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Thursday, May 10th, 2007
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The Savage Detectives: A Novel

by Roberto Bolano

Dust and Literature

A review by Chloë Schama

According to the formula commonly used to introduce foreign writers, it would be accurate to call the late Roberto Bolaño a Chilean writer. But since he lived most of his life outside Chile, in Mexico and in Spain, the description is not quite accurate. Bolaño objected to attempts to attach him to a homeland: Chilean writers thought of him as a Mexican writer, Mexican writers thought of him as a Chilean writer, his Spanish colleagues thought of him as something else entirely. "My only homeland," he said in the last interview before his death in 2003 at age fifty, "is my children."

For some time, Latin American writers have bristled at the literary characteristics fixed not only to their homelands but also to the entire region of Latin America. For these writers, the legacy of the "Boom" generation -- the Latin American writers who introduced Spanish-language literature to a mass market in the 1960s and 1970s -- was both a blessing and a curse. Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, and others paved the way to an English-speaking audience, but the path was narrow, and largely dependent on the writer's facility with the formulas of magical realism.

In 1996, a group of writers led by the Chilean writer Alberto Fuguet published a collection of short stories titled McOndo, an irreverent jab at the imaginary region of Macondo, where much of García Márquez's fiction takes place. "McOndo," Fuguet wrote in an introductory essay titled "I Am Not a Magical Realist!," is a world composed of "McDonald's, Macintoshes and condos," a more accurate portrait of his contemporary Chile than one populated by flying grandmothers. Another school with a similar purpose (although slightly different constituents), the self-named "crack" generation of Mexican writers, proclaimed defiantly that they would not write about revolution, houses of ghosts, or the border. Their name referred not to crack cocaine, but to the impending collapse of the tired tropes that held the "Boom" together.

Bolaño did not assume an explicit position in these sectarian wars, but he was an inspiration to the sects. The novelist and scholar Edmundo Paz Soldán has remarked that Bolaño became a legend among his contemporaries -- younger than the "Boom" authors -- even before he died. Fuguet claims that Bolaño's stories are like cathedrals to him. According to the novelist Francisco Goldman, Bolaño hovered "over many young Latin American writers...the way García Márquez must have over his generation and the following one." The Savage Detectives, which has just been published in English, and Amulet, the latest of Bolaño's short novels to be translated, help to explain the forces behind his inadvertent ascent to founding-father status of the post-"Boom" generation.

At first glance, Bolaño seems an unlikely candidate for such leadership. Although he steered clear of magical realism, his literature is not dissociated from themes that the new writers were anxious to avoid: violence, revolution, corruption. By Night in Chile (published in English in 2003) is a monologue delivered by a priest who doubles as Pinochet's tutor. Distant Star (2004) tells the story of a pilot who profits from Pinochet's coup. But how could Bolaño not incorporate history into his writing? Born in Santiago in 1953, he spent the first fifteen years of his life in various cities in Chile before leaving for Mexico in 1968. After leaving school at seventeen, he returned to Chile to work on behalf of Salvatore Allende. When Allende's government was overthrown, Bolaño was imprisoned for eight days and was released only because he recognized his jailers as former schoolmates. When he accepted the Rómolo Gallegos Prize for The Savage Detectives, he spoke of the effect of these events on his writing: "All that I have written is a love letter...to my generation, we who were born in the 1950s...and who gave what little we had, all that we had -- our youth -- to a cause that we believed [in]." Such a sentiment makes him an improbable spokesman for a generation of writers who wanted to shed the burden of writing about revolution. And in strictly literary terms, he was too idiosyncratic and original to be representative of anybody but himself.

But in other ways his salience makes sense. Bolaño was not uniquely attached to the experience of a single country, within or beyond Latin America. The Savage Detectives is narrated by people of all nationalities. Amulet is told by a Uruguayan woman living in Mexico. (Geographic boundaries never held much meaning for Bolaño. As a child, he refused to accept that Caracas was the capital of Venezuela and Bogotá the capital of Colombia. It was more logical, according to his poetic sensibility, the other way around: the "v" of "Venezuela" sounding like the "b" in Bogota, while the hard "c" in Caracas chimed with "Colombia." Bolaño has suggested that these mental machinations grew out of his dyslexia, but they seem to foreshadow an easy acceptance of a transnational identity later in life.)

