The Savage Detectives — Roberto Bolaño

Roberto Bolaño’s “other” masterwork The Savage Detectives has been previously reviewed on this website, but my view is that the previous writeup was unfair and premature.  Perhaps those of us who love this book are not “serious” readers.

The plot was accurately diagrammed in the earlier post. The Savage Detectives is made up of three sections. The first section consists of the diary of seventeen year-old Visceral Realist poet Juan Garcia Madero, his record of his literary ambition and dawning appreciation of beauty and words. The second, lengthy section is a series of interviews, seemingly conducted by a single, unknown interviewer in an attempt to uncover the history of the Visceral Realist movement, a group of iconoclastic poets that lived in Mexico City in the early part of the 1970s. The third section revisits Garcia Madero’s diary as he and Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, the nominal leaders of the Visceral Realists, scour the unforgiving Sonora desert in search of their own lost heroes.

Bolaño revisits familiar themes in this novel by asking what drives people to create, and what happens to those people when the things they create are pushed, like themselves, to the margins of society.  Garcia Madero’s drive to write forces him to confront his everyday existence as he attempts to shed his innocence.  He loses friends, quits school, moves in with a waitress, falls in love, has his heart broken.  He writes when he eats, he writes when he should be doing something else, he writes about writing.  He assumes that he and his comrades are on the verge of fame and that others are aware that everything the Visceral Realists do is bold and profound.  Why then, Bolaño asks, is Garcia Madero satisfied with reading his poems to others when he dreams of placing his work in well-regarded anthologies?  What happens when we realize that immortality is ultimately an illusion?  Where does the spirit go when the ghost leaves only a sheet behind?

The answers to the questions posed in the first book are addressed in the second, but there is no sense that the unknown interviewer is close to mythologizing the Visceral Realists in the same manner as the scholars who made a hero of Hans Reiter in the first book of 2666.  At least at the time the interviews were conducted, the Visceral Realists’ body of work is unknown to most, but to those with knowledge of their oeuvre, the Visceral Realists are remembered as hacks or kids from the wrong side of the tracks who preferred the commission of petty misdemeanors to dedication to their craft.  The reality, as usual, is located somewhere in the middle. The Visceral Realists are shown to be like any other group of talented, excitable and intelligent young people because they’re bound to be disappointed.  Their failure of their movement can be blamed on their own choices as well as on barriers erected by those ensconced in the Mexican literary establishment whose notions of where ideas ought to come from are not easily refuted.  Especially by those demanding entry to their small but exclusive club.

Mr. Biblioklept’s first review was essentially right when he stated that The Savage Detectives “is an epic about the banal, ordinary things that fill our lives: jobs and eating and getting to places and having one’s friendships sour and being disappointed and so on.”  Yes, sadness pervades the book.  The Visceral Realists put down their pens, or they move to America, or they run and hide from the things that they cannot control at home.  The Visceral Realists succumb to disease, lose their minds, attempt to cope, and they die.  An early friend of Arturo Belano’s recounts–

I imagined him lost in a white space, a virgin space that kept getting dirtier and more soiled despite his best efforts, and even the face I remembered grew distorted, as if while I was talking to his sister his features melded into what she was describing, ridiculous feats of strength, terrifying, pointless rites of passage into adulthood so distant from what I thought would become of him.

Although the young poets suffer defeat, they enjoy small but significant triumphs, the most important of which is the existence of the book being argued about in this space.  For Bolaño, whose business is the veneration of creators and their creation, the perseverance of the questions raised by the mere existence of the Visceral Realists and their permanent embodiment in a physical object capable of transmission in perpetuity is the ultimate victory. If the author is right that “the search for a place to live and a place to work [is] the common fate of all humanity,” then the young poets transitioning to adulthood don’t fare so poorly.  Most of them, despite their backgrounds, become citizens with some stake in the places they live.  They find work, they have children, they find adventure.  Some, like Arturo Belano, continue to write at an immense personal cost.  A man without a country, he’s the shadow who forms the substance of the book and allows his alter ego to demonstrate his remarkable narrative powers.

But what makes The Savage Detectives a complete work is that, like the characters of Borges and Cortazar, who so many in this novel profess to admire, the poets realize, sometimes too late, that brief and startling connections between people are always possible and love may be found anywhere.  La Maga and Oliviera meet on strange bridges in Paris, condemned men revisit their lives in the moment between gunshot and blackness, and poor, unlettered poets will continue to read, and despite derision and hardship, will continue to express their own vision of hope and possibility.

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