Friday, August 8, 2008

...The Savage Detectives (by Roberto Bolaño).

Here is a wonderful novel, full of farce, irony, and a multitude of formidable character voices. Equal parts tedious and hilarious, by the end it is a touching meditation on the ineffability of life. When considered through the lens of autobiography, the novel takes on even more meaning and gravitas.

Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima are the two protagonists, yet after nearly 600 pages, we hardly know them. We see them entirely through the eyes of transitory characters who pass through their lives. They are self-proclaimed poets, but we never see a line of their poetry and their work is almost entirely forgotten by the literati by the book’s end.

What do we know about them? First, their undying commitment to poetry and writers. Second, their conflation of writing and politics; the earnest belief that poetry is inextricably linked, even a driving force, behind social change and political movements. Third, they are wanderers who seek to live by visceral instinct in the mold of Rimbaud and other romantics. They are discreet and enigmatic to even their closest acquaintances. They deal drugs, steal books, and have lots of sex. But they have shielded themselves from much more understanding than that. Or at least Bolaño’s method of constructing them out of interweaving stories told by various narrators leaves them as inscrutable and often contradictory characters.

This is ironic, considering Bolaño and a large majority of the characters in this book are poets. The very object of much poetry is to distill the essence of some thing or idea in fresh, novel, and efficient language. Yet here we have Bolaño the poet trying his hand at a novel, a long wordy one at that, which fails to capture the essence of its lead characters. We also know that Bolaño turned to prose only at the end of his life when he struggled to make ends meet on poetry alone. He is suspicious of prose, yet it is the tool that sustains him. Belano and Lima on the other hand do not succumb to that temptation; instead they follow the haphazard path of life like the Beats, living in poverty, oblivious to their actions and the borders and lives they cross. Or if we take it that Bolaño is an extension of and alter-ego of Belano, then we see that their romantic road finally dead ended and required Bolaño to actually settle down, repudiate that life and instead write about it. And the huge irony present is that he succeeds so triumphantly in cataloging that penurious existence. He could have never written such a novel if he had not spent the time languishing in nothing but a long strange unguided journey. Bolaño himself is the failed poet with no recognition and the drug dealer and inscrutable figure, and his novel attempts to give a grand summation of that life and what it meant. Yet the written word is not a worthy enough tool to fully explain it to us. We still are left wondering about the driving and conflicting forces behind Belano and Lima. Nonetheless, we are given a treasure trove in the course of trying to do so.

Other ironies abound. The first portion of the book celebrates the vitality and courage and brazenness of youth. The lonelier second portion is disillusioned by old age and dreams unfulfilled. Most everyone in the visceral realist movement (and the corresponding socio-political movements) has left it behind because they realize the goals will never be met. The idea that a group of poets could be drivers of social change through their self-published magazines is a quaint one. Sitting around discussing issues in coffee shops does not make a revolution. And therefore the reminiscences of characters usually pity Belano and Lima; they are wondrous that those two seemed to actually have drank the Kool-Aid and continue to do so despite failure. How can Belano and Lima maintain such a deep and abiding faith in literature and poetry despite failure? The last few chapters in the lives of Belano’s and Lima’s are largely bleak ones. Lima meets with Paz, the visceral realists’ eternal enemy and subject of scorn, yet Lima is filled not with rage but with sadness upon meeting the man. Lima’s fire has gone out and he is just a drifter. Belano lives with a bodybuilder in Barcelona and contemplates suicide while he writes. The bohemian lives they chose turned out to be dead ends.

Even the ending sequence where we flash back to 1976 portends this result. They travel interminably through the amnesiac Sonoran landscape, repeatedly passing through the same barren, characterless towns in search of a lost and forgotten poet who they esteem for no real good reason. They find only one of her poems, which is fact not a poem at all but rather a drawing. The drawing suggests, by depicting a boat on a sea, that life becomes choppier and choppier the further you go. Then they find Cesarea herself, an underwhelming figure undeserving of the mystique they have heaped upon her. In a final tragicomic scene, Cesarea is gunned down by Lupe’s pimp and his friend (the “savage detectives”?). Lima is inconsolable. We don’t hear the conversation between Lima and Belano (per usual) except for the comment, “we spent all this time trying to track down Cesarea just to kill her.” (The “savage detectives”?) Indeed, their young lives are beginning to sail on choppier, less idealistic waters.