Bolaño was also sharply critical of several "Boom" authors, famously declaring that magical realism stinks. He reserved admiration only for Julio Cortázar, to whom he has been compared. As a young poet in Mexico he started a movement, infrarealismo, to promote an alternative to the prevailing literary themes and styles. Neither The Savage Detectives nor Amulet shies away from the candid depiction of gritty reality, which was a central aim of infrarealismo (and of later movements). Most importantly, these novels show a way of writing about Latin America and Latin American history that is not constrained by the stylistic stereotypes associated with the region.

The Savage Detectives, a remarkable and demanding book, presents a Latin America that retains certain distinguishing characteristics (many taken from Bolaño's life), but in its emotional landscape it strikingly resembles the rest of the world. Its juxtaposition of stories from across the globe makes it clear just how similar those stories can be. The first of the novel's three sections, "Mexicans Lost in Mexico," is the most grounded in a specific time and place. Juan García Madero, a young law-school dropout, falls in with a group of writers, poets, and intellectuals who have formed a new literary movement dubbed "visceral realism." The leaders of this group, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, are thinly veiled stand-ins for the author and the poet Mario Santiago (a co-founder of infrarealismo). Madero, like many of the characters in this novel, is a literary street rat, a kid who would rather spend his last peso on a book than on a burrito.

The visceral realists introduce Madero to the literary underground of Mexico City, and before he understands what either is about he is spitting out references to Khlebnikov and indulging in bouts of wild sex. At the end of this section, Madero flees the city with Belano, Lima, and a prostitute named Lupe who is being pursued by her disgruntled pimp. Belano and Lima have an additional reason for leaving the city: they are searching for the obscure poet Cesárea Tinajero, who disappeared years before, having published only one poem. The combined purposes for the trip -- one immediately pressing and one loftily intellectual -- parallel the seemingly incongruous forces that motivate much of Bolaño's writing.

The second section of the novel, "The Savage Detectives," is composed of a series of first-person narratives that dramatically expand the geographic and thematic scope of the book. Madero's self-centered teenage musings give way to a variety of narratives. The dozens of narrators -- an inhabitant of an insane asylum, a single mother who writes poetry by night, a bar owner who divines winning lottery numbers, an editor with a penchant for duels -- have some connection to Belano or Lima, but this is the only thing that unites them. Some return frequently, others appear only once or twice. Each person narrates at least a page, but no more than thirty, building a patchwork story that sketches Belano and Lima's trajectories after they leave Mexico City.

The third section, "The Sonora Desert," picks up where the first section leaves off. Belano and Lima gather clues about the vanished poet as the pimp and his thugs carry on their hunt. Madero's personal journey continues as the chase heats up. Like all coming-of-age stories, Madero's relies on the particularities of time and place to make the universal experience of adolescence somehow unique. But the long (almost four-hundred-page) interlude of the second section disrupts the traditional inward-looking framework of the coming-of-age tale. Rather than emphasizing the singular importance of Madero's experience in Mexico, this section chronicles the aging of his fellow travelers, the way their lives -- begun in a certain time and place -- ripple across decades and continents.

Expanding the sweep of his novel by multiplying perspectives, Bolaño draws attention to the human experiences that transcend the particularities of age or location. Here, for example, is a scene that demonstrates this skill:

He whispered that he loved me, that he would never be able to forget me. Then he got up (twenty seconds after he'd spoken, at most) and slapped my face. The sound echoed through the house. We were on the first floor, but I heard the sound of his hand (when his palm left my cheek) rise up the stairs and enter each of the rooms on the second floor, dropping down through the climbing vines and rolling like glass marbles in the yard.

The narrator, a girlfriend of Belano's, responds to the attack by launching her own.

Afterward I sat on the floor, still crying. When I looked up Arturo was beside me. His nose was bleeding, I remember, a little thread of blood running down to his upper lip and from there to the corner of his mouth and down to his chin. You hurt me, he said. This hurts. I looked at him and blinked several times. This hurts, he said, and he sighed. And what do you think you did to me? I said....He asked me whether I'd calmed down. I'll never be calm around you, I said.

