Rating: 4 stars
Read for The Reader’s Room Winter Challenge
I did some reading up on The Savage Detectives. It’s partly a fictionalised account of Roberto Bolaño’s return to Mexico in 1974 and his attempt to set up, with a friend and fellow poet Mario Santiago, a group of renegade poets-cum-practical jokers whose purpose in life is to disrupt the cultural status quo through heckling at poetry readings and to bring about political revolution with poetry as the great liberator.
It’s also partly a quest, a road trip in search of a mysterious disappeared poet. Throughout the book, the savage detectives of the title are neither fully present nor fully absent. They are present in conversations, and present in people hoping for their return, and are absent even when they make a physical appearance. We never hear directly from them. We only hear other people’s impressions of them.
The book begins in November 1975, when law student and aspiring poet Juan García Madero joins the visceral realists without knowing what visceral realism is. Wanting to study literature but forced into law by his uncle, García Madero performs a tiny rebellion by joining a poetry workshop in the literature department. The group is led by a tutor, Julio César Álamo, who likes to critique other people’s poetry until he grows bored, then gets the students to do the critiquing. Sounds like fun.
It was the ideal method for ensuring that no one was friends with anyone, or else that our friendships were unhealthy and based on resentment.
I’ve worked in places like that. But anyway, García Madero manages to annoy Professor Álamo by knowing too much about poetry. This sets the two against each other and García Madero against the other students who enjoy an abusive relationship with Álamo in response to his severe criticism of their work.
When two poets calling themselves visceral realists join the workshop they attack Álamo as a fraud and open up new space for García Madero to criticise his tutor further. These poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, are thinly disguised representations of Bolaño and Santiago. One of them reads a poem and the other invites submissions to a magazine their group is putting out. And so Madero’s fate is sealed. He joins their group.
What follows is García Madero’s awakening, sexually, intellectually, emotionally. As with most Latin American literature, the plot is dreamlike at times. It takes the form of García Madero’s diary where he records his interaction with this group of communist artists and writers. They made me think of the Beats, but less studied. They are effortlessly young and inquisitive, taking life as it happens to them. As with Bolaño’s real group, the fictional group is reacting against the existing cultural norm. Their rejection of it is almost casual. It has no relevance to their lives, and so they simply form their own way of being, inspired by people like Leonora Carrington and Raymond Queneau. They drift from moment to moment, getting stoned on marijuana, sleeping with whoever is available, talking endlessly about poetry. Being young.
The poets they discuss are a mixture of the real and the imagined. Some names, Gilberto Owen, Octavio Paz, were familiar to me from reading Faces In The Crowd earlier this year. Others like Pablo Neruda were familiar because I already knew their works. The imagined poets, and one imagined poet in particular, were key to the dreamlike quality of the book.
I love literary mysteries like this one. A S Byatt’s Possession is one of my most read books. I also enjoy Borges’ construction of labyrinths of real and imagined literature kept in endless libraries. I was quickly pulled into Bolaño’s world.
The second part covers a twenty year period and has multiple narrators, a mix of people met by Belano and Lima in their search for Cesárea Tinajero, the mysterious disappeared poet, and people who have known the pair prior to their quest. It is Borgesian in its rambling and loosely interconnected series of stories.
This part of the book also has the feel of a spoof documentary. Belano in particular takes on the aura of cult hero, man of mystery and attraction, who disappears behind Lima and yet is the half of the pair that most people want to talk about. More people seem to like Lima. Belano comes across as remote, inconsiderate of others, immature. An ex-girlfriend pegs the whole visceral realism thing as a sham, nothing more than an attempt by Belano to keep her interested.
Haven’t you ever seen those ridiculous birds that practically dance themselves to death to woo the female?
That’s what Arturo Belano was like, a stupid, conceited peacock. And visceral realism was his exhausting dance of love for me. The thing was, I didn’t love him anymore. You can woo a girl with a poem, but you can’t hold onto her with a poem. Not even with a poetry movement.
She also picks up on the immaturity of the group.
Let me put it as concisely as I can: the real problem was that they were all almost at least twenty and they acted like they were barely fifteen.
Another man, the father of two sisters in the group, also comments on this aspect of immaturity, discussing how Lima and Belano wanted to write books of desperation, and what kind of person chooses to read books like that.
Now let’s take the desperate reader, who is presumably the audience for the literature of desperation. What do we see? First: the reader is an adolescent or an immature adult, insecure, all nerves. He’s the kind of fucking idiot (pardon my language) who committed suicide after reading Werther. Second: he’s a limited reader. Why limited? That’s easy: because he can only read the literature of desperation, or books for the desperate …
I found this analysis interesting. First, because the book is Bolaño’s attempt to write about his own youth in abstract, and he’s really laying into his younger self. There is a lot of scorn for the self-appointed leader of the visceral realists. Far from being a charismatic, elusive personality, he’s shown to be insecure, subject to fits of pique, and a big baby.
