Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Lives of the Poets: Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives

I’ve been cordially invited to join The Savage Detectives reading challenge.  I accepted of course, albeit with slight reluctance, and not just due to time constraints (I’m late, I’m sorry). I’ve been both fascinated and vaguely irritated by the previous works of Roberto Bolaño that I’ve read - in order: Distant Star, By Night in Chile, 2666, Nazi Literature in the Americas, Antwerp – good heavens, is it that many already? There’s something about him that’s prickled on a purely personal (visceral?) level, and I’ve been unable to put my finger on it, despite there being many candidates: he challenges his readers and makes us feel uneasy; he can be showy and self-conscious in his intellectualism; his world is so concentrated on the minutiae of writers and writing that one can feel left outside of some private club (or private joke); he can indulge in literary games with a fervor bordering on adolescent excess; he can even come across as tinged by a homophobic and slightly patriarchal streak.  To make matters worse and better at the same time, he can appear to do and be the opposite of all of these things as well. Anyway, none or all of this seemed to explain my light irritation. Maybe too it was that I’d been raised on a diet consisting of an excess of Beat literature, provoking something akin to an allergy, and Bolaño had clearly dined on a lot of the same. I don’t know. But I went into The Savage Detectives with a sense almost of duty, expecting to bear, throughout my reading of it, this same mild prickliness. Alas, The Savage Detectives smashed my petty, hypochondriacal presumptions to bits.

Where does one begin to get a grip on this work, or to avoid sticking to it, like a desert burr, wherever one tries to grab hold? How not to be reductionist, when there’s so much going on here that focusing on one aspect makes the others go out of focus, like trying to pin down a floater in one’s retina, or tugging at one thread and feeling the whole ensemble quiver with the possibility of destruction?

Perhaps it would be helpful (I really don’t know) to briefly summarize the arc of the novel’s three-part structure, which begins in Mexico City with a series of diary entries by 17-year old aspiring poet Juan Garcia Madero that stretch from Dia de los Muertos to New Year’s Eve, 1975; gets interrupted by 350 pages of testimonials (recordings?) made over a period of 20 years by some 50-odd narrators, all piecing together the travels and travails of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, leaders of the Visceral Realist poetry movement Garcia Madero has been invited to join; then finally returns to Garcia Madero’s diary from New Year’s Day through February 15, 1976, detailing a journey that began at the end of part one with Garcia Madero, Belano, Lima, and Lupe, a young prostitute, together in a borrowed Impala, heading to the Sonora desert both in flight from Lupe’s violent pimp and in search of the elusive, mysterious, lost poet of the original Visceral Realists of a previous generation, Cesárea Tinajero. That’s a rather long sentence; this is a rather long book.

The broad sweep of it encompasses generations of poets. Real and imagined, appearing and disappearing, they zing about like electrons in a vast chamber, from Garcia Madero to his heroes Belano and Lima to the target of their own rebellion, Octavio Paz, and to their lost hero Cesárea Tinajero, from the most famous to the most obscure, to all of Mexico’s poets and, radiating outward in straight lines, waves, and jagged zigzags to those of South America and the rest of the world. Like Frederic Prokosch’s The Asiatics, The Savage Detectives scurries around the globe with an astonishing ability to delve into the particulars of place. And if The Asiatics represented a new sort of “internationalist” novel, then The Savage Detectives maybe represents a new sort of “Google-ist” novel in its astounding array of details. It’s also an experimental work. Aside from the consecutive dates on Garcia Madero’s diary entries, time too follows myriad crooked directions, flashing backward and forward. Multiple stories intertwine and overlap. In addition to the scores of narrators, multitudes of literary forms are used to tell these multitudes of stories (which, for all of Bolaño ’s experimentalism, reveal a terrific storytelling ability and a sometimes surpassing tenderness).

So what’s it all about? Good lord. Literature. Biography and autobiography, youthful exuberance, literary aspiration and literary longevity. Literary pretension and literary humility. High and low culture. Intellectualism and anti-intellectualism and violence. Exile and exile’s return. Reliable friends and unreliable narrators. Rebellion and acquiescence. Interrogation and detective work. Writers who seek fame, writers who muddle through, writers who disappear, writers who are disappeared. Mexican painter Dr. Atl figures into the novel, though his most famous creation doesn’t, perhaps to encourage us to think of it ourselves: like his astonishing curtain in Mexico City’s Bellas Artes theater, The Savage Detectives glints and sparkles and reflects like two tons of glass forming an image from a million different pieces (would that an image of this stunning object had been used for the book’s cover).