Yet even if the endpoint is murky, that is not to say the journey was for naught. One narrator’s recollection records a poignant conversation in a car. The driver says that while he was living in Israel with Lima, there was something incredibly important and unique that Lima possessed but was unaware of. It is hard for the reader to figure out what this thing is because the narrator himself is confused and doesn’t get it, but it seems that the driver is referring to Lima’s indomitable spirit of youthful optimism that nearly every adult loses. Yet even Lima is unaware of his strength, since he sobs each night because of unrequited love to an Israeli roommate. The driver then says that he thinks that we can recreate Lima’s unbridled vigor in our lives. And then the car crashes and the driver is killed.

We are also treated to a poetic description of a farcical duel that Belano sets up with a critic who has not even yet reviewed Belano’s work. Later in the work, Belano confides that he was never really sure who killed who. It’s a whimsical story that showcases Belano’s indifference to death and life. But he gains back his vigor near the end when he begins stringing for a newspaper in Africa. Another newsman, who runs into Belano several times, recounts a time when Belano seemed more full of life after having gone on an incredible 1-month journey through several dangerous countries in the bush. It shocked the life back into Belano after he had been crushed by a woman who he couldn’t stop loving. And our last look at Belano is him heading into certain death with Liberian troops. He is happily consigned to this fate after a conversation with a famous photographer who accompanies him, yet we are spared the details of his decision-making because of the narrator’s inability to overhear the majority of this critical discussion.

In terms of writing, Bolaño succeeds in treating a self-proclaimed high culture crowd and their post-modern thought with down-to-earth narrative prose. It is accessible and chatty. These teenagers talk like all other teenagers; the only difference is that their club is centered around poetry and politics. People presumably asked to think back on Belano and Lima often go on lengthy, unnecessary tangents about their own lives instead. At least two mentally ill and one “border-line retarded” characters have their say. Garcia Madero’s obscure poetry terminology is juxtaposed with Lupe’s knowledge of arcane street lingo. Lengthy entries dropping obscure names of Latin American poets are interspersed with multiple sex scenes and drug-fueled late-night parties at the Font’s house. Lupe’s jocular grade school drawings of Mexicans as seen from above (always wearing sombreros) are merged with the closing pictograph of the book, which is supposed to be reminiscent of Cesarea Tinajero’s poem. It’s all a bit of farce.

So what are we to make of Garcia Madero’s final three entries? Partly, I think it is a continuation of that farce; something that we are not to read too much into. Just like Belano and Lima sought out Tinajero, who turned out to be just a regular woman who washes clothes, our journey through this book will unmistakably end with disappointment. There is no bow large enough to tie this all together into a neat package. We have found out everything yet nothing at the same time. It’s a joke played on the reader.

Still, there are other interpretations that come to mind. As a continuation of Lupe’s drawing games, clearly they concern our perspective. The box conceivably represents our prism of understanding out into the world. What looks like a triangle out to the side may well be a small portion of a star. Or much like the projected images indistinguishable from real objects seen by man in Plato’s cave, the empty prism could in fact be a white sheet placed over the prism. But the final drawing, where the box’s border is now dashed rather than a closed line, is the most perplexing. It’s a new type of perspective where the frame is no longer so rigid. Perhaps it symbolizes the far gone lives that Belano and Lima pursued, or perhaps the role of literature and poetry in expanding our own perspectives, or maybe it is death visualized as a sort of release from the constraints of life. Who really knows? From an author who does his best to conceal crucial facts, conversations, and even primary characters from the reader in a sort of post-modern gambit, it’s a fitting close to this epically quixotic novel.