The narrator of this scene is little more than a peripheral character before this episode, and the interaction has nothing to do with Madero, the ostensible "hero" at the start of the novel. Yet its emotional resonance extends beyond these few pages. Its potency derives from its vivid evocation of an emotion, not a place or a specific set of characters. The scene could take place anywhere in the world without losing its force, and that may be why Latin American writers admire it.

Belano/Bolaño also appears in Amulet, which is narrated by a minor character from the second section of The Savage Detectives. The narrator, Auxilio Lacoutre, calls herself the "mother of Mexican Poetry" and is part secretary, part nurse, part maid, and part lover to the poets and would-be poets who enter her orbit. "Life drew me into other stories," she says, including Belano's. Like Bolaño, Belano goes to Chile and returns a changed person; he now falls into "the category of those who have seen death at close range," giving him a certain influence and prestige "in the eyes of those desperate Latin American kids." Auxilio stands apart, haunted by an image of a "multitude of young people, an interminable legion of young people on the march to somewhere...[whose] destinies were not oriented by a common idea." But she withholds condemnation. She emphasizes, in words that echo Bolaño's acceptance speech for the Rómolo Gallegos Prize, their selflessness and bravery, and pays them tribute. "[H]ow beautiful they were, such beauty, although they were marching deathward, shoulder to shoulder.... The only thing I could do was to stand up, trembling, and listen to their song, go on listening to their song right up to the last breath, because, although they were swallowed by the abyss, the song remained in the air of the valley, in the mist of the valley rising toward the mountainsides and the crags as evening drew on."

This validation for the mistakes of youth must also contribute to the reverence for Bolaño among young writers. He preserves the songs produced by ill-formed, angry, or just silly ideologies, and recognizes the underlying goodness of their intentions. Auxilio and Belano are faced with a draining of purpose from their actions when they rescue a sick, weak prostitute and set him up with a job, only to encounter him later, strung out from sniffing glue and close to death. But they concur that it does not matter that the prostitute was going to die. "Our hidden purpose," Auxilio says, "had been to stop him from being killed." An ultimately futile campaign is not without importance, in Bolaño's world. A poet may not be able to stop Pinochet, but he can testify to the attempt.

Bolaño is not just interested in vindicating the motives behind political or social activity; the motives behind literary activity are as often the object of his inquiry. As Belano and Lima hunt down Cesárea Tinajero in the desert, it becomes increasingly clear that the importance they have ascribed to their quest is misguided. Her single poem was almost comically insignificant, but still the questers do not become objects of scorn. No wonder young Latin American writers, eager to start movements of their own and stamp them with clever coinages, appreciate Bolaño; he gives them permission to make their mistakes and provides an eloquent example of how to reflect upon their blunders.

If the sprawling Savage Detectives is about anything, it is about people who love literature and the often admirable forces that move them. Yet the slope from veneration to ridicule is slippery, and Bolaño moves between adulation and sarcasm with stealth, even when referring to his own creations. "The whole visceral realism thing was a love letter, the demented strutting of a dumb bird in the moonlight, something essentially cheap and meaningless," says one character. Visceral realism, says another, "was a perfect match for my inner self and my sense of reality." The condemnation sounds more convincing than the praise. But if Bolaño is harsh at times, the sheer multitude of voices and opinions expressed in The Savage Detectives suggest that he is also a tolerant man, forgiving of everybody, and this perhaps limits his impact. With his love letters and paeans to pure intentions, Bolaño seems to shrug off the moral and political consequences of some of the ideas and emotions that he depicts. This makes his writing occasionally weightless, all its aspirations to gravity notwithstanding.

Bolaño is not an easy writer, and I wonder if he will find many American readers, who still crave water for chocolate. His flavor is distinctly different: sometimes serious, sometime playful, and not always clear about which is which. This mild promiscuity of manner was reflected in the last interview he gave before his death (published in the Mexican edition of Playboy), in which he was asked what he thought of critics who pegged him as the Latin American writer with the greatest future. He responded that it must be a joke. Perhaps humility, or his sense of his own mortality, prompted him to remark: "I am the Latin American writer with the least future." When he was asked for his idea of paradise in the same interview, he answered slyly that it would be like Venice, "a place you enjoy and you know is not going to last." The best things, according to Bolaño, never last. As one of his characters says, "Dust and literature have always gone hand in hand."

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