Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Savage Bolaño

And one day the Work dies, as all things must die and come to an end: the Sun and the Earth and the Solar System and the Galaxy and the farthest reaches of man's memory. Everything that begins as comedy ends as tragedy.

I have fallen in love Roberto Bolaño and he is dead. *weeps*

The Savage Detectives is my second Bolaño novel, following my participation in the 2666 read-along. It is a semi-autobiographical work, disguised as fiction, concerning the exploits of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, a wandering pair of ragamuffins who may be the last true poets on Earth. The sprawling narrative is book-ended by the adventures of a naive 17-year-old hanger-on in Mexico City in 1976; in between are hundreds of oral testimonies recalling the speakers' encounters with either Belano or Lima or both in Mexico, Spain, France, Austria, Israel, Morocco, and Liberia from 1976 to 1996. Beyond that, it a truly awesome story of literature, idealism, and life on the edge.

The Savage Detectives is regarded as one of the seminal works of contemporary Latin American literature. By the time of its publication in 1998, Latin American authors were divided between those indebted to the Boom generation of the 1960s - which produced an explosion of talent such as Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa - and those who rejected its influence. Bolaño fell in the latter camp. Many of the Boom writers depicted a region where the mythic past overlapped with the modern, oppressive present. Bolaño and his group, however, felt that García Márquez, et al were simply churning out exotic stereotypes - i.e. dictators, whores, magic - for foreign consumption. Furthermore, Latin America had changed. Democracy had taken root, along with globalization and the drug trade.

I find myself thinking of Isabel Allende, whose writing Bolaño described as "anemic" and compared to a person on their deathbed. It's been awhile since I've read her, but much as I've enjoyed her stuff, I can nevertheless see Bolaño's perspective. The House of the Spirits, written in the early '80s, comes across almost as a litany of Latin American tropes: the magic realism, the domineering patrón, the haciendas, the revolutionaries, the dictatorship. Same deal with the Eva Luna books. (Daughter of Fortune, meanwhile, was one of my examples of the "anachronistic feminism" found in many historical fiction novels.) After awhile Allende's novels all seem like variations of the same story. I'm not sure how representative she is of contemporary Latin American literature but I can discern a definite chasm between Allende, on the one hand, and Bolaño and Jorge Volpi, as post-Boom authors, on the other. Though much of Allende's fiction is concerned with politics and society, there is also that sense of whimsy that comes with magic realism - the quirky incorporation of paranormal tidbits into everyday life and the overall sense of detachment from reality.

(A question too big for me to answer: what role, if any, could gender play in this? Bolaño disparaged both Allende and Ángeles Mastretta, both of them famous for their strong female characters. Is it possible some of Bolaño's criticism of Allende comes from the more feminine themes of her works?)

Though Bolaño certainly can be said to take a "speculative" view of reality, his sense of the preternatural takes the form of conspiracy, of dark forces at work behind the scenes. 2666, says one review, "is another iteration of Bolaño’s increasingly baroque, cryptic, and mystical personal vision of the world, revealed obliquely by his recurrent symbols, images, and tropes. There is something secret, horrible, and cosmic afoot, centered around Santa Teresa (and possibly culminating in the mystical year of the book’s title, a date that is referred to in passing in The Savage Detectives as well)." Something I got from both Bolaño and Volpi's Season of Ash was a sense of humanity and our contradictory drives to both transcend and destroy. Whereas Volpi took a hardline realistic approach to his characters and their moment in twentieth-century history, Bolaño seems to suggest something intrinsic to society that eats it from within. 2666 is a big, black brick of a book. The Savage Detectives, though unmistakably Bolaño, is also something else.

Both The Savage Detectives and 2666 exhibit that undeniable element of the uncanny, although it's not so much "magical" or supernatural as it is atmospheric. "In it," says translator Natasha Wimmer of 2666, "the dread that flickers in Bolaño's earler fiction is concentrated, the essence made visible. If The Savage Detectives is a journey outward, then 2666 collapses in on itself." As Bolaño had been diagnosed with a fatal liver condition in 1992, both novels were written in the shadow of death. I don't know how he planned his works, but I saw 2666 as The Savage Detective's sequel. Lima and Belano's search for Cesárea Tinajero, a lost poet from the 1920s, and one of the few threads binding the overall work together, echoes the critics' search for the lost novelist Archimboldi. Lima and Belano even travel to Bolaño's fictional Santa Theresa (based on the real-life Ciudad Juarez) seeking her. A former acquaintance of Tinajero recalls her as a woman slowly going mad - not unlike Amalfitano - who offered a mysterious prophecy of "times to come" and the year 2600. Her cryptic drawings are even reminiscent of Amalfitano's weird little diagrams. And both works are international in scope, perhaps mimicking the recent forces of globalization whose seedy underside is explored in 2666.

