“What’s Outside the Window?” (Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives Revisited)

Art, Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

Untitled (Desert Landscape) by Salvador Dali

Biblioklept has already published two reviews of Roberto Bolaño’s big novel The Savage Detectives.

In the first review, from 2008, I suggested that the book was technically impressive but ultimately “unmoving.” In the second review, from 2010, Dave Cianci argued that my first review “was unfair and premature.”

I tend to agree with Cianci’s criticism of my early review, although in my defense I struggled with a first reading of The Savage Detectives because I was ignorant of the history of Latin America, Central America, and Mexico, a history that provides much of the context for the Bolañoverse. I was like the auditor in The Savage Detectives who listened as Ulises Lima

reeled off a story that I had trouble following, a story of lost poets and lost magazines and works no one had ever heard of, in the middle of a landscape that might have been California or Arizona or some Mexican region bordering those states, a real or imaginary place, bleached by the sun and lost in the past, forgotten, or at least no longer of the slightest importance here . . .  A story from the edge of civilization . . .

The citation above more or less pins down some of the problems first time readers to Bolaño might have with The Savage Detectives. More so than the rest of his oeuvre, Detectives dwells on “lost poets and magazines and works no one had ever heard of.” These poets and writers are mixed in with famous poets (like Octavio Paz, who appears as a character in one segment), and parsing the various characters’ attitudes toward these writers can be a perplexing challenge, and at times a turn off.

And it’s not just the names of poets and writers that can addle a reader: Many of Bolaño’s narrators share an obsessive compulsion to name every avenue, street, or alley they walk on or past, details that become frankly boring over an extended period. It’s a novel of names and places: canonizing, map-making.

Why the map-making? Because this is a book about being lost. Its first section is titled “Mexicans Lost in Mexico.” Notice how many times the word “lost” crops up in the citation above. Indeed, The Savage Detectives is not only about what it means to be lost, but also about what it means to lose—one’s friends, one’s group, one’s country, one’s mind. It’s a book about exiles.

Maybe, dear reader, you’re looking for a bit of plot summary, a morsel at least—that is, maybe you haven’t read The Savage Detectives and you want to know if you should or shouldn’t. I suggest reading Cianci’s review in that case. In any case, I don’t suggest starting Bolaño with The Savage Detectives (although I’m sure plenty of folks might disagree with me here). A better starting place might be the short story collection Last Evenings on Earth. Or really just jump into the beast at the abyssal heart of the Bolañoverse, 2666.

I reread 2666 this summer and immediately knew I had to reread The Savage Detectives, knew I had to parse some of what I missed in my first “unfair and premature” reading. I ended up checking out Blackstone Audio’s recording of the book, featuring the voice talents of Eddie Lopez and Armando Duran.

The audio production is excellent: Lopez, surely a very young man, reads the narratives of Juan García Madero that bookend the central section, “The Savage Detectives,” which is read with a startling depth of range by Duran. Lopez’s García Madero comes across as the naïve pretender to cynicism, the would-be artist faking a life of romance. In Duran’s handling, the myriad characters in the middle of the novel come to life with humor and pathos. He animates the characters, showcasing the irony and pain and sadness and small moments of lunatic joy that erupt in the book. The Savage Detectives makes for a surprisingly excellent audiobook. (Quick note anticipating a query those familiar with the novel may have: The cryptic pictograms that show up late in the novel are included in the audiobook; they displayed on my iPod in tandem with their sections, and I imagine they would pop up on any player with a screen).

I enjoyed The Savage Detectives much, much more this second time. I still found parts of it boring (perhaps purposefully boring, but boring nonetheless), and the episodes I enjoyed most on the first reading (the duel, the cavern, the Liberian segment, the Israeli prison, the campers in Spain) were the ones I enjoyed the most on the second round. Better equipped for this reading, I appreciated the riches of Detectives, the way its fragments, intertextual, metatextual, reach out through the Bolañoverse to couple with other fragments, other texts.

My metaphors above are all wrong—the texts don’t reach or couple—the reader does this work, this reaching, this coupling, this detecting.

In my first reading, not up to playing detective, I surely blew through this passage near the end of the novel, a passage that ripples with strange significance for anyone puzzling over 2666:

And Cesárea said something about days to come, although the teacher imagined that if Cesárea had spent time on that senseless plan it was simply because she lived such a lonely life. But Cesárea spoke of times to come and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesárea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something. And then, when the teacher couldn’t help but laugh at such a random date, a smothered little laugh that could scarcely be heard, Cesárea laughed again, although this time the thunder of her laughter remained within the confines of her own room.