Bolaño  has discovered a form for his book that admits of almost anything. It’s as though he’s simply reached around the back of the novel – while everyone looked on in horror and trepidation (hey, you can’t do that!) - and found the hidden spring that explodes the locks, opening the form to its capacity to encompass and absorb anything, a kind of gravitational energy like a black hole, but one in which everything swallowed remains visible - and visceral. This is not simple “metafiction,” which, in comparison to what Bolaño  is doing, seems to be just playing around the edges. Rather, for Bolaño , the key to the treasure is the treasure. By going directly to literature itself, into questions of what literature is and does, its possibilities and limitations, who writes and why, does any of it matter and why does it seem to matter so much, he turns the entirety of literary enterprise inside out to reveal its motivations, literary influences, schools and movements and attitudes, events in the poets’ lives and those of the poets’ associates, hero worship and jealousies and internecine fighting among writers (sometimes literalized, as in a duel fought on the beach between writer and critic, or in a physical altercation between Belano and his girlfriend, or more humorously, the orbital conjunctions of Ulises Lima and Octavio Paz as they perambulate in a park). In other words, perhaps, to reveal the visceral reality of literary enterprise?

Literature often (if not usually) involves a writer’s effort to erase traces of him or herself. In The Savage Detectives, this process is taken apart literally. As readers we’re detectives piecing together the lives of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima (not to mention the sense and sensibility of the whole work), while we’re also reading about characters trying to piece together, like detectives, the life of a vanished poet, whose sole surviving poem is a work without words, itself quite literally a mere trace, one that pushes the limits of poetry to where it borders on  - “poof” - just disappearing, as does another such wordless poem-object, with magically strange, majestic humor and poignancy at the end of the novel. And finally, we’re also reading about the pursuit of these detective poets by “savage detectives” of another order, Lupe’s pimp and the potential for violence that he brings with him. For as a counterbalance to all this literary effort, to this “gang” of Visceral Realists, there’s a dead weight of destructive violence inhabiting the space around the desire to create, where in the end (in yet another of Bolaño ’s comic/serious manifestations of the literal) it’s poets vs. thugs.

The Savage Detectives references literally hundreds (if not thousands) of poets, poetic terms and forms, movements and incidents in the history of poetry, from the ephemeral to the established to the imaginary. Some of this avalanche of particulars seems like name-dropping, but one of the astonishing things about Bolaño is the extent to which he seems to have absorbed, like someone with a photographic soul, everything he ever read or heard about literature, and is able to recapitulate it with its original sense intact, as well as with his reinvention of it, as well as with all the resonances it might have for a reader. In the novel’s lengthy laundry lists of poetic terms and forms, of types of experimental writing, and above all, of writers themselves, you sometimes come to doubt that Bolaño knows what he’s talking about; then you shudder at the possibility, then probability, then near certainty that he does (whatever else The Savage Detectives may be, it’s an astonishing phenomenon of intellect). Bolaño even anticipates your doubts. When Amadeo Salvatierra reads out of Manuel Maples Arce’s “Directory of the Avant-Garde,” an epic catalog of hundreds of names, he interrupts his reading of the list occasionally to interject things like, “Look…all we’re getting is last names now, “ or “Here I think Manuel was just pulling names out of a hat.” Naturally one wonders if Bolaño is doing the same thing.

Not that it would matter terribly if he was; Bolaño  knows where his knowledge matters and where it doesn’t. Everything in The Savage Detectives works to raise questions and play with those questions, constantly engaging the reader in puzzles and games. Some of them are light-hearted and gossamer thin, while others are magisterial re-workings of literary histories into his own imagination, as in the scene of the duel on the beach which flashes for a moment like a perfectly-tuned recreation of the tone and setting of Meursault’s fatal encounter on the beach in Camus’ The Stranger - before it takes off in a completely unexpected direction. While The Savage Detectives certainly rewards readers for the knowledge they bring to it (and makes what we don’t know seem a desert we could travel without end), there’s a refreshing lack of elitism and condescension in his gaming, which is also shot through with humor, from visual puns that would amuse a child to laugh-out loud funny intellectual conceits. One of the funniest of these involves one of Arturo Belano’s former lovers, female body builder Maria Teresa Solsona Ribot, the flabbiness of whose literary taste is in inverse proportion to the tightness of her muscles. While discussing Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” in particular the novel that the writer played by Jack Nicholson writes as he sinks into madness, Belano reminds Ribot that it consists of a single line – “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” – 500 pages of it written every possible way. He casually notes to her that “It might have been a good novel.” At Ribot’s incredulity that such a creation could be “a good novel,” he replies, “That shows a lack of respect for the reader.”  It’s a suggestion to Bolaño ’s own readers that he respects our abilities - and an instruction that we should have fun as well.

