Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Roberto Bolaño, _The Savage Detectives_

MY FAVORITE REMAINS By Night in Chile, but this one was worthwhile and memorable as well.

The novel is, in some respects, easily described. The opening 120 pages are the 1975 diary of Juan Garcia Madero, a university student in Mexico City who finds himself pulled out of his studies into the gravitational field of a group of young poets, the "visceral realists," captained by Arturo Belaño and Ulises Lima. More by chance than design, he winds up in a car with them and Lupe, a prostitute, when they take off to the Sonoran desert to (a) rescue Lupe from her pimp and (b) find Caesarea Tinajero, an obscure but legendary "stridentist" poet or proto-visceral-realist, whose main surviving work is a kind of Roger Price "droodle" that seems inspired by Rimbaud's "Le Bateau Ivre."

The closing 50 pages are also from Garcia Madero's diary, from January 1976, and record the seekers' finding Caesarea and their being found by Lupe's pimp, and what ensues.

In between are 400 pages that read like an oral history of Belaño and Lima, transcripts of interviews with people who knew them intimately or perhaps only crossed paths with them in the twenty years from 1976 to 1996. Neither prospers or even, it appears, does much writing -- basically, two unspooling tales of bohemian drift: drugs, unlikely temporary jobs, exasperated girlfriends, mysterious errands in remote places, dropping off the map.

It doesn't sound like much. Why is it so readable and intriguing?


For one thing, the pseudo-oral-biography section reminded me of Manuel Puig's Betrayed by Rita Hayworth in the extraordinary range of voices it is able to animate and turn into characters. The witnesses to Belaño's and Lima's 20-year-flameouts become interesting in their own right as Bolaño conjures them out of their monologues. In another way, it reminded me of Georges Perec's La Vie: Mode d'emploi in that it becomes as it goes along a compendium of stories; each witness has a story of Belaño or Lima, but also a story of his or her own, and their own stories have an autonomous life and energy that keep the reader engaged. Some of them -- those of Belaño's girlfriends, for instance -- are almost novels in miniature themselves.

The richest theme in the book, though, is the reckless commitment the young poets will make to poetry, to the hope that the real authentic saving thing is out there, that it may have to be rescued from obscurity or found by desperate tracking through the desert, but it exists and is sacred. Visiting a surviving stridentist (the 1920s movement that anticipated visceral realism), the young men fall silent and stand at attention as he reads the names of the Directory of the Avant Garde:

"And when I had finished reading that long list, the boys kneeled or stood at attention, I swear I can't remember which and anyway it doesn't matter, they stood at attention like soldiers or kneeled like true believers, and they drank the last drops of Las Suicidas mezcal in honor of all those strange or familiar names, remembered or forgotten even by their own grandchildren. And I looked at those two boys who just minute ago had seemed so serious, standing there at attention before me, saluting the flag of their fallen companions, and I too raised my glass and drained it, toasting all our dead." (202)

Belaño and Lima will fall as well -- the middle section is about the long spiralling arc of that fall. For the world does not love poetry. Not the real kind, anyway. The world stands ready with a baseball bat to dash in the brains of the poetry whenever it has the audacity to dart its head out of its hole. "We poets in our youth begin in gladness, / But ofttimes in the end come despondency and madness," wrote Wordsworth, who knew plenty about long, slow descents. Disgrace, obscurity, betrayal, humiliation await -- unless you are the kind of opportunist poet represented in this novel (not quite fairly, I'd say) by Octavio Paz, or shall we say anyone who has enough institutional clout to win a prize or gain a sinecure.

The novel is a monument to a youthful impulse that can end only in poverty and disappointment -- and, with a little luck, immortality. Ah, there's the thing.

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