Here we have lost poet Cesárea Tinajero, object of the savage detectives’ quest, holed up in her room in Santa Teresa, the central setting for the murders of 2666, a map of a factory (a maquiladora, like the ones the murdered women work at in 2666?) pinned to her wall; here we have Cesárea Tinajero, who keeps “a switchblade with a horn handle and the word Caborca engraved on the blade” by her side, believing she is “under threat of death.” Cesárea Tinajero is prophet to the horrors at the core of 2666.

2666′s Benno von Archimboldi twins Cesárea Tinajero. Just as a quartet of savage detectives search for Tinajero, so to a quartet of literary critics seek out the lost Prussian writer. (Archimboldi even shows up a few times in The Savage Detectives, albeit under the pseudopseudonym “J.M.G. Arcimboldi,” identified as a “Frenchman,” the author of The Endless Rose, his second novel in 2666). Cesárea Tinajero is also repeated in 2666′s Florita Almada, a psychic medium who not only testifies to, but also tries to stop, the unrelenting violence in Santa Teresa.

I suppose I could keep teasing out these intertextual meetings. I could point out that Detectives character Joaquín Font winds up in an insane asylum babbling about fate (fate and insanity being two major themes of 2666). I could point out that Auxilio Lacouture, narrator of Bolaño’s novella Amulet, gets to tell her story in miniature in Detectives. I could point out that the central figures (“central” is not the right word of course) of Detectives, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima are everywhere in the Bolañoverse—even unnamed, it is clear that one of the duo fathers the bastard Lalo Cura, one of the good detectives of 2666. But what would be my point in elaborating detail after detail here? Or, and perhaps this is the real question I mean to ask here—is a full reading of The Savage Detectives ultimately dependent on intertextual relationships with other Bolaño books?

Maybe a better way to finish here is to hash out the last few pages of the novel, which find our narrator García Madero driving around Sonora with Lupe, on the run from the law (maybe). The last few entries of the book—in diary form—are simply a list of place names, obscure places in the Sonora desert the pair presumably drive to. García Madero takes up the mantle of exile and reads Cesárea Tinajero’s notebooks, which perhaps influence him—the last three entries of Detectives feature pictographic riddles that recall Tinajero’s visual poem “Sion.” Here is the final entry, which is also the final page of the book—

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I suppose there are plenty of answers to Bolaño’s final riddle. What’s outside the window? Abyssvoiduncertainty. Aporia. And also: Possiblityopennessfreedom. Certainty. And also: The perforated suggestions of a shape, lines to guide our scissors, form. And also: It’s to be taken literally, a literal dare to the reader to get up, to look out, to see. I could probably keep going.

If we know Bolaño’s detective games, we know that the mysteries are really labyrinths, mazes where we might get trapped and go insane. (The Savage Detectives is in large part a novel that outlines the risks—mental, physical, emotional—of literature). How do I read the gaps in the visual riddle? The gesture is visual ambiguity, paradox. The dashes open to void and close to make form; they define yet are indefinite; the window is there and is not there. So what we’re left with is a way of seeing, or at least an invitation to a way of seeing, which is to say a way of reading. So, if you like—and I like—what’s outside the window is the rest of the Bolañoverse—or at least an offer to play detective.

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“The Son Never Asked to Be Born” — Roberto Bolaño’s Parenting Advice

Books, Literature, Writers

Roberto Bolaño, from an interview with Eliseo Álvarez, republished this month in Melville House’s Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview:

I suppose that within his brutality and his courage–he is a very courageous man–my father loved me as I love my son. In the end, one could talk for hours about the relationship between a father and a son. The only clear thing is that a father has to be willing to be spat upon by his son as many times as the son wishes to do it. Even still the father will not have paid a tenth of what he owes because the son never asked to be born. If you brought him into this world, the least you can do is put up with whatever insult he wants to offer.

Okay, so sons didn’t ask to be born, but what about daughters? How did Bolaño feel about his daughter?

I won’t say anymore. I’ll start to cry. The only explanation I could give would be to cry. It’s beyond the beyond.

Reading these quotes, I thought about two of my favorite depictions of fathers and children in Bolaño’s work. First, there’s Bolaño as the son, “B,” in the title track from the collection Last Evenings on Earth. The story is a strange mix of sinister and funny, with the (perhaps overly literary) son fearing for his dad, a boxer who, at least in the son-narrator’s view, doesn’t seem to be paying attention to just how bad things seem to be turning on the pair’s vacation to Acapulco. Then there’s (possibly) Bolaño as parent, this time in the form of Oscar Amalfitano in 2666. If Bolaño would cry for his daughter’s safety, for anxiety and wariness of a cruel world, then Amalfitano becomes a literary center for those fears. And, if you’ve read that book, you know his paranoia is justified. In any case, it’s clear that Bolaño loved his children deeply. In another of the the book’s interviews–literally, “The Last Interview,” Bolaño, the exile who lived everywhere said, “my only country is my two children.” He even asked that his masterpiece 2666 be divvied up into five parts in the hopes that it would provide steady income for his son and daughter.