At the same time, however, The Savage Detectives exhibits an exuberance and idealism utterly absent from 2666. Although, in typical Bolaño fashion, darkness and menace are very present, the work is also a celebration - of youth, freedom, creativity, nonconformity, of the bonds between strangers, and the passion for the written word. 2666 was like a punch in the face. The Savage Detectives, by contrast, feels like liberation, and an embrace of life in all its highs and lows. Comparing it to 2666, you wonder how much Bolaño's impending death clouded his viewpoint. "A vast pain is communicated, a blank-minded recognition of death, but nothing else," says one critical review of 2666. " . . . There is no doubt that in writing 2666 Bolaño was struggling mightily and bravely with that which is most terrifying. But his struggle was intensely personal - it was not artistic. The bleakness of Bolaño's vision radiates out, but so little understanding comes with it." I don't want to say 2666 is the more mature of the two books - in fact, its relentless focus on death, madness, and violence feels very one-sided when set against motley canvas of The Savage Detectives. But both novels do represent a development, of Bolaño as a writer and Bolaño as a human passing from health and independence to illness and its accompanying restrictions, and finally to death itself.

Being more familiar with Boom and Boom-style works - i.e. Allende, Vargas Llosa, Like Water for Chocolate - Bolaño, as well as Volpi, is definitely a departure from earlier literary styles. As evidenced by Allende, being stuck in one mode of representation really doesn't do the artist any good. It's been said before but I think it's worth repeating: the end of a life isn't always entirely tragic. Did Bolaño's health crisis ultimately lead him to a different perspective, albeit a darker one, as evidenced by 2666? What would Bolaño have written if he had lived?

I would've loved to know the answer to that. But, alas.

Click here for tuulehaiven's review.


mel u said...

great post-Both 2666 and Savage Detectives are wonderful studies of the reading life-they are worth reading just for that-your comparison of the two works was very insightful-

Have you read Nazi Literature in the Americas yet?

E. L. Fay said...


I haven't read Nazi Literature but I'd love to. It's on my Amazon Wish List so hopefully I'll get it for Christmas!

claire said...

E.L., fantastic review! My copy is awaiting its time, I'll get to it very soon. To hear you say that this "feels like a liberation and an embrace of life in all its highs and lows," sounds like perfection to me. Having the same literary style as 2666 but without the impending doom is something I'm really looking forward to.

Interesting bits on boom and post-boom authors. I guess I'm a fan of both, as I love both Bolaño and Garcia Marquez equally. I also admit to really liking The House of the Spirits, although Daughter of Fortune I didn't much care for (so I didn't attempt to continue on with Portrait in Sepia, nor her other works.. should i?).

mel u said...

Nazi Literature in the Americas is just a wonderful work-hilarious and brillianr-I hope you get it to read it soon.

Anonymous said...

I've been looking forward to your review of this book, and you didn't disapoint! Since I haven't read 2666, a lot of what you brought up was very intriguing but of course not something I picked up on. This was the perfect book for me to read this year as a lot of my reading has been from the Boom period of Latin American writing - thanks for your interesting insights into Bolano's take.

E. L. Fay said...

Claire: I recommend the two Eva Luna books. Even though I criticized them in this post, I did actually enjoy them.

Mel U: I hope I do too!

Tuulenhaiven: I think I do need to read more Boom and post-Boom writers. I felt like I was just writing out of the air with this post because I'm not familiar with Latin American literature enough to really make an in-depth analysis of this subject.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I'm only on page 75 of 2666 - it's very dense, slow going! - but I can see Bolano is very "different" !!! I'm going to go back and read everyone's readalong posts!

Emily said...

Fascinating review! I'm MUCH more eager to dive into The Savage Detectives having read your thoughts, especially the comparisons between the philosophic stances in 2666 versus this book. Thanks for linking me to that On the Road review as well; sometimes it's so satisfying to read scathing reviews one can really get behind. :-)

Anonymous said...

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E. L. Fay said...

Rhapsody: Yes, it is very dense and very macabre, but also the single greatest book I've read all year.

Emily: The Savage Detectives also has some similarities to Henry Miller's The Tropic of Cancer, which I loathed. Luckily, Bolaño is MUCH kinder to women!

Joseph said...

Thanks for your thoughts, I enjoyed reading that. I read 2666 at the beginning of last year and I finished Savage Detectives just before Christmas. I actually loved 2666 more. It's a less focused novel, but it has such moments of overwhelming power. The fifth part just killed me. I wonder if that was the intended ending. Isn't there apparently more to it from his notes?

Not to say Savage Detectives doesn't have such moments. In wake of the end of the book I would argue that Savage Detectives is pretty bleak too. Arturo Belano's adventures strikes me as sadder even than Belano's own fate (although I wonder what he would have thought about all the literary regard).

I love how complete a reading experience Bolano offers. You'll be perplexed, intrigued, bored, inspired, deflated, moved... it really is watching a maestro at play.

I think Bolano had sort of an adolescent view of other writers that is very much reflected in Savage Detectives (and undermined by the sequence where Ulises Lima encounters Octavio Paz). He's free to dismiss the boom writers, but the rest of us are free to enjoy Garcia Marquez to our heart's content, I hope!

They're good for different reasons... they're different writers. Besides, who can turn a surprising phrase like Garcia Marquez, or twist the detail just enough to surprise?

Well, Bolano can, in a different sort of way...

Ironic his feelings about Latin American writers pimping out stereotypes to foreign audiences when his own career has such mystique around it that is also being marketed, in a way.

parrish lantern said...

This book was my key into Bolano's world, I loved it & every book of his that I've read since, I have loved to one degree or another. I agree with joseph that savage can be bleak but the darkness in 2666 is of a depth that's almost impenetrable

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