is all but forgotten, and by the end of the book, despite all their adventures, all their effort, Ulises Lima is totally unknown to Octavio Paz and his assistant, and Arturo Belano walks off into Liberia in search of an anonymous death. Bolaño seems to be making a point: devotion to art is necessary, regardless of the content of that art. He is also unequivocal on his point about the necessity of art being genuine: one of the most wrenching moments in By Night in Chile is when he persists in demonstrating that the cultured upper-class has no problem discussing refined over-stylized "art" while genuine people are being tortured in basements; he likewise suggests that clichéd art is but the first step on the road to tyranny; further, his Distant Star seems to suggest that fascism is but the revenge of failed artists. Bolaño gives us these insights in straight, nuanced, colloquial language, combining the ridiculous and the sublime, the dangerous and the erotic, the tragic and the mundane. In its disorderly but relentless march toward failure, death, oblivion, and forgetfulness, The Savage Detectives is the best mirror of life that is possible in literature.