The great novel of Mexico City.

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 10 2007 7:16 AM

Mayhem in Mexico

Roberto Bolaño's great Latin American novel.

Roberto Bolaño.
Roberto Bolaño

Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives came out a few months ago and received all kinds of enthusiastic notices, and now that the parade of reviews has come and gone, I would like to bring up the distant rear by banging one additional note on my own tardy bass drum. The Savage Detectives, as everyone has heard by now, is a novel about the Mexico City arts-and-poetry scene in the years from the 1970s to the 1990s—a story about rowdy young poets and their literary movement called "visceral realism," with dozens of characters, and nearly as many themes, and thousands of acute observations.

But the most striking trait is a forward-hurtling momentum that comes rushing out of the very first words. The narrator of the opening section is a 17-year-old student in a poetry workshop, and he announces, "I've been cordially invited to join the 'visceral realists.' I have accepted, of course." And the novel whooshes onward, and velocity is felicity, and before you know it, 100 pages or so have slipped into the past.

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The reviews have already pointed out that in The Savage Detectives, as in his much shorter novel Amulet, Bolaño has offered up a fictional version of his own experiences—his adventures as a Chilean student who came of age in Mexico City and helped found an avant-garde poetry movement in the mid-1970s, and his movement's pesky habit of mischievously persecuting its literary elders and rivals and generally wreaking mayhem in the brio style of the surrealists of yore, or maybe in the style of the revolutionary student left, post-1968. And The Savage Detectives, in its account of the "visceral realist" leader "Arturo Belano," hints at the real-life Bolaño's poor health and sufferings—the physical decline that led to his early death in 2003. But you might be better off not knowing any of these autobiographical details. A mythology has sprung up about Bolaño, entirely of his own devising, and the mythology could end up eclipsing his actual writings, which would be a shame. Anyway, the forward-rushing momentum of The Savage Detectives owes nothing at all to the real-life Mexico City personalities and misadventures that people in the know are able to identify.

The sentences rush forward because of a peculiar and seductive tone in Bolaño's voice on the page—the tone of someone who believes wholeheartedly in the grand importance of whatever he may happen to be saying, and whose words, in their confident sincerity, seem to be racing onward for no other purpose than to get out the message.

The Savage Detectives makes me wonder if something isn't distinctly Latin American about this kind of momentum. A few years ago, Mario Vargas Llosa published an op-ed newspaper column about how he had given up smoking thanks to some useful tips from Gabriel García Márquez, and I came away thinking that I and 1 million other newspaper readers might very well have gone on following Vargas Llosa's nicotine narrative through another 300 feuilleton installments, if only he had chosen to natter on. It was because of that same confident mix of self-assured relaxation and electric high alert.

In other parts of the world, in regions distant from Latin America—or so my wanton theorizing leads me to supposethe pitiable champions of literature dwell under oppressive clouds of relentless doubt and irony, and are nervously stimulated by a bleak suspicion that anything they write must surely be a lie, and their own work is merely a game, and their avid readers don't really give a damn, and literature's last remaining purpose is to arch an eyebrow. But not in Latin America. The Latin Americans compose their narratives with a cheerful élan akin to that of the Victorian novelists. They do not think that literature is a lie. They are madly in love with their own inexhaustibly lush and wealthy literary tradition, and they feel a duty to push their tradition forward into the experimental future in the name of every decent hope of mankind and of Latin America; and their piety toward the past and zeal for the future fill their voices with the lovely and seductive vibrato of supreme self-confidence. I don't vouch for the universal explanatory power of my own theory, and yet something like this does seem to account for The Savage Detectives.

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.

The pathos of The Savage Detectives lies in that single contrast—the pathos of the ardent young poets who cavort like satyrs and nymphs in the sacred wood of high poetry and, then again, have to drag their way around the hardscrabble streets of Mexico City, and sometimes die all too soon, as Rubén Darío did at age 49, and Roberto Bolaño did at age 50, in both cases of liver failure.

But I don't mean to bring my drum-banging on Bolaño's behalf to a gloomy thud of a conclusion. The Savage Detectives sings a love song to the grandeur of Latin American literature and to the passions it inspires, and there is no reason to suppose that, in spite of every prediction, these particular grandeurs and passions have reached their appointed end. Bolaño's friend Carmen Boullosa in The Nation and Francisco Goldman in the New York Review of Books have both insisted lately that Bolaño wrote a further novel, not yet translated into English, that is stronger, or at least more prodigious, even, than The Savage Detectives.

Even now, three years after his death, posthumous new books by Bolaño continue to come out in Spain—stories, prose fragments, and poems. Chris Andrews has translated into English a number of Bolaño's works in the past and has done a good job of it; and Natasha Wimmer, who has brought The Savage Detectives into English, has likewise done well. In The Savage Detectives, Wimmer has written Nics instead of Nicas (meaning, Nicaraguans), and pro-Somozans instead of Somocistas (meaning, the followers of Nicaragua's Somoza dictatorship). But these are tiny gaffes that could be corrected in a future printing, and they count as nothing when weighed in the balance against Wimmer's ability to come up with an inspired and masterful sentence, redolent of Bolaño's impudent enthusiasm, such as, "He's going to disemfuckingbowell me," which is, from a translating point of view, magisterial.

Paul Berman, a writer in residence at New York University, is the author of Power and the Idealists and has written for Slateon Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Enrique Krauze, Raúl Rivero, and Che Guevara.

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