Every so often, one feels the great gears of canonization creaking into motion. A long critical essay in The New Republic or the New York Review will direct our attention to an overlooked contemporary poet, or beg our reconsideration of a novelist too long out-of-print. A month later, another such essay will appear in another venue, along with a note announcing the imminent appearance of so-and-so’s collected verse, or the retranslation of the magnum opus of such-and-such. An excerpt follows in The New Yorker. The blogs are abuzz. And then, on the front page of the Sunday Book Review, the Times finally catches on.
Okay, this feels a little unfair, a little dyspeptic…and a little too specific to the media centers of the East and West Coasts. Since my college years in the Midwest, I’ve admired the efforts undertaken by presses like Dalkey, New Directions, New York Review Books, and Archipelago on behalf of world literature. And without the coordinated advocacy of critics (Susan Sontag was a marvel in this respect, as in so many others) I might not have copped to Leonid Tspykin, Witold Gombrowicz, Leonard Michaels… The list goes on and on.
But at a certain point, the law of diminishing returns sets in. If I made time for every overlooked author recommended in the back pages of Harper’s – lately a veritable house organ for the redoubtable FSG – I’d read little else. Among other things, literary greatness requires, as William H. Gass has argued, passing tests of time. I may have to wait a few more decades to see if posterity accords Orhan Pamuk’s work, for example, the high regard in which present critics hold it. Of if my misgivings about Snow hold water.
All of which is to say that when I finished Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives this summer and walked out of my apartment onto the blazing street, humming as though zapped by business end of a live-wire, wanting to climb to the top of the nearest bridge and shout to passersby that they must stop everything and read this book, I felt, despite the relative frequency with which we (myself included) throw around terms like “genius” and “masterpiece,” that I had just been in the presence of the real thing. And that that was a rare and precious gift.
In Bolaño’s work, emotions tango – terror and fascination go cheek by jowl, laughter rubs elbows with pathos – but an undercurrent of exuberance remains constant, a stylistic signature. Which is remarkable, given the sinister plots that entangle his characters. The Savage Detectives begins (and ends) as the diary of one Juan Garcia Madero, a seventeen-year-old aspiring poet living in Mexico City. Two slightly older poets maudits, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano adopt him as a kind of mascot for their literary circle, the “visceral realists.” Madero’s first diary entry reads, in its entirety: “I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.”
No initiation ceremony? Two months and 150 pages later, Madero will find himself in the backseat of a Chevy Impala with a prostitute named Lupe, fleeing a murderous pimp. Up front, Ulises and Arturo set a course for the Sonora desert, where they seek a vanished poet of the 1930s, one Cesarea Tinajero. This is madness! Yet we feel, in the surging rhythms of the prose (translated by Natasha Wimmer), young Madero’s eager acceptance of his fate.
“I saw that Lupe was looking at me from inside the car and that she was opening the door. I realized that I’d always wanted to leave. I got in and before I could close the door Ulises stepped on the gas. I heard a shot or something that sounded like a shot. They’re shooting at us, the bastards, said Lupe. I turned around and through the back window I saw a shadow in the middle of the street. All the sadness of the world was concentrated in that shadow, framed by the strict rectangle of the Impala’s window. It’s firecrackers, I heard Belano say as our car leaped forward and left behind the Fonts’ house, the thugs’ Camaro, Calle Colima, and in less than two seconds we were on Avenida Oaxaca, heading north out of the city.”
In the space of a few sentences, Juan Garcia Madero has earned his wings. He has learned to see the sadness of the whoremonger, to find the gunfire in the fireworks and vice versa. He has become, in the fullest sense of the word, a poet.
Bolaño’s preoccupation with poetry may strike the Norteamericano reader, circa 2007, as odd. Who even reads that stuff anymore? We are far more accustomed to authors who hang their narratives on nuclear war, crime syndicates, cattle drives… But the long middle section of The Savage Detectives, wherein 52 narrators track Arturo and Ulises through the 20 years that follow their fateful journey north, exposes academic definitions of poetry as far too narrow. For Bolaño, as for the Beats, the poem is a way of finding beauty even (or especially) in insalubrious circumstances. Poetry is a synonym for youth, for vitality, for faith in one’s own ability to change the world. Poetry is innocence hungering for experience, and vice versa. It is a way of being in the world.
That is to say, poetry signifies as much to Bolaño as the whiteness of the whale did to Melville. It functions in The Savage Detectives as Moby-Dick did in the book that bore his name. In his aesthetic innovations – narrative fragmentation, riffs on real historical figures, enjambment of high and low culture – Bolaño resembles a number of other forward-looking novelists. But I can think of no other contemporary writer for whom symbolic preoccupations burn so brightly. Scenes, objects, and characters scintillate with political, ethical, and aesthetic significance. Poetic significance. It is the lunatic density of Bolaño’s symbolism that marks him as truly avant-garde… and also as a vital addition to the mainstream.
