At the cafe recently I saw a woman with a copy of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. I got so excited I almost dropped my latte. I wanted to rush over to talk about the book with her, to see if she loved it as much as I did--but as these impulses go, I checked myself. Maybe I had overestimated the novel. What’s to say she wasn’t so easily charmed?
Was it all that I recalled? I decided to go back and re-read The Savage Detectives. It is a bigger surprise the second time around. It will stand for me as an exemplary, nearly perfect novel. Much of it has to do with Bolaño’s ability to weave a compelling tale and just hook me in--the goal of any narrative, of course. Bolaño writes as if everything depends on his words. It’s a beautiful gift to have as a writer. The effect can come off as irreverent, even mildly shocking. You realize, as you read, that for the moment, everything does depend on his words.
I read the book vicariously, as Bolaño’s subject was easily my own fantasy for myself when I first started writing. When I was the age of the novel’s protagonist, the idealistic, seventeen year old Juan Garcia Madero, I imagined I was a poet. Except that, in my coming of age, I hadn’t been reading much poetry--beyond the eventual spark in an undergrad class in the Romantic poets, who inspired me to pen my feelings into verse -- I was primarily interested in writing it. I had no literary community to glom onto and was probably too timid to look for one. But I loved to attend academic poetry readings and once asked Robert Creeley (at an interview and reading with Charles Simic, probably in 1993 or so, well into my first attempts at writing fiction) what he thought the difference was between writing prose and poetry. All I recall of his response was my sudden discombobulation at the fact that he was taking the time to answer my question thoughtfully.
In The Savage Detectives, Garcia Madero (the name everyone calls the narrator) relates the early start of the Visceral Realists, a stand in for the actual group of Infrarealists that Bolaño was a founding member of (in the book, Bolano is Arturo Belano), along with one Ulises Lima. The subtext is in this diary, essentially the first half of the novel, a kind of pseudo documentary of this group that intends to overthrow the Mexican poetry tradition of Octavio Paz, whom Garcia Madera refers to as “our great enemy” in the first pages: “Our situation (as far as I could understand) is unsustainable, trapped as we are between the reign of Octavio Paz and the reign of Pablo Neruda. In other words, between a rock and a hard place.”
Garcia Madero, empowered by falling in with this group, is eager to alleviate himself of his virginity and achieve edification. He thus makes lists of his older companions' stolen books to eventually read, and details his lusts for the women around him in his frequently frank, sometimes illicit, diary entries.
Much of the narrative is focused around the Font house and the two alluring sisters, Angelica and Maria, and their father, the sporadically unstable Quim. The Fonts are the center of the tenuous initial get-togethers, casually social and political, that forms the fabric of their group. The intent of the Visceral Realists is to publish a journal that will exceed their founder’s previous effort, embodied in a magazine that exists almost as an innuendo, an eponym, entitled Lee Harvey Oswald, that takes its title from a misreading of a publisher’s name.
Poetic prose--something a reader might almost expect from a poet--does not really characterize Bolaño’s style. There are definite poetic moments, but this isn’t prose you so much as savor but devour, reading for the sheer joy of the voice, to take in the story. (Here’s a thought: might voice be style?) But neither is it merely “serviceable” prose. For example, when Garcia Madero first encounters the sisters, he compares them, noticing in Angelica that: “When I saw her, or rather when I saw that she was looking at me...I felt as if a hand, its fingers long and delicate but very strong, was squeezing my heart. I know Lima and Belano wouldn’t approve of that image, but it fits my feelings like a glove.”
In part II of the book, Bolaño employs dozens of first person narrators who are portrayed in interviews retelling the history of the movement covering a period of twenty years. (By part III, we are charmed again with Garcia Madero’s diary going into a new year.) Amusing the reader and occasionally giving a palatable dose of tedium. Yet all of the narrators, because they are so invested in their experiences--make their tale-tellings resound and magnify.
The effect reminded me of Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train, where characters seem to drift on their own self-interests, but somewhere along the line we are enlightened to discover they are inter-connected in unusual, unexpected ways. Against the clumsiness of a single narrator revealing to us what he chooses (the purview of the unreliable narrator), we have instead a series of wonderfully subjective interpretations: because no two people remember events exactly the same.
An example of this in The Savage Detectives involves a sword fight on the beach--and calls to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s duel in Tender is the Night. Where Fitzgerald, in my possibly faulty recollection, attempts to play the duel straight, and thus, self-consciously melodramatically, the absurd sequence is an opportunity for Bolaño to play for its variety. Bolaño is something of a melodramatist, too, albeit smiling through clenched teeth. He never takes any of it too seriously.