Q: You are Chilean, Spanish or Mexican?
A: I am Latin American.
This is a long book–too long, in fact–but it makes its point. Bolano, who died a few years back as a consequence of alcoholism, drug abuse, and assorted other consequences of extreme living (read the New Yorker profile of Bolaño for an overview), wrote a lot of short books and two very long books, including this one. And not only does it play at being autobiography, but also at a bildungsroman, as it follows “Arturo Belano” and his friend Ulises Lima from Mexico to Europe to Africa. But given Bolaño’s life, it reads as the only bildungsroman he could have written: a paean to the costs and benefits of never growing up. The bildung is entirely ironic, or negative.
The setup, in the words of James Wood:
“The Savage Detectives” was published in 1998, but its heart belongs to the Mexico City of the mid-1970s, when Bolaño was an avant-garde poet bristling with mad agendas. Like much of his work, the novel is craftily autobiographical. Its first section is narrated in the form of a diary, by a 17-year-old poet named Juan García Madero who is on the make, erotically and poetically, and who has been asked to join a gang of literary guerillas who have named themselves the “visceral realists.” The group is led by two young poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, a wild duo who appear elsewhere in Bolaño’s work (in “Amulet,” for instance). Lima is based on one of Bolaño’s friends, the poet Mario Santiago, and Belano is based on … Bolaño.
Yet for this scenario, there isn’t a lot of literature in the book. Much of the so-called literary discussion is nothing more than trivialities, like Garcia Madero quizzing his friends on obscure poetic terms, and so-called “visceral realism” is, it is made clear, a mere platform for attacking the many betes noires of Lima and Belano (and Bolaño), particularly Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda. Bolaño never slips: the book is entirely committed to showing literature as a lifestyle and not as an artwork, and what it extracts.
Much has been made of the book’s structure, and justifiably so. It is sandwich-shaped, with two shorter bookends taking place in 1975 and 1976 of the diaries of Juan Garcia Madero, and the main section narrating events episodically from 1977 to 1996 with intermittent flashbacks to 1976. The first section shows most of the benefits of the characters’ lifestyle, and it is not without some irritation that I read through one hundred pages of Juan sleeping his way through his fellow women poets and talking big with his fellow male poets. This irritation is intentional, because when things of consequence start happening, they are exactly the product of the sort of indulgent childish lives of wastedness that the visceral realists have been living. The rest of the book details the costs.
Even in that first part, we don’t forget that they are children: the visceral realists are people in their late teens and early 20s. Even Belano, who was imprisoned by Pinochet’s government in Chile after the coup before returning to Mexico, treats his experiences in the detached, solipsistic way a writer would: his politics are vague and more visceral than intellectual. The Chilean experience is only alluded to, while the book slides into a soap opera plot about Belano, Lima, and Garcia Madero going on the run with a girl trying to escape from her murderous thug boyfriend. If this sounds dissonant in summary, it doesn’t on the page, but it is terribly disconcerting, when the soap opera seems more real than Allende and Pinochet. So it is with adolescents. Bolaño hardly shied away from political topics, embracing them explicitly in works like By Night in Chile, but here he intentionally resists them because they are at odds with his characters and subject matter, and this is part of the tragedy he is trying to convey.
We return to the soap opera of 1976 at the book’s end, after having seen Belano disappear into civil war Liberia after nearly getting killed there, having stopped drinking due to a liver ailment that has doomed him to an early death (as one did Bolaño, killing him in 2003). Yet there hasn’t even been a progression during the middle section, and this is significant. Scenes from 1976 keep acting as a magnetic attractor as the other recollections move forward in time, arresting any sense of forward progression. Since the middle section of the sandwich is so diffuse, containing recollections from dozens of characters who never recur, many of who only had the most tangential interactions with Belano and Lima, no robust narrative emerges as a counterweight to Garcia Madero’s diary, and Garcia Madero himself is definitively absent from the middle section. The overall sense is that indeed, all of these characters’ lives ended in 1976, as Garcia Madero’s seems to have, and what is playing out afterwards in the middle section is a kind of afterlife purgatory of the sort Alasdair Gray brilliantly portrayed in the last two books of Lanark: a purgatory in which the characters wander lost without development. It is in this way, and no other that I can find, that the book makes sense, and a fatalistic, depressing sense indeed.
There are moments in the book–only moments–where the priorities change. The first is the horrific story of Auxilio Lacouture who hides in a bathroom for almost two weeks while the Mexican Army occupies her university in 1968 (she recounts this in late 1976 in the forward timestream of the book). She proclaims herself “the mother of Mexican poetry.” In the language of the book, this means that she, like Garcia Madero, disappears completely after 1976. Bolaño does not call attention to her disappearance, but it is crucial for the narrative that she vanish from the book: she represents the mother of all that is damaged and cannot survive. (It is at this crucial episode, however, that Bolaño’s writing falters, as Auxilio talks like a man, as happens with many of his most significant female characters.)
The other moment is the Liberian civil war, and it must be there that Belano vanishes, because it is there that his childhood truly runs out, as he seems to be faced with something he cannot comprehend.
And yet, Bolaño has stacked the deck, for Belano gets divorced and does not have children; Bolaño remained married and had two children. Belano lives on alone, near-suicidal in his excursions. Bolaño escaped, but for the sake of the narrative of Latin American and Latin America’s writers, Belano is sacrificed. The pathos is complete.
I am not in love with Bolaño in the way that Matthew details in his entry on Bolaño. As the work of a man who was racing against time to produce something urgent and vital, it is appropriately striking and direct. But The Savage Detectives, for all its careful construction, doesn’t quite have the juice to justify its conceit: Bolaño doesn’t quite manage to complete the circle to link Belano’s adventures in Liberia to the final 1976 episode with Garcia Madero. And the very end of the book, rather than making excuses, appears to acknowledge exactly that incompletion. Bolaño proclaims the imperfection of his work, and implies that perfection has gone to death with all his young characters. While not a satisfying ending, it is one I accept.