For some time now, I’ve pictured the American avant-garde as a painter stuck in a corner, surrounded by its own slow-drying handiwork. When an artist strikes out in search of the new, she dreams of the rioting audience of Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, of customs agents confiscating pallets of books deemed obscene. And yet, in a culture where dissonance and obscenity are the norm, how is the artist to provoke any reaction at all?
The situation is seen most clearly in the world of visual art, where, with the regularity of changing hemlines, proclamations of the Rebirth of Painting alternate with controversies about religious icons rendered in various forms of bodily excretion. One can, Alex P. Keaton-like, react against the excesses of the father by turning toward the conservative. Or one can push farther, ever farther, celebrating the celebrity, marketing the market, outgrossing the gross-out. The most important work being done, at least theoretically, involves a compromise: some genetic splicing of Old Mastery with the shallow holography of mass culture. Think Jeff Wall. Think John Currin and Cindy Sherman.
At least these folks are still considered leaders in their field. In American literature, experimentalism is kept like a domesticated animal. For twenty-two hours a day, it sleeps under the kitchen table. Occasionally, when we get bored, we trot it out and put it through its tricks to remind ourselves that, hey, we’re as hip as the next guy. But an avant-garde novel is never going to change the way we see the world.
Well, The Savage Detectives blew my pessimism all to hell. Aiming to usurp the throne of literature from Octavio Paz (and, later, Gabriel Garcia Marquez), Roberto Bolaño produced something unselfconsciously yet distinctly his own.
Nothing more or less than the sum of the stories told about them, Bolaño’s visceral realists come alive in a new way. Not only do we see Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano from every possible angle; we see them from impossible angles as well. Among the novel’s 52 + 1 voices, conflicting accounts proliferate: The visceral realists are geniuses. They are hacks. They are liars. They are saints. The author refuses to render a verdict. And yet his narrators aren’t wholly unreliable: in each version of Ulises and Arturo, we recognize something ineffable and unchanging. However plastic or fantastic, they are always somehow themselves. As we are always somehow ourselves. Among other things, then, The Savage Detectives is a treatise on human nature.
To borrow from Sir Mix-A-Lot: I like big books, and I cannot lie. Bolaño’s shorter novel, Amulet revisits one of The Savage Detectives’ narrators, a poor Uruguayan named Auxilio Lacoutre. When, in the riotous year of 1968, the Mexican army invades the sovereign campus of the national university, Auxilio refuses to be evacuated. For twelve days, she hides in a women’s bathroom, subsisting on tapwater and scribbling poems on sheets of toilet-paper. In her disorientation, she drifts into the past… And, bizarrely, into the future, where her resistance – like Ulises and Arturo’s exploits – will become the stuff of legend. As a character sketch, Amulet is vivid and hallucinatory, but I found the proliferation of subplots and hazy chronology hard to track. I much preferred the version of Auxilio’s rebellion that appears in The Savage Detectives. Like the tales told by that novel’s other 52 voices, Auxilio’s gains meaning and urgency through its connection to a larger narrative arc.
Of course, much of Bolaño’s fiction is part of a single galaxy, like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Several short stories, for example, are narrated by a figure who shares biographical circumstances with Arturo Belano (which is to say, with Bolano himself). And Caesarea Tinajero, at the end The Savage Detectives, hints darkly at events that will unfold in 2666.
Still, for the novitiate looking for a quick introduction to Bolano’s world, the best place to start may be Last Evenings on Earth, a collection of stories rendered into English, like Amulet, by Chris Andrews. It’s all here in miniature: the romantic fatalism, the rich irony, the soupcon of the supernatural, the political depredations, the enigmatic yet incredibly real characters. A story like “Gomez Palacio,” in which, simultaneously, nothing much happens and everything does, presents a vision as idiosyncratic, and as existentially important, as Kafka’s. Each writer seems to have sprung fully formed from the void.
Which makes Bolaño’s own story seem all the more implausible. Broke, addicted, and unknown as of the late ’80s, the former poet kicked heroin and took up fiction writing to support his growing family – a quixotic pursuit if ever there was one. Bolaño would enter his short stories in Spain’s many regional writing contests, often winning multiple prizes with the same piece (camouflaged under a variety of titles). By 1999, the massive Savage Detectives had won the Romulo Gallegos prize – Spanish-language literature’s most prestigious award. Upon learning that his liver was failing, Bolaño raced to finish the even-more-massive manuscript for 2666, his literary legacy to the world, and his financial legacy to his wife and children. Whether 2666 can equal or surpass The Savage Detectives remains to be seen (among English-speaking audiences, at least; Wimmer’s translation will be released next year). It seems certain, however, that Bolaño’s place among the dozen or so great novelists of the last quarter-century is secure… Or anyway, that’s how it looks to this correspondent.