Last Evenings on Earth — Roberto Bolaño

Books, Literature, Reviews

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Although the fourteen stories in Roberto Bolaño‘s superb collection Last Evenings on Earth are the result of collating and translating two previously published volumes, Llamadas telefónicas and Putas asesinas–and therefore ostensibly have nothing to do with each other (other than being the work of a singularly gifted author)–I couldn’t help reading them, especially towards the end of the book, as a strange, fragmented novel. Beyond Bolaño’s inimitable style (more on that in a moment), the collection is unified by its protagonists, or protagonist, really, who really must be a stand-in for Bolaño himself. Tenets of New Criticism be damned! It’s impossible not to read Bolaño into these stories, whether his narrators or protagonists are young teens or middle-aged men, petulant sons or struggling writers. Scratch that last one. They’re all struggling writers; in fact, just about everyone in this book is a struggling writer, or an exile, or a vagabond, or on the run, or so enamored and wound up in Big Romantic Ideals that they make plenty of foolish decisions (one of my favorite things about this book is how easily Bolaño posits and then ironizes and the tears apart Big Romantic Ideals at the very same time he makes you feel wistful and nostalgic for those days when you believed in them yourself). Bolaño uses a character named only “B” for most of these stories; elsewhere, (anti-)hero (and obvious Bolaño stand-in) Arturo Belano of The Savage Detectives is revealed to be a narrator. In other stories the young male protagonist is simply not identified by any name, yet all of these characters are so fully realized, so psychologically real, that they must contain at least some part of Bolaño.

And these protatgonists are so very, very real, almost frighteningly so, like “B” in “A Literary Adventure,” whose paranoia over receiving a career jump-starting review from a writer–”A,” of course, who B has actually mocked in his book–poisons any enjoyment B might have had with his new success. B’s slow descent into a mild madness is perfectly drawn, the sort of thing you might see in your own life, the sort of anxiety that many of us feel but cannot communicate or explain because of the silly shame of it all. In “Last Evenings on Earth,” B (the same B? Must be) takes a vacation to Acapulco with his father. Bolaño’s rhetoric in this tale is masterful: he draws each scene with a reportorial, even terse distance, noting the smallest of actions, but leaving the analytical connections up to his reader. Even though B sees his holiday with his dad heading toward “disaster,” toward “the price they must pay for existing,” he cannot process what this disaster is, or what paying this price means. The story builds to a thick, nervous dread, made all the more anxious by the strange suspicion that no, things are actually fine, we’re all just being paranoid here. (Not true!)

That ebb and flow between dread and release, fear and humor, ironic detachment and romantic idealism works throughout each of the stories, even ones not specifically about B (or Belano, or, let’s be honest maybe, Bolaño). “Anne Moore’s Life” is an incredible (yet thoroughly credible) portrait. The story is both journalistic and personal; Anne’s life is at once banal and bizarre–like anyone’s life, perhaps, but not. “Mauricio (“The Eye”) Silva” relates the story of another Chilean exile (did I forget to mention that, in a way, this whole book is about Chilean exiles, that if Last Evenings on Earth is a fragmented novel, then it tells the fragmented story of these artists and activists fleeing from Pinochet’s coup? If I forgot to mention that, I suppose I didn’t want to over-politicize my review, or suggest that one had to have some contextual knowledge of the Chilean diaspora in order to enjoy this book, because I don’t think you have to–but where were we? “The Eye,” right), the titular Mauricio (AKA “The Eye”), a photographer whose travels take him to the depths of depravity in the poorest parts of India. What parts of India? Well, the narrator never finds a specific answer, because those don’t really exist in Bolaño’s universe. All claims are under suspicion. Things may or may not have happened, and if they did happen, they might have happened in myriad ways. But how is it then that Bolaño is never murky? How can a writer who posits so many possibilities, whose characters repeatedly aver that they don’t really remember exactly the way things happened (if they even happened at all), how can such a writer be at the same time so sharp and exacting? It’s one of Bolaño’s great gifts of course and we’re lucky to share in it.