But Bolaño ’s games are more than just idle; they’re also rooted in something serious, as when a character notes that South American poets have a reason to be serious, given that most have spent time in prison for political reasons, and as further underscored by Bolaño ’s engagement with real world violence, such as the Tlatelolco massacre (or the heinous Juarez serial killings in 2666). As though to remind us that one can play literary games in fiction, but not to the extent that they simply become fiction’s sole, self-reflexive object, Bolaño culls something both playful and meaningful out of literature’s weighty accretion of texts and movements and history. Of the many writers who weave in and out of Bolaño ’s narratives, perhaps the most notable is Rimbaud, who haunts (should I have said “infects”?) The Savage Detectives. Using that Arthur Rimbaud/Roberto Bolaño  hybrid, Arturo Belano, Bolaño  interlaces the actual horror of the civil war in Liberia with a fictionalized version of the disappearance of the poet into Africa, just as Rimbaud appeared to give up poetry and vanish there, trailed through literary history by rumors and suppositions.

Of course the disappearance of a poet, trailed through literary history by rumors and suppositions, is also at the heart of the central plot of The Savage Detectives. Why does Cesárea Tinajero disappear? As in some lost chapter out of Silences, Tillie Olsen’s great book about literary disappearing acts, we learn that Cesárea’s disappearance is rooted in her defense of another young female poet, Encarnación Guzman, who has been ridiculed by male members of the earlier movement of Visceral Realists. Angered by their patronizing behavior, Tinajero refuses to come to their meetings again. She and Encarnación instead become even faster friends. And then after Encarnación vanishes into marriage, Cesárea herself vanishes, becoming magnified and distorted in legend, seen here, maybe seen there, thin in one recollection, fat in the next, imagined by Amadeo Salvatierra as “a spot moving along an endless ribbon.” Or perhaps a square along that ribbon.  Or a sailboat. We’re again in one of Bolaño’s games.

For those willing to play along, The Savage Detectives will likely have generous readers for a long time to come. While the traces of his alter egos may lead off into the world’s cities, into the Mexican desert, into the violence of Africa’s wars, and even right out the window, Bolaño’s own traces are in little danger of disappearing thanks to this glittering, sprawling, howling, ingenious, generous book, one powerful enough to bring even Cesárea Tinajero back from oblivion.

Many thanks to Richard and to Rise for organizing The Savage Detectives reading challenge.


  1. Wow, Scott, one of the best reviews of TSD that I have read in the last 4 years. Congratulations! Glad to know that there are a few people with wide open eyes and ears capable of understanding and articulating the magical gravitational forces of RB's art. You should send this review to the New Yorker, or any other major magazine. B. deserves it.

  2. Fantastic post, Scott! Only, how could I have already forgotten about that literary discussion between Belano and the female bodybuilder and B's comment that "that shows a lack of respect for the reader"? Such a wonderful moment in a novel full of wonderful moments! On the literary games and the namedropping (both of which I enjoy while realizing that many others don't or at least don't to the same extent), I often think of those as Bolaño's pointillist gifts to the reader rather than look-at-me showboating. Looking up Pierre Louÿs' Aphrodite on Wikipedia to see why in the world García Madero might have mentioned it, for example, I come across a description of a work "considered a mixture of both literary excess and refinement"; is this just a throwaway reference for a teenaged character becoming familiar with 19th century French literature or maybe a conscious example of Bolaño making fun of his métier? In any event, thanks for reading along with us despite your previous partial irritation with Bolaño--and glad to hear that The Savage Detectives was so satisfying for you. I understand, believe me!

  3. A great post, I agree. Too bad that I didn't feel like this about the book.
    I think the name dropping is elitist. I can't imagine anyone who hasn't read a lot, getting along with it. If I hadn't read such a lot of French and other literature, I could imagine, I would have felt frustrated. I see it isn't gratuitous name-dropping, it really seems to make sense, to be tied together but still, this isn't a book for a novice of literature. Or is it?

  4. Anonymous: Good heavens, thank you! As Mark Twain once said, I can live two weeks on a compliment.

    Richard: Okay, okay four weeks on a compliment. I'm good for the month - thanks! And thanks too for "pointillist gifts" - a nice way to look at it. I'm often in the habit of running off after writers other writers mention, but if I did that with The Savage Detectives I'd probably be stuck on it forever like a hamster on a wheel.

