The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolaño (translated by Natasha Wimmer)

Literature isn’t innocent. I’ve known that since I was fifteen.

Some twitter banter between a couple of bloggers who have joined in Spanish Literature month has forced me to confess – yes….my name is Tony and I’m nuts. To say at the start of this month that I’d take on Cervantes AND Bolaño and come out the other side in the same mental state as I went in was a ridiculous call – it’s not just the thousands of pages and the miniscule font, we are talking behemoths of literature here, I’m on a hiding to nothing. Whatever I read, whatever I think is a poofteenth of what can be thought, what can be said. As a wearily trudge off into the distance (no Impala driving away in the final hours of 1975 for me – that’s an “in” joke for those who have read “The Savage Detectives”) I feel as though I am a cross between Don Quixote himself, maddened by reading too many knight tales, and one of the many characters in Bolaño’s novel (possibly Joaquin Font a lunatic in my latest foray) driven to the edge by “visceral realist” poetry and missing poets.
Grossman talks of the daunting task taking on Cervantes and the doubt that task instils, as a lowly blogger how on earth can I put together some coherent review of a book that was published in Spanish back in 1998, was lauded as soon as it was released in English in 2007, and is now part of Picador’s 40th anniversary collection?  How’s this for an opening in the New York Times review by James Wood:
Over the last few years, Roberto Bolaño’s reputation, in English at least, has been spreading in a quiet contagion; the loud arrival of a long novel, “The Savage Detectives,” will ensure that few are now untouched. Until recently there was even something a little Masonic about the way Bolaño’s name was passed along between readers in this country;
In a nutshell, “The Savage Detectives” is a tale about Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, two “visceral Realist” poets. Their adventures are told, initially, via a diary of Juan Garcia Madero, which takes in the period 2 November 1975 until New Year’s Eve of the same year, when he is driven away in Quim Font’s Impala with Arturo, Ulises and a prostitute Lupe.  We then switch to a documentary style interview of hundreds (well it could be less) of characters and their experiences, knowledge and memories of Ulises and Arturo between the years 1976-1996. Beyond that I’m not willing to reveal what happens (as usual no spoilers here).
A study of literature, a study of poetry, a study of Latin American writing, of South American writing, of a blending of Mexican, Chilean cultures of European influences, of Spain….. You could write a thesis on the list of books referenced throughout. You could never have to move outside of this one work to find a listing of works to read forevermore:
Libreria Orozco, on Reforma, between Oxford and Praga: Nueve novisimos, the Spanish anthology; Corps et biens, by Robert Desnos; and Dr. Brodie’s Report, by Borges. Libreria Milton, at Milton and Darwin: Vladimir Holan’s A Night with Hamlet and Other Poems, a Max Jacob anthology, and a Gunnar Ekelof anthology. Libreria El Mundo, on Rio Nazas: selected poems by Byron, Shelley, and Keats; Stendhal’s The Red and the Black(which I’ve already read); and Lichtenberg’s Aphorisms, translated by Alfonso Reyes. This afternoon, as I arranged my books in the room I thought about Reyes. Reyes could be my little refuge. A person could be immensely happy reading only him or the writers he loved. But that would be too easy.
As I said we have “interviews”, or revelations, about Arturo (Bolaño’s alter ego) or Ulises (apparently based on one of Bolaño’s friends Mario Santiago – a poet. Their story is peeled back layer by layer by fishermen, cave dwellers, writers, bums, displaced Jews, mental asylum inmates, lovers, acquaintances. We have fellow prisoners telling of Jewish and Austrian prisons being shared with Ulises, or Ulises disappearing in Nicaragua whilst on a poetry delegation.
There are stories of the 1968 siege and arrests at Mexico Universities where we have a famous Uruguayan poetess reading poems by Pedro Garfias (a Spanish poet who left Spain during the Civil War, eventually dying in Mexico) whilst hiding, sitting on a toilet for days on end.
There’s a Chilean stowaway who has made it to Barcelona who has visions of numbers and uses those visions to play the soccer pools (he keeps on winning). There’s a Galician lawyer who publishes a literary magazine and meets Arturo at the edge of a chasm where the poet descends to rescue a child who may have been taken by the devil.
Rafael Barrios, sitting in his living room, Jackson Street, San Diego, California, March 1981. Have you seen Easy Rider? That’s right, the movie with Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson. That was basically what we were like back then. But especially Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, before they left for Europe. Like Dennis Hopper and his doppelganger: two dark figures, moving fast and full of energy. And it’s not that I have anything against Peter Fonda but neither of them looked like him. Muller looked like Peter Fonda. Those two, on the other hand, looked just like Dennis Hopper and that was creepy and seductive, creepy and seductive to those of us who knew them, I mean, those of us who were their friends. And this isn’t a judgement of Peter Fonda. I like Peter Fonda. Wherever that movie he made with Frank Sinatra’s daughter and Bruce Dern is on TV I watch it, even if I have to stay up till four in the morning. But neither of them looked like him. And they really did look like Dennis Hopper. It was as if they were consciously imitating him. Two Dennis Hoppers walking the streets of Mexico City. A Mr. Hopper spiralling from east to west, like a double black cloud, until (inevitably) they vanished without a trace on the other side of the city the side where there was no way out. And sometimes I’d look at them and even though I liked them a lot I’d think, what kind of act is this? What kind of scam or collective suicide is this? And one night, a little before New Year’s Day 1976, before they left for Sonora, I realized it was their way of playing politics, a way that isn’t my way anymore and that at the time I didn’t understand. Their way might have been good or bad, right or wrong, but it was their way of playing politics, of politically influencing reality. I’m sorry if what I’m saying doesn’t make sense. Lately I’ve been feeling a little bit confused.
A novel that slowly builds into a coherent whole, the multitude of layers slowly bringing focus to a confusing mesh of players, an overlap of motives and characters, players all in each other’s lives but all having commonality with Arturo or Ulises. Amazingly the insights into each of these bit players, shows the true sense of ego, each story contains their own fears, loves, stories, wants, needs, it tells us so much more about their characters than it does about Ulises or Arturo, however essentially they are still telling somebody else’s tale.
As I said at the start, I can’t “review” a Bolaño novel without pressure from somewhere, however I can assure you it was worth the journey, I am a convert – even though I know of some who refer to his work as tedious – I will be revisiting other works of his. However one thing I will tell you, I won’t be putting a deadline on it!!!!

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