More Stuff I Like: The Savage Detectives
Why is it that we have the easiest time talking about the most trivial, mundane things, but when it comes to those things that matter, that move us, that shake us to the core –love, death– words always fail? A year ago I tried blogging about a TV show (RuPaul’s Drag Race) and although –or rather, precisely because– it was so unabashedly vacuous, I found the words pouring out of me: sharp, funny, piquant. To this day I think (and regret) that it was probably one of the best pieces I ever wrote.
Meanwhile when I want to speak about things of substance and sublimity I find myself grasping at chaff as the living grain slips through my fingers. (But, if the grain which falls to the earth does not die, it stays alone; while if it dies, it brings forth fruit.) Which is why I am struggling as I sit here trying to write something about Roberto Bolaño.
I first encountered Bolaño in the Strand Bookstore a bit over a year ago. Not in the flesh, of course (he died in 2003) but in the form of a tall, teetering stack of his (at the time) most recently translated book, The Savage Detectives. I think I had read something about him somewhere (he would soon become omnipresent) and so I idly picked up a copy and flipped to the first pages:
I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.
I’m not really sure what visceral realism is.
And from there on out I was pretty much hooked.
The Savage Detectives is many things, but it begins as the diary of one Juan García Madero, a 17-year-old Mexico city student with the usual teenage sexual frustration and perhaps marginally more unusual poetic aspirations. Madero has been invited to join the visceral realists, a movement that doesn’t grow that much clearer as the book progresses, but which seems to have something to do with revolutionary poetics (as opposed to revolutionary politics, although there is that too) and which is led by the wild, dynamic duo of Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano – the last, unsurprisingly, based on Bolaño himself. Gradually Madero is drawn into a broad circle of poets and prostitutes, mad and marginal figures, and this is the exact kind of description which would have me running away from this book if I hadn’t read it but I have and trust me, it’s really good.
Just as we begin to grow comfortable with Madero’s voice, to slip into his skin, the second of the book’s three sections breaks away in a radically new direction. Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano have disappeared, with varied explications and speculations – possibly they are escaping a crime, possibly they are on their way to South America for the socialist revolution or a drug deal, possibly they’re in Europe or maybe they’re off on a madcap search for a “lost” woman poet of the early years of the century, whose works survive only in fragments.
As if to cope with this growing uncertainty, the novel itself expands to take on a multitude of cacophonous voices, more than fifty of them, each one presented as a first person monologue and addressed to an unknown listener, as if in a documentary film or legal testimony. These voices hem and haw, hesitate, bluster, laugh or cry or shut the door in your face as they jointly trace the various paths taken by Lima and Belano across South and Central America and, indeed, the world. They also contradict each other, or even shout each other down, both in terms of the “facts” (there are many conflicting stories) and in their opinions of the duo: Belano and Lima are jokes, or geniuses, saints or social pariahs, poets or posers; they are sexual predators, or sexually naïf; homosexual, asexual, bisexual. Like Æolus, the two seem to change shape as the various narrators (and the reader) try to take hold of them, until you’re left grasping at the wind.
(I just looked up Æolus on wikipedia to make sure that I had my facts and metaphors straight, and it turns out, beautifully, that there were three of them – three figures with that same name, who even the Greeks had trouble keeping apart. One was father to both Sisyphus and the Greek race; one was the son of Poseidon and married his six sons to his six daughters and “the family lived happily together,” causing scandal; the last, the Æolus that I meant, was the grandson of the first Æolus and is often apparently conflated with the second.)
Some of my friends have made it this far in the book and stopped, and I understand that. Bolaño’s technique is jarring, if you are used to certain conventions of narrative: a linear plot, or even a discernible plot, with clear events and definitive characters and an obvious build-up and climax and denouement. To be sure, we’re used to post-modern novels which seem to violate all these precepts, but Bolaño makes you realize how entirely conventional these apparently avant-garde techniques generally are. He does it differently. He does it better.
Because rather than a smugly self-satisfied (but covertly self-conscious) technique, Bolaño’s multiple narratives/narrators seem right, seem necessary: rather than mere formalist experimentation, you realize, this story could be told no other way. At first you –or I– wish for some kind of hand-out detailing all the characters, some way to “keep track” of the twists and turns of events (as in my old copy of War and Peace, which had a foldout in the back delineating all the personages, their relationships, and a chronology of major events). But gradually you realize that you, too, are supposed to get lost: just as Belano and Lima lose their way, just as these many narrators lose hold of them through the cracks of time and memory, so you, too, are not expected to hold on to everything. Gently, lovingly, The Savage Detectives allows you to let go, to loosen your grasp, to grow confused or to forget everything – and when you do, when you let go of your need to control, the story opens out and opens up and grows incredibly, impossibly beautiful, like an enormous tapestry wide enough to hold us all, like a sublimely awe-inspiring fugue (in both senses).
1 Music a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts.
2. Psychiatry a state or period of loss of awareness of one’s identity, often coupled with flight from one’s usual environment, associated with certain forms of hysteria and epilepsy.
Like a Bach concerto or an epileptic fit: these two metaphors together trace the outline of The Savage Detectives (but only together: held in harmonious contradi(stin)ction). If The Savage Detectives is, in fact, a detective story (and I’m not sure that it is) it’s “on the trail” of its own lost characters, a story in search of itself. (But immediately I want to say: “it’s so much more than that!” There are countless crimes and a few murders and many mysteries, only some of them solved, there’s the quest for the mysterious lost poetess which… but no, I don’t want to give away the ending.)
I don’t think I’ll be giving away anything if I tell you that the novel ends back in Madero’s voice, with Belano and Ulises Lima and a former prostitute named Lupe, in a broken-down van, “lost” somewhere (but also, distinctly found) in the vast Sonora Desert.
The above might be a half-adequate plot summary; but it does nothing to explain the incredible emotional arc of my reading experience; it does nothing to explain what Bolaño does with language. As I read I was blown away by Bolaño’s ability to capture that elusive effervescence of adolescence (excuse the alliteration), when you believe so powerfully in poetry and sex and politics, and in the posibility of those things to transform, if not the world, then at least your self. “Yes,” I thought, “yes, this is what I believed in, this is the passion and power and conviction that I had!” Only gradually did I realize that this lyric outburst, this wild exuberance was turning gradually into its opposite, as the revolution fails to materialize (or materializes, and fails) and relationships fall apart, and even poetry loses its fatal power. As Bolaño has his narrators repeat over and over, in varied forms (and as, again, in a fugue): “Everything that begins in comedy ends in tragedy.”
And yet… Bolaño’s voice sustains us, holds us; underlying the gradual unfolding of tragedy and sorrow and loss there is a wry tone of jubilant affirmation, a place where nothing will be denied but everything just might be ok. It is this strange, poignant mixture of sweet and sour which allowed Bolaño to call his book both an “elegy” and a “love letter” to a lost generation:
We were stupid and generous, the way young people are, who give everything and don’t ask for anything in return, and now nothing remains of those young people…. Latin America is sown with their bones.