    Caroline: Thanks. I wrestle with your point, since I can certainly imagine a frustration with Bolaño's display of his own erudition (imagine nothing - I've felt it myself). And you're probably right - this isn't a book for everyone. But at the same time, I think this erudition is in part his subject. No matter how educated one is, one can't possibly get all the references; not even Bolaño himself could get them all. So it's again a part of the game he's playing with us, which is, I think, ironically aimed at taking literary pretension down a peg. I was thinking about this topic this morning, and it suddenly occurred to me that the right teacher just might be able to do wonders with this book with a group of high school students. Who, after all, is more of a "novice of literature" than 17-year-old Juan Garcia Madero?

  5. Yes, exactly - definitely not a book for a novice of literature, but very much a book for some novices of literature, a life changer, if they are lucky enough that the book gets into their hands.

    I have vaguely toyed with writing about the Rimbaud strain. And thus Lima by analogy is Verlaine, and in fact there are some parallels with Verlaine's life, likely more than I remember, which I could not see until I had the Belano-Rimbaud link.

    The novel is an enormously interesting look at creativity and the artist's vocation.

  6. Some novices, yes. I wonder what my life would have been like if I'd had The Savage Detectives at age 17 instead of The Dharma Bums. I'd genuinely like to hear from some 17 year olds reading this book.

    Oh please write about the Rimbaud/Verlaine element. And how does Lezama Lima - or does he at all - get baked into the Ulises Lima layer cake?

  7. Make that 2 months, and longer.

    Scott, I was struck by what you call literalism in the book's scenes. The writer dueling with a critic is particularly over the top. This is not trite symbolism, this is the actual. And it could be funny, given the underlying idea of the critic as foe and then as friend (who somehow saved his life, literally, by sending him medication abroad).

    One of the astonishing things about Bolaño is the extent to which he seems to have absorbed, like someone with a photographic soul, everything he ever read or heard about literature.

    So true. The photographic soul was a great asset to the writer and he clearly maximized his use of it.

    Glad that after several books, you had a 'breakthrough' with Bolaño.

  8. I don't know anything about Lezama Lima that wasn't in the movie Strawberry and Chocolate, which means I know nothing.

    Roughly speaking - Neil Young fan? - Rimbaud burns out, Verlaine fades away. My next trip through the novel, I have got to pay way more attention to Lima's story.

  9. Caroline's comments about Bolaño's name-dropping being elitist and her question about whether The Savage Detectives is or isn't "a book for a novice of literature" shed light on some of our disagreements over this book's worth. Knowing that Bolaño was a high school dropout and thus essentially an autodidact who was just a voracious reader, I find it hard to understand the charge of elitism. He was a lifelong fan of literature by all accounts, and it's not hard to see his enthusiasm showing up in the namedropping (real and/or invented) from my point of view. You can not enjoy this aspect of his writing by all means, but I don't think it's fair to call Bolaño an elitist for it. As for whether the book is or isn't for novices, although I don't normally think of books that way, I tend to side with Tom's response. In any event, I always want the writer to hit me with their best shot and to read something on their terms rather than on dumbed-down for novices terms. Maybe I'm misunderstanding the point that Caroline intended, but shouldn't we be celebrating the Don Quixotes and Prousts rather than worrying about whether novels are fit for novices who might not understand all the allusions? Big deal if they don't (no harm caused)!

  10. The thing is I'm most certainly not a novice and there were only a few names in the first 250 pages that were lost on me but I tried to think what it could feel like for other people... And personally, I hate to name-drop. I gave that up with my neurotic 20 year-old self. If I had been a high-schoold rop out, I might still do it. That's where the reasoning came from.
    I think you can be a high-school drop out and still be elitist.
    It's interesting after all... A high school drop-out, failed poet who writes a novel that isn't a novel about poetry and stuffs it with cultural refrences.
    Someone was in deep pain... Maybe that's why I couldn't finish it. The screams were too loud.

  11. The screams were too loud

    Or the laughter.

    Caroline, whatever you do, do not read Borges. The screaming will be deafening, and your deep sympathy for the feelings of "other people" will be too painful.