It would be hard–impossible really–to pick the best story from the collection. They’re all great, they all demand to be reread, and they made me want to read more Roberto Bolaño. But if I had to pick one as a starting point, if I had to foist one on a friend, I suppose it would be “Enrique Martín,” the story of a failed poet that made me laugh out loud several times and then almost cry. Arturo Belano narrates this story with a wry, acerbic, deadpan humor that veers at times into unexpected and affecting poignancy. Poor Enrique only wants Belano’s respect, or at least Belano to read his poems with a modicum of dignity–a fact that Bolaño shares with his readers while still keeping his narrator in the dark. As the story plunges to its tragic end, Belano finally sees what the reader has already cottoned onto: our individual choices in relations to others might be far more impactful than we realize, and human empathy is in sorry supply in this world. “Life is mysterious as well as vulgar,” Belano nonchalantly suggests in the middle of the story, but Bolaño goes to exacting pains to show us that there can be a saving beauty and humor in all that strange visceral ugliness. One of the best stories I’ve ever read in one of the best collections I’ve ever read. Very highly recommended.

White Teeth, Perdido Street Station, and Last Evenings on Earth

Books, Literature, Reviews

white teeth

And so well with the help of Jenny Sterlin’s narration and my handy-dandy portable mp3-playing device, I finally made it through Zadie Smith‘s 2000 novel White Teeth, and, having digested all of it, am now fit to declare it hilarious in places, larded with moments of intensely brilliant prose, wildly ambitious, and ultimately hollow, overstuffed with flat characters who, despite Smith’s best efforts, do not manage to earn the Big Important Climax she shoves them toward. Smith succeeds in communicating the multicultural problematics of late-twentieth-century London, but her massive scope (the audiobook is 23 hours and my unfinished paperback runs to nearly 500 pages) is just too massive. Smith seems to think that loads of concrete detail will automatically conjure emotional force, but what we get instead verges on soap opera at times–more bathos than pathos.It doesn’t help reader expectations of course that White Teeth was wildly overpraised after its debut. While White Teeth‘s attempt to reconcile the personal traumas of a postcolonial world with the demands of family, tradition, and personal worth is admirable, its aim exceeds its grasp, and the end disappoints. Still, I enjoyed it as an audiobook–Jenny Sterlin mugs enthusiastically through the various accents and argots of a melting pot London, and Smith’s concrete emphasis on detail makes it an ideal listen for a few summer afternoons of gardening or housework. Not the Great Book we’ve been told it is, but a fine listen nonetheless.

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Summer is, of course, a great time for audiobooks, and I’m thrilled that China Miéville‘s breakthrough second novel Perdido Street Station is finally available on mp3. I’ve been wanting to read Miéville for quite some time now, but the length of his dystopian tomes has made it difficult until now (I am a very busy, important man, with busy, important things to do). Perdido Street Station, set in a bizarre, gross world of humans, Re-mades, and other sundry races, is weird fiction at its finest (so far)–a great hybrid of Charles Dickens and PK Dick, HP Lovecraft and JG Ballard. It trawls the line between real and surreal, art and science, grime and enlightenment, in lovely, if dense prose, that could never be mistaken as genre fiction. Great stuff, so far.

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Also great stuff, so far, is Roberto Bolaño‘s collection of short stories, Last Evenings on Earth. I read the first three tales in succession last night, unable to put the book down although it was well-past my well-established “you must go to bed now or your toddler daughter will wreak havoc on you in the AM” bedtime. The first three stories are about, get this, (big surprise if you’ve read Bolaño), writers–good, bad, indifferent writers, failed, semi-failed, miserable writers. Sad writers, mad writers. The opener “Sensini” tells the story of an epistolary relationship between a young writer and an aging, uncelebrated writer. It’s sad yet measured in its pathos, and it earns its happy ending by loading that ending with the seed of potential disaster. The next story, “Henri Simon Leprince,” is the hilarious (and sad) tale of a miserable writer, a hack who teams up with the Resistance in WWII France. Despite his best intentions, he’s roundly despised by all those he helps. And he’s a terrible writer. The third story, “Enrique Martín,” literally made me laugh out loud, several times, to the point of tears. Narrated by Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s literary stand-in, it tells the desperate story of the titular failed poet, a would-be artist and sometime UFO hunter who slowly watches his dreams disintegrate.

All of Bolaño’s stories so far have extended past the mad force of his own strong voice(s) and implanted themselves into my mind, reaching into my own past; his characters, in hashing out their strange young lives (from a bit of distance, now) repeatedly evoked my own youthful memories, stuff I hadn’t thought about in years. There’s a sad brilliance under all of Bolaño’s stuff, like bright noon sun perceived through an ambiguous tear resting on your eye. Reading the beginning of Last Evenings on Earth last night, it occurred to me for the first time that Bolaño had died, and he’d died really young, and there weren’t going to be anymore books from him. But that’s a bummer note to end on. Let’s leave it at this–Last Evenings on Earth is some seriously great stuff.