Second, I found it interesting because in today’s culture, it’s more normalised for people in their late teens and early twenties to behave like teenagers. I work with people in their late twenties who still behave and speak as though they’re adolescents. Nobody bats an eyelid. I’m in my mid-forties and don’t have anywhere near the same maturity that my parents were expected to show when they were my age. I don’t really have any responsibilities, not in the same league as theirs, anyway. I look at people my age who have children, and they don’t behave like my parents did, either. My parents weren’t my mates. There were boundaries, limits to what I knew I could get away with. I know every generation thinks the same, my sister’s eleven years older than me and claims I got away with more than she did, but I think the boundaries that parents set their kids today are softer. Perhaps because we like being kids, too, and don’t want to acknowledge that we’re supposed to be the adults.
The book is set in the early 1970s, and it’s interesting to be reminded of how different life was in terms of when you were expected to transition to adulthood. Even the very fact of there being a transition at all.
Third, this immaturity seems to be a requirement, or a trigger, or a by product of creativity. My colleagues and I, and most, if not all, of my friends, work in some form of creative industry, where child-like playfulness is expected and not rejected. I found the lifestyles of the members of Belano and Lima’s group attractive. I would love to have that freedom, to reject the stability and consequent anxiety that I’ve built into my life for the sake of a steady income and permanent roof over my head, and follow a life of sleeping in late, having romantic adventures, drinking in bars all afternoon and night, writing, not having to follow a set régime. Or I think I would, because it all seems like fun when it’s written into novels, or portrayed on screen, or you observe it in the life of a writer or musician or artist or actor.
The dancing bird analogy also interested me. I’ve always been attracted to the poetic or musical in nature, to the wanderers through life who dance a good dance, woo you with their wit and drama but, when it comes to maintaining a relationship, don’t have the skills. That’s an immature thing, too, on both sides. Me with my love of the first flush of romance, them with their belief that being poetic and a bit of an unreliable bastard isn’t going to get boring. Maturity says you work at something and adapt to it, you don’t rely on the same old tricks that got the spark ignited, expecting them to keep the flame going.
One of the most pleasurable things about this section was how Latin American it is in the flow of the words. There is a rhythm and a poetry to Latin American prose that is unlike any other writing. The words paint vivid pictures, the flow transports you as though in a dream, or being read to while half dozing, so that the story almost becomes part of you. It feels effortless and unstudied, as natural as breathing.
There is a story within this broader narrative that I particularly liked for its very Latin American nature, about a general who was going to help the original group of visceral realists, who also called themselves the stridentists, set up a commune, a city founded on their beliefs. This was a different time, a different way of living, in the aftermath of revolution. Of course the general is assassinated in a brothel before any of this can come to pass.
According to List, who was personally familiar with the brothel, mi general liked to screw in the most out-of-the-way room, which wasn’t very big but had the advantage of being at the back of the house, far from the noise, near this courtyard where there was a fountain. And after screwing, mi general liked to go out into the courtyard to smoke a cigarette and think about post-coital sadness, that vexing sadness of the flesh, and about all the books he hadn’t read.
The person who relates this tale is my favourite of the narrators in this section, Amadeo Salvatierra, former poet and mezcal addict. His interviews are a fixed point, in January 1976. The others who are interviewed focus on Belano and Lima and move through time. Salvatierra is the fulcrum of the novel. I like him best because he lacks bitterness. He is delighted to have the company of the two young men, to have someone to talk to about his own youth. He has something of Alan Bennett about him, a geniality mixed with anonymity. He also provides insight into the existence of Cesárea Tinajero, the mysterious disappeared poet that Belano and Lima are seeking. He’s the only one who can do so.
Another interesting narrator is Xóchitl Garcia, girlfriend of one of the visceral realist poets who becomes a poet and writer herself. She raises her child on her own and builds a new life for herself, changing from being someone in the background to someone in control of her own destiny. As someone in the background, she has a different perspective on Belano and Lima and their influence over the other poets in the group. As a person in charge of her own destiny, she is stronger than the lot of them. Bolaño writes her well, giving her a clear head and a clear voice.
The encounter that Xosé Lendoiro, a Spanish lawyer and owner of a literary magazine, has with Arturo Belano reads like a Henry James horror tale, so Gothic is it in its supernatural terror. It also made me think of Thinner, by Stephen King’s alter-ego Richard Bachman, in the way Lendoiro seems almost possessed by his obsession with Belano.
Towards the end of Part II, there is an encounter between real life poet Octavio Paz and one of the visceral realists in a park (I won’t say who, it would spoil the air of mystery) that made me think of Haruki Murakami’s writing. The way the everyday routine of a very regular man is interrupted by a specific whim that lasts a couple of days and then ends without explanation.
The final section of the book returns us to García Madero’s diary, to January 1976 and the flight of the visceral realists from Mexico City to Sonora, last known location of Cesárea Tinajero. They enter into a crazy road trip to track Tinajero down. As García Madero himself says,
I had the feeling that not only had I already been over every inch of this fucking land, but that I’d been born here.
There’s a satisfyingly opaque ending to the book, as well. I’m not going into this section in too much detail because you need to read it.
There’s an afterword that sets Bolaño in the context of his perhaps more popularly famous Latin American predecessors, but I didn’t want to spoil the feel of the novel, so I haven’t read it yet.