Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño

Roberto Bolaño The Savage DetectivesJust to get it out of the way: Believe the hype. God, this is good.

Okay, now.

All through the reading of this novel, the title puzzled me: the men who seem to be the focus of the novel, and thus deserving titular status, are not particularly savage, though they do exhibit bursts of savagery, nor are they detectives in any real sense, even if the central metaphor/plotline is the search for a missing person. Even with those qualifications, the name "the savage detectives" comes out of nowhere, unless it's meant to be a synonym of "the visceral realists"—the poetic gang to which most characters belong. If this is, in fact, the case, it says an enormous amount about what Bolaño understands by realism, and how he characterizes its application.

Is realism a form of detective work? Is Bolaño even interested in realism, properly speaking? One almost feels these are impertinent questions. A man—I think Salvatierra, but I can't remember—tells Belano and Lima that realism isn't visceral, so there is that.

The loosely applicable title is just one of a number of gregariously indifferent puzzles strewn throughout the novel, puzzles which seem shallow at first—like the easily decoded poem by Cesárea Tinajero. But these minor teases—who's collecting the testimonies of all the people in the middle section of the book? why? and to what end? who drives Quim's Impala when he sees it years later back in Mexico City? what happens to Belano in the chasm?—deepen and seep through the novel in a wild and yet hermetic way once you are through with it.

The Savage Detectives is not, however, a petty puzzle book, nor even a postmodern formal experiment like, say, Hopscotch. I have my theories about some of its mysteries, but much as I have developed theories to answer some unresolved questions about any great and shaggy novel—The Brothers Karamazov, or Ulysses, or Moby-Dick.

But if it is not a puzzle book, it is a novel that takes curiosity as one of its main subjects. Curiosity flashes through the novel in many forms—the curiosity of and for sex, of and for a story, of and for the variety of human life. At one perhaps crucial moment in the novel, Cesárea Tinajero tells Amadeo that "the search for a place to live and a place to work was the common fate of all mankind." The novel proves this point with every narrative and sub-narrative in ways that expand well beyond that point's simplicity. And while what may be called the domestic urge which Tinajero speaks of may seem opposed to the kind of gallivanting and debauchery which the novel chronicles, it is Bolaño's clear and poignant insight that these two forms of curiosity—note that Tinajero calls it a search—the curiosity for adventure and the curiosity for security may not be separated by object, but rather by age, and by age only.

"Curiosity for security"? That seems like an oxymoron! But security, for nearly everyone, exists at the center of a magnetic field—one on side of it, you are repelled, on another, attracted ineluctably. The path one takes, without changing direction, will drift from one polarity into the other, and often the change is more subtle than we can detect. And Bolaño, who demonstrates an intense familiarity with the classics, must have known how close curiositas is to curo.


One of my favorite parts of the novel is its multiple theories of literature: there is the sexing of literary form by Ernesto San Epifanio ("Novels, in general, were heterosexual, whereas poetry was completely homosexual; I guess short stories were bisexual, although he didn't say so," and poetry itself is further divided into forms of queerness: "faggots, queers, sissies, freaks, butches, fairies, nymphs, and philenes"—it's really a stunning reading of poetry, honestly) and the Directory of the Avant-Garde, full of typos and commentary on the typos, and a series of wonderfully self-reflexive asides about obscurity and obscurantism. And then there's this:
There are books for when you're bored. Plenty of them. There are books for when you're calm. The best kind, in my opinion. There are also books for when you're sad. And there are books for when you're happy. There are books for when you thirst for knowledge. And there are books for when you're desperate. The latter are the kind of books Ulises Lima and Belano wanted to write. A serious mistake, as we'll soon see. Let's take, for example, an average reader, a cool-headed, mature, educated man leading a more or less healthy life. A man who buys books and literary magazines. So there you have him. This man can read things that are written for when you're calm, but he can also read any other kind of book with a critical eye, dispassionately, without absurd or regrettable complicity. That's how I see it. I hope I'm not offending anyone. 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, which amounts to the same thing, the kind of person or freak who's unable to read all the way through In Search of Lost Time, for example, or The Magic Mountain (a paradigm of calm, serene, complete literature, in my humble opinion), or for that matter, Les Misérables or War and Peace. Am I making myself clear? Good. So I talked to them, told them, warned them, alerted them to the dangers they were facing. It was like talking to a wall. Furthermore: desperate readers are like the California gold mines. Sooner or later they're exhausted! Why? It's obvious! One can't live one's whole life in desperation. In the end they body rebels, the pain becomes unbearable, lucidity gushes out in great cold spurts. The desperate reader (and especially the desperate poetry reader, who is insufferable, believe me) ends up by turning away from books. Inevitably he ends up becoming just plain desperate. Or he's cured! And then, as part of the regenerative process, he returns slowly—as if wrapped in swaddling cloths, as if under a rain of dissolved sedatives—he returns, as I was saying, to a literature written for cool, serene readers, with their heads set firmly on their shoulders. This is what's called (by me, if nobody else) the passage from adolescence to adulthood. And by that I don't mean that once someone has become a cool-headed reader he no longer reads books written for desperate readers. Of course he reads them! Especially if they're good or decent or recommended by a friend. But ultimately, they bore him! Ultimately, that literature of resentment, full of sharp instruments and lynched messiahs, doesn't pierce his heart the way a calm page, a carefully thought-out page, a technically perfect page does. I told them so. I warned them. I showed them the technically perfect page. I alerted them to the dangers. Don't exhaust the vein! Humility! Seek oneself, lose oneself in strange lands! And yet I was mad, driven mad by them, by my daughters, by Laura Damián, and so they didn't listen.

1 comment:

JAK said...

melville himself may have been "shaggy" but i'm not sure his Whale was...speaking of, what are your theories on Brothers K, Ulysses, and my beloved M-D? Ready, set, go!