Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

In his review at on Roberto Bolaño’s huge new novel 2666, Adam Kirsch begins with a quote from Proust: one way we know we are reading a major new writer is that his writing immediately strikes us as ugly. Only minor writers write beautifully, for there are merely imitating their betters. This gave me enormous insight through which to examine Bolaño’s most popular work here in America, the acclaimed The Savage Detectives.

Criticism of this novel seems to be that it moves very slowly. That is somewhat true, and I expres
sed as much at the beginning of the month by saying that I alternate between thinking it is a masterpiece and being completely bored out of my mind. But as Bolaño taught me how to read the book, I became more and more caught up in the brilliance.

The novel tells the story of two figures, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, young poets who arrive in Mexico City in the mid 60s and begin to influence others with their bohemian lifestyle and new poetry group dubbed the Visceral Realists. The narrative follows them through their
lives in interesting ways. And as Kirsch said in his review, it is a shame for a reader to not be able to experience this work as freshly as possible, so if you haven’t read the novel and are planning to, you may want to stop reading now.

The first 150 pages of the book consist of a diary kept by Juan Garcia Madero, a young poet who is beginning college in Mexico City and manages to join the Visceral Realists in a minor way. Throughout his contacts with the group, he begins to awaken both poetically and spirituality. But of course nothing can last, and at the end of the first section, Garcia Madero, Belano, Lima, and a girl all must flee the city and set out on a search for Cesarea Tinajero, a surrealist poet form the 20s that laid the groundwork for Visceral Realism. Few poems of hers exist, and her whereabouts are completely unknown.

Then four hundred pages are given over to a sort of oral biography of Ulises Lima and Belano. It’s as if the author went around with a tape recorder to everyone he could find that had some sort of contact with Visceral Realism or Belano and Lima and interviewed them. So what we get are dozens and dozens of first person accounts of times in their lives given by just about everybody but them. Though they continue to love and value literature and poetry above all else, they seem never able to fulfill the early promises of the Visceral Realist movement. This section takes the reader from shortly after the hasty escape from Mexico City at the end of the first section through the mid 1990s, when Bolaño published the book in Spanish.

The third section is a return to the diary of Garcia Madero, picking up where his diary left off in the first section. After only one mention of him throughout the large second section, I was glad to see him back: he is my favorite character.

Much has been made about how much a work of autobiography this is, with Arturo Belano standing in for Bolaño himself. I’m sure there is a lot to that, but the style of this book is what really blew me away. I also appreciated the way the civilization in these countries was depicted. People were often poor, but their citizens were smart and engaged. Here in America, we tend to think of entire countries as homogenous, usually to our detriment. Without overtly saying anything about the subject, Bolaño is able to dispel this myth by depicting a cross section of people from poets and scholars to mechanics.

I can read a menu in Spanish, but not literature, and therefore my exposure to Latin American literature has been somewhat limited. Sure, I’ve read Borges and Tomas Rivera and Garcia Marquez, but that’s nothing compared to the sort of literature that is out there for me. When studying Lorca’s plays earlier this year, I noticed how two separate plays translated by different people were so different in style: one so melodious and rich, the other walking a line between tragedy and farce that I thought might be more due to the translation than to Lorca’s play.

Natasha Wimmer seems to have been able to successfully translate The Savage Detectives into English without losing the feelings of the rich, lyrical Spanish prose that is so beloved and essential, many argue, for complete understanding. And seeing that this can be done, I may seek out an alternate translation of Borges and compare the two.

And apparently, Lima and Belano appear again in another Bolaño work, while the end of this novel saw a hint dropped for a storyline in 2666. This was a fantastic book and well worth your time.

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