Mayhem in Mexico
Roberto Bolaño's great Latin American novel.
The student narrator at the start of the novel is named Juan García Madero, and, having enlisted in the "visceral realist" movement, he spends his every waking moment racing around Mexico City trying to ingratiate himself with the leaders and fellow members of the movement; or else he devotes himself to stealing books and reading them; or devotes himself to feats of athletic sex with his enthusiastic girlfriends. In the next and largest section of the book, a few dozen people offer, as if speaking to an anonymous historian, retrospective recollections of the visceral realist leaders, and how the leaders departed Mexico on vagabond tours of Europe and Africa and Israel, and how life took many a grim turn for the leaders and for everyone else. And in a final section, Juan García Madero resumes his breathless teenage narrative, and he and the visceral realist leaders (with whom he has become close, at last) and one of his goofy girlfriends flee in a car into the Mexican north, trying to escape the wrath of the girlfriend's scary pimp, and trying, at the same time, to track down a forgotten poet of long ago, whom the visceral realists regard as their literary ancestor.
Whole crowds of minor characters and passersby shuttle through those many scenes, and yet nearly everyone in those crowds, a few gangsters excepted, seems to share an unquestioning reverence for Mexican poetry—a sacred cause for which any sane person would gladly sacrifice his life. Not to mention the insane people, who seem to bring out Bolaño's keenest sympathies.
Even the bar waitresses go into orgasms over poetry. The teenage Juan García Madero's quest to join the in-crowd leads him to hang out in bars, and the waitresses, learning of his poetic vocation, can barely wait to strip off his clothes. Or maybe sex in The Savage Detectives has a life of its own. By Page 9, Juan García Madero has lost himself in contemplation of the waitresses' thighs; by Page 11, he has a "colossal hard-on" while watching a rat; by Page 12, he masturbates to a poem; and by Page 13, one of the waitresses has already dragged him to the backroom of the bar. A lot of slap-happy screwing goes on. " 'I didn't hit her, man, what happened was that María was obsessed with the Marquis de Sade and wants to try the spanking thing,' said Luscious Skin. 'That's very María,' said Pancho. `She takes her reading seriously.' " And so on, until the visceral realists themselves pause to ask, amid their fervid poetry discussions: What is pornography, anyway?
But even the sex talk in these early sections of The Savage Detectives conjures the passion for Latin American literary tradition that generates so much of Bolaño's marvelous energy. The visceral realists rail against the grand old man of Mexican letters, who is the real-life poet Octavio Paz, "our great enemy"—though everyone knows that, deep in their eager hearts, the young poets venerate their elder, and pine for his approval, and, in any case, have designed their own movement along lines that are roughly his own. Paz, in real life, was a surrealist, and was keen on building up his own circle of writers and remaining loyal to the insurrectionary impulse of the avant-garde; and The Savage Detectives' visceral realists are likewise the adepts of a Mexican surrealism, in a down-at-heels student version. Bolaño himself, in recounting these literary doings, slyly molds his story around a style that will be familiar to the readers of Paz's circle in Mexico—the style of the writer and critic Juan García Ponce, a lesser member of the Paz entourage, famous in Mexico, though maybe not in many other places, for his priapic mischief. In the novels of the real-life Juan García Ponce, every innocent conversation seems to inspire the conversationalists to doff their clothes; and in the adventures of Bolaño's teenage narrator, Juan García Madero, something similar does seem to occur. The more lubricious the opening section of the novel appears to be, the greater is its witty homage to the surrealist circle of Octavio Paz, the god of Mexican literature.
The entire novel, not just in its opening section, follows a similar strategy, more or less—the strategy of quietly paying homage to one or another aspect of modern Latin American literature in the course of describing characters who are noisily paying homage to the whole of Latin American literature. The middle section of the novel adopts the hard-boiled style of the "testimonial" poets like Ernesto Cardenal, the Nicaraguan leftist and poet (whose own work is openly discussed), or the jumpy, fragmented style of the Mexican "oral historian" (to use the proper phrase) Elena Poniatowski, who composes books by stringing together what appear to be tape-recorded verbatim quotations from a huge number of witnesses to this or that event. And then Bolaño takes these homages one step further and scrambles the chronological order of his fragmented testimonies, and sets some of his "testimonial" or "oral history" scenes in Paris, where the visceral realist leaders do some hanging out—and, in this fashion, Bolaño also nods in reverential homage to Julio Cortázar, the Argentinean novelist, who scrambled chronologically his own scenes of Latin Americans footloose in Paris.
The energy in The Savage Detectives does begin to droop as the novel goes on, for all the brilliance of one scene or another. The sprawling novel out-sprawls itself, and this becomes hard to miss in the final section, when Juan García Madero resumes his narrative of life on the run. The poets discover the forgotten writer whom they take to be their literary ancestor—an elderly lady who had played a role generations ago in the kind of surrealist poetry movement that Paz used to command. The visceral realists even dig up a poem or two by this forgotten old poet, and the poems turn out to be, in proper surrealist fashion, a series of enigmatic nonverbal squiggles on the page—which makes for one more joke in The Savage Detectives, since the nonsensical squiggles end up being the only visceral realist poem that gets properly quoted in the course of a novel about poets. And this section, too, in its final scenes, touches on something deep and moving in the Latin American tradition.
The elderly author of the enigmatic squiggles turns out to have lived out her days in a remote rural corner of the far-away Mexican north, on a dismal road called Calle Rubén Darío, which Bolaño describes as so wretched as to resemble a "death threat." Rubén Darío is scarcely known outside of the Spanish-speaking world. Yet in Latin America every last reader has learned in school that Darío, the Nicaraguan modernista, was the founding father of modern Latin American literature back in the late 19th century. He was the first Latin American to dominate the world of Spanish-language writing, the poet who, more than anyone else, steered Latin American high culture into a cult of the avant-garde, which meant an orientation to Paris in long-ago times, and more recently an orientation toward Mexico City, since who needs Paris? It's amazing how often Rubén Darío's name pops up in novels by our Latin American contemporaries—in Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat, or in García Marquéz's The Autumn of the Patriarch, or how often the elegant Darío himself appears as a character in novels and stories: by Sergio Ramírez, Carmen Boullosa, and so forth. His name pops up in Bolaño's Chile By Night and again in Amulet, and probably in other of Bolaño's writings, too. And here, at the conclusion of The Savage Detectives, on the scary poor-people's road in the far-away Mexican sticks, Darío's august name hits a wry and tragic note, and Bolaño weeps over the dream of a utopian-bedazzled literature, and over the preposterous gap between his dream and the realities of hardship and defeat.
Paul Berman, a writer in residence at New York University, is the author of Power and the Idealists.