The Savage Detectives: A Novel
656 pp., $16.00
Reviewed by Laurance Wieder
Who Is This Writer? How Does He Know Me?
Setting aside Osip Mandelstam's contention that everything a poet writes is actually a gloss on himself, no matter the topic, I normally don't write about myself. But I have an uncanny relationship with Roberto Bolaño.
Bolaño's fictions fuse the received with the imagined, the anticipated with what's remembered, politics and poetry with faith and expediency. They're at once particularized and abuzz with the same otherworldly aura that Jorge Luis Borges generates with his scholastic visions. But where Borges, a blind man, fashions what might be termed blueprints of time, or machines that read such prints, Bolaño places poetry at the center of his enterprise.
By poetry, I understand Bolaño to mean (as I do) the only form of the human voice that lasts, which is in turn the only human thing that lasts. Everything else (insert here a complete dictionary, or better, alphabets waiting to be arranged) says goodbye as it arrives. I take pleasure, too, in the way Bolaño (like Tolstoy, Proust, Cervantes, Dickens, Borges and so forth) weaves the folk of actual history, literary and otherwise, into the lives of his characters: real readers of imaginary books, real books about imaginary people, and so on in finite but unlimited variation.
Earlier this year, I read Distant Star (1996/2004), which Bolaño published in Spanish before The Savage Detectives (1998/2007). Nothing in my experience as a reader of strange, wrought, penetrating books of any sort prepared me for the repeated shock I felt reading Distant Star. Its central character is named Wieder, Carlos Wieder. First encountered in a writing workshop, Wieder later resurfaces as a Chilean Air Force captain who sky-writes his poems, and commands a military death squad under Pinochet. Seeing my surname, not a common one, again and again, wieder und wieder, left me asking what I almost never ask when reading a book: Who is this writer? How does he know me?
Born in Chile in 1953, Roberto Bolaño moved to Mexico City with his family in 1968. In 1973, he returned to Chile to make a socialist nation, but the army seized power and arrested him. Bolaño went back to Mexico, moved on to Paris, and ultimately settled in Barcelona. He wrote nine novels, two books of stories, and five volumes of poetry. In 1998, he was awarded the Romulo Gallegos prize for Los detectives salvajes. Roberto Bolaño died in 2003, aged 50, awaiting a liver transplant.
My ignorance of even canonical Spanish writing is large and longstanding. As a college student in New York in the late 1960s, with a Panamanian roommate who spent a lot of time in discotheques, I knew two sentences (both subway signs, I can't swear by my spelling): la via del tren es peligrosa (the way of the train is dangerous); and el abe que sabe vuela por Pan American (the bird who knows flies Pan American). Latin American writers meant Borges, García Márquez, Octavio Paz, and Pablo Neruda. I didn't get the jokes in Don Quixote. Modern Spain was Picasso, Miró, Salvador Dali, Luis Buñuel, Miguel de Unamuno, and Franco?which meant fascists, who murdered García Lorca. Don't forget the Spanish Inquisition.
I lived in Mallorca for a few weeks in 1975, and stopped in Madrid on the way home. Parked in a hotel across from the Prado, I spoke to no-one, passing my time with Breugel's The Hay Wain and el Bosco's The Garden of Earthly Delights. By the time Bolaño's visceral realists arrived in Europe (if The Savage Detectives' timeline holds true), I was back in New York City, in psychoanalysis with a Catalan Freudian named Quim, whose anarchist brother had been executed under Franco.
Two years ago I responded to a constellation of forces— the study of Arabic, a new Zohar translation, ditto Don Quixote, restlessness. Medieval Jewish and Arabic poetry and philosophy are a repressed memory, not just mine. My wife and I took a plane to Spain. We traveled through Andalusia: Seville, Cadiz, Ronda, Malaga, Granada. Then via García Lorca Airport, I returned to Catalonia, to Barcelona.
The Savage Detectives is arranged in three parts: The first and third, "Mexicans Lost in Mexico (1975)" and "The Sonora Desert (1996)," are the journal of a 17-year-old first-year law student and poet, Juan García Madero. His daily entries for the last two months of 1975, and then January-February 1976, bracket "The Savage Detectives (1976-1996)." This middle section, the novel per se, might be over-simply described as an oral history of the Mexican visceral realists, compiled between 1976 and 1996, as gathered through the recollections (or are they affadavits?) of individuals who crossed paths or purposes with the leaders of the movement's second wave, Ulisses Lima and Arturo Belano.