  12. Thanks, Caroline, I appreciate your response, in particular because many in the book blogosphere are reticent to engage in such friendly debates. Although you and I can (and will) differ on whether we think Bolaño was an elitist, of course, it's interesting to me that you moved from leveling that accusation against him to then analyzing his personality (the "someone was in deep pain" comment) after reading just part of one book of his! Ironically, I actually agree with both you and Tom on this point since I think there are screams of pain AND screams of laughter in The Savage Detectives; I find the fact that it's not being tilted one way or the other for convenience's sake refreshingly balanced and honest. Was Bolaño a failed poet? Maybe, but that's not for me to say--I haven't really read his poetry yet, although I'm not expecting great things from it either from the 2-3 poems that I have read of his. The thing is that I don't have a problem with him recognizing that he was a better novelist than a poet, and I disagree that The Savage Detectives isn't "about poetry." That's actually one of the the things it's most definitely about--just not in the sense that you can expect to read the characters' poems one after another. The approach is more unconventional. Much more unconventional for some, I get that.

  13. When I was typing my comment the thing I was thinking was that I would so love this to be a real discussion. What a lot of fun that would be. I do so love a debate plus I'm far more eloquent verablly than in writing. Oh what pains I have to endure...
    I was a bit sarcastic. All in all I found reading what little I have read funnier than sad.
    I did get along with Borges rather well.
    The thing about the poems was something you wrote, Richard, I haven't read his poems. And I meant he wrote a novel that isn't a novel, a fake novel, but a fake novel about poetry. Written in one sentence like this, that came out wrong. That was me being too verbal again.

  14. I took a fiction writing class in which we were assigned "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." Most of the rest of class not only hated it, but actually refused to read it, past the first page at least. They were angry they had been asked to read it, vocally so.

    A fascinating and educational experience.

  15. Whadd'I miss from being away from here overnight?

    Tom: Lezama Lima or no Lezama Lima, there's just another associational rabbit hole one can go down to an uncertain end. Strawberry and Chocolate - what a delightful film (supposedly, Castro liked it so much it convinced him to eliminate state penalties against homosexuality).

    Rise: Thanks. That over-the-top duel scene stands out by its being, well, a duel scene, but it's dazzling how much Bolaño packs into it: suspense, hilarity, kitsch, literary associations and impersonations, games with perspective and literary history, absurdly trite symbolism, not trite symbolism. Not to mention his choice of narrator...

    Caroline, Richard, Tom, everyone: Tom's compared The Savage Detectives to Wuthering Heights, so I hope he'll forgive me for stooping to compare it to "Mystery Science Theater 3000." But there's an example of a performance packed with a similar plethora of obscure references included by virtue of a certain uncensored, free-wheeling call and responsiveness. You certainly don't have to get them all to enjoy the show (and a lot of them - as in The Savage Detectives - are howlingly funny).

    Richard: I'm not entirely convinced that The Savage Detectives isn't something of a poem. Might Cesária 's Sión suggest its structure?

  16. Scott, what a fabulous post. I love the bit about the spring that explodes the locks. It is a thing that explodes and then turns in upon itself, with humor and joy and pain. Now I am going to read your review again..

  17. Tom - How depressing that students in a fiction class would actually refuse to read something. I guess they would have really loathed that Jack Nicholson novel from The Shining.

    Gavin - Thanks very much. The more I think about that metaphor (exploding the locks), the more sense it makes to me that Bolaño's approach is more like poetry, free from any of the conventional restraints one might associate with the novel form. It is, after all, a book about poetry and poets, a world in which he placed himself.

  18. I have to admit to feeling a little ambivalent about the prospect of The Savage Detectives (my unread copy has been gathering dust for a few years), but your excellent post has piqued my interest. I particularly like what you say in your 5th and 6th paragraphs - it sounds as though this novel encompasses anything and everything as it's fizzing with ideas. And I love that image of generations of poets bouncing around and zinging about like electrons in a vast chamber (in an earlier paragraph).

    It's interesting to read your comments about your previous responses to Bolaño's work, especially the bit where you liken the reading experience to feeling a little left out of a private joke or club. I've only read his short stories (Last Evenings on Earth), and while I enjoyed several of them, two or three left me a little cold. I felt as though I simply wasn't 'getting' them. I should give him another try sometime.

    1. Thanks, Jacqui. Yes, I'd recommend giving Bolaño another try. I'm a bit astonished to see that I've written more posts about him than about any other writer - there are certainly other writers I prefer - but that does suggest something about his ability to engage the reader (this reader anyway) in surprising, rewarding ways. I thought this was just a terrific book - as Tom says in a comment above, a possible life changer at the right time for the right kind of reader. It's easy to feel daunted by Bolaño until you realize that, like his young protagonist Juan Garcia Madero, he's just an enthusiast fan of literature.