Thursday, December 31, 2009

03:44 The Savage Detectives

The Savage Detectives
Roberto Bolaño

While in his early forties, Chilean author Roberto Bolaño discovered that he had an incurable liver disease that would ultimately prove fatal; precisely “when?” was unknown. After this diagnosis, Bolaño seems to have turned away from his previous life as a combative enfant terrible and spent his remaining years focusing on ambitious literary works including The Savage Detectives, which details the failure of a literary movement made up of combative enfants terrible.

The above is not intended as gossip but as context. Bolaño’s life is discussed in detail in the excellent introduction by translator Natasha Wimmer. Knowing this, it’s hard to read The Savage Detectives without thinking of it as a roman à clef or perhaps a parody of Bolaño’s life. One of the main characters is named Arturo Belano, for example, and his misadventures seem to follow a pattern similar to his creator’s.

The overriding theme is failure, the wasted potential and the directionless lives of middle aged men whose youthful dreams never paid off. The book is made up of three sections; the first, “Mexicans Lost In Mexico,” is perhaps the most enjoyable. It consists of diary entries by Juan Madero, a teenager who has fallen under the spell of a loose collective of poets called the Visceral Realists, who are defined less by what they stand for and more by what they dislike. As I live in a country in which poetry is irrelevant and literature is just another entertainment option among many, it’s heartening to read about characters who take poetry so seriously that they get into brawls over it. This is the “youth” section of the novel, which captures the joy of discovery, the excitement of new ideas and the mixed blessings of being accepted by those older than you but also dragged into the soap operas of their lives. Juan’s coming of age tale, however, ends abruptly with a cliffhanger. His absence and the lack of any explanation is keenly felt in the second section “The Savage Detectives.”

This is the longest section of the novel and consists of first person remembrances by those who encountered Belano and his fellow Visceral Realist Ulises Lima in the years after “Mexicans Lost In Mexico.” It’s an oral history (similar to George Plimpton’s biography of Edie Sedgewick) about a literary movement that produced little in the way of literature because its founders were too busy discussing it rather than writing. Love affairs, jail terms, dead-end jobs, political turmoil: it’s all here and at length, which makes the breadth of this section problematic.* It seems churlish to say “Can you cut your life story down a little bit cause I’m getting a bit bored” to a terminally ill man, but I think the novel would have been stronger had this section been edited. I was talking to a friend of a friend who was having the same experience with the book: he loved the first section but was stuck in the long second part.** However, at that point I had finished the novel and could tell him the payoff at the end was worth it, just as in Joyce’s Ulysses you have to slog through the novel’s two most tedious sections before you can reach the transcendence of Molly Bloom’s monologue at the end. Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima’s final tales include moments of grace for each man, and one of the most moving depictions of the selflessness of true friendship I have ever read.

The final section “The Sonora Desert” functions as an epilogue, returning us to Juan Madero’s diary and explaining what happened after the cliffhanger at the end of section one. It also provides closure to one of the storylines in section two and relates an “original sin” that explains the end of Visceral Realism as a movement and why Belano and Lima were doomed to lives of failure.

There’s much in The Savage Detectives that’s impressive. Bolaño is address a variety of life’s basic experiences by examining the day to day stories of a number of characters. He doesn’t overdo either the contradictions between stories or the distinct voices within. Even living as failures, the experience of life, with its attendant joys and sorrows, comes through. The book is also very funny.

* This is the first book I wished I read on a Kindle. I didn't take notes while reading and the ability to instantly SEARCH the text to access the myriad character names, places and incidents would have been a godsend.

** My nephew had the same reaction. While reading "Mexicans Lost In Mexico" I impulsively bought him a copy, thinking that, as he was going through some of the same things as Juan Madero, he would love it. He did, but then got bogged down in the second section's various monologues.

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