The Savage Detectives
I just finished Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. It’s a wonderful book, truly. I got wrapped up in those 577 dense pages on a personal level. Bolaño recording of all those voices was like he was talking about friends of mine, or would have been friends of mine if I had been wandering around the Mexico City poetry scene in the around 1975-1976. An experience somehow akin to the emotions I felt reading On the Road in 1959(Note 1). This experience, however, was a revisiting (like Bolaño was doing in the heavily autobiographical telling) the turmoil of my growing up into poetry. In years to come I suppose critics will hail it a masterpiece of Latin American literature (Bolaño was born in Chile but his family moved to DF when he was 15). I don’t call books masterpieces. I enjoy thinking of writers as friends if I especially feel an empathy for their work, and if I’m a friend, I won’t call a friend’s work “a masterpiece.” It’s like a kiss of death. Of course, Bolaño is dead already so he doesn’t care who kisses him. 2003. He slid off the planet at the age of 50. Poor guy. His liver went south. I wish I had known him. But that’s okay. He seems alive to me. Like he’s a friend wandering around in that large book.
Savage Detectives is an odyssey with a peculiar sandwich-like structure. Part 1 (November 2 to New Year’s Eve, 1975) and Part 3 (January 1, 1976 to February 13th) are diary entries by 17-year-old Juan García Madero, a wannabe poet in his first year of university who falls (luckily/unluckily) into the circle of “visceral realist” poets whose leaders are Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima (2). These two poets/intellectuals are indeed “the savage detectives.” The meat of the novel, between these two slices of diary, is a confusing cornucopia of interviews of people who knew Belano and Lima as they wandered around Mexico, Israel, Africa, Spain and France. The irony: neither Belano or Lima is ever interviewed. The reader only learns about them second hand and third hand through the myriad of interviews that stretch between 1976 to 1996—poets, dilettantes, admirers, lovers, enemies, fathers of friends. For example, the wonderfully obsessed Joaquin “Quim” Font(3)--the half-mad, half-wise architect father of two visceral realist poets, Maria and Angélica(4), who spend much of their time in bed with fellow visceral realist poets .
But really, the 403 pages of Part 2 are a complex reflection, like looking into a crystal, of Belano and Lima and therefore what possessed them and how they changed in those four months (11/75 to 2/76) recorded in García Madero’s diary. The first part of the diary records his initiation into the bizarre sexually and intellectually charged scene surrounding Belano and Lima and centered at the house of Quim and his daughters. In the second part García Madero, along with Belano, Lima and the prostitute Lupe flee Mexico City in Quim’s Impala. Lupe’s pimp Alberto--famed for measuring his schlong with the massive blade of his dagger--and a policeman, both armed and dangerous, are chasing them. The three poets and prostitute are fleeing harm but they are also going north to Sonora and the border, chasing the ghost of Cesárea Tinajero, a poet from the 1920s who was considered the Mother of Visceral Realism. It’s a wonderful story. I wonder if Bolaño wrote the complete diary first, then went back and inserted the commentary of all the voices who came across the Savage Detectives between 1976 and 1996. A fan of both Borges and Cortazar, it’s like he realized somewhere in the process, “All must be remembered. How else will I know who I was?” All the while realizing that Arturo Belano is not and will never be Arturo Bolaño. A mysterious book, indeed.
Last week in the midst of reading the book, I wrote a Mexican friend, a poet who is a little bit younger than me. I told him that I’ve been reading Los detectives salvajes, and I think that’s where I must have met him--a meeting in the ether--wandering around inside that book somewhere. I was too old to be a Visceral Realist, but my friend must have been tempted by the shadowy ideology of visceral realism, whatever it was. 1970-something, Mexico City—and this goofy guy Ulises Lima invited me to a party in la Zona Rosa. Or was it Coyoacán? Yes, it was Coyoacán. I had walked by Trotsky’s house. I was thinking about ice picks in the skull. Lima had his friend with him, Arturo Belano who had a blank stare. They mostly ignored me. They kept talking about “visceral realism.” They were visceral realists. “What is visceral realism?” I wanted to know. “Well, it’s not Paz,” Belano blurted out before he reoccupied the space of his blank stare. That was okay. The women at the party were beautiful. My friend, who I would meet in Guadalajara around 2002, was there smoking cigarettes and being the life of the party. He was witty. Poets were crowded around him laughing. Except for Belano and Lima. They kept up their intense discussion in a corner. I was drinking tequila y Dos Equis Oscura and standing in another corner and smoking a Delicado. The smoke was clawing at my throat. That was okay. I was wishing I was a Mexican poet. Even an Argentine or Chilean poet. My Spanish is so lousy. I was a poet from Memphis, for God’s sake. “Can a poet from Memphis be a visceral realist too?” That’s what I wanted to ask but I was never had the courage.
Or as they say in Mexico: Ni modo.
For mainstream reviews of Savage Detectives, one lukewarm and the other very favorable, see two from the New York Times, one with Richard Eder holding his breath, and the other, James Wood’s long one praising the novel and giving an overview of the place of Bolaño in Latin American letters. Problem with both is that they sound like interviews out of the novel. A couple of professional academics grandly weighing in with the exegesis of New York intellectual media. Happily for them, neither Belano or Lima or their real-life counterparts will dirty their thresholds. Of course, the same could be said for me. Except I live in El Paso. I'm going to walk over to Juarez for dinner tonight. I hope the feds let me come back across.
Note 1. It’s so sweet to have an important novel concerned with the culture of poets and writers, especially what would be called back then the avant-garde. But, if you read the book, remember that poets are generally accorded more respect in Mexico than in the U.S. In 1992 I read in Mexico at the Casa de Poeta with John Simon Oliver and three television news teams and two reporters showed up to interview me. The house was packed. Nobody knew anything about my poetry. They just wanted to hear what the gringo had to say. My good friend poet Bernardo Ruiz translated my work and read with me. Everybody smoking and drinking. I wonder if any of the visceral realists were there. It was a glorious evening. Bernardo, where are you?
Note 2. Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima are, [according to wikipedia] thinly veiled standups for the author and likewise his buddy and fellow visceral realist poet is Bolaño’s friend Mario Santiago Papasquiaro. They had both been associated with the 1970s poetry movement infrarealismo.
Note 3. The translator, Natasha Wimmer, obviously understands the sexual innuendo of “quim.” By the way, Wimmer seems to have done a very fine job although she’s not the usual translator associated with Bolaño’s work. According to an interview on amazon.com, she was the 2nd choice after Chris Andrews who had done all the previous translations for New Directions. Andrews had a plate full when the job was available. She was at the right place at the right time.
Note 4. María and Angélica had belonged to a radical feminist movement called Mexican Women on the Warpath (p86).