I don’t expect to get Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives any time soon. I’ve finished it, and the feeling of accomplishment makes me glad I did, but this isn’t a book you finish or master or complete; it’s a book you read until you’ve stopped reading it and which you think about until you’ve stopped thinking about it. So much is tangential; perhaps everything is tangential. I think that’s the point. I suspect that’s the point.
The bulk of the novel is made up of fifty-three testimonies, collected by someone for some purpose and placed in an order that is far from obvious, having in common little other than tangential ways their personal stories intersect with a pair of poetic Quixotes, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. These are winking pesudonyms for Mario Santiago and Roberto Bolaño himself, who in the seventies — in our seventies — were the founders of a poetry group of sorts, the “infrarealists,” and so, too, are their fictionalized counterparts the quixotic leaders of a group called the “visceral realists.” This long middle section is bookended by journal entires written by a seventeen year old poet, Juan Garcia Madero, who falls under their spell and follows them out of law school and into the world of quasi-revolutionary poetry.
It isn’t at all clear, however, what “The Revolution” meant in Latin America after ’68, or after ’73. Nor is it clear what exactly makes Arturo and Ulises tick in this book; while they are the novel’s only real connective thread, the only thing that makes the book as a whole hang together, they are also completely elusive. Everyone talks about them, and the novel is a wild cacaphonous heteroglossia of voices searching for them, but their own voices are always so mediated by these other people and their other concerns that they lack any definition. Or, rather, they are all sharp edges, edges that never match up, never line up, never cohere. And then they disappear into mythologies of their own making, leaving the book’s fifty-three voices to continue on in their own stories, like tangents having touched at their common value and then moved on, forever (as Daniel Zalewski points out, phrases like “and then I never saw him again” reoccur with eerie frequency). So as much as the book revolves around that moment in the mid seventies, that sort of just-past-the-peak-of-whatever-began-in-1968 moment where the the grand decline of the Third World — Vijay Prashad calls it the “assassination” of the Third World — had begun but hadn’t been completed, it’s always a moment retreating in the rear view mirror, like its protagonists.
Perhaps nostalgia for a lost idealism is the book’s animating principle. And Bolaño can sometimes sound a little like an older man looking back at the foolishness of youth; as he put it in his acceptance speech for the Rómulo Gallegos prize, “…to a great extent everything that I have ever written is a love letter or a letter of farewell to my own generation, those of us who were born in the ’50s and who chose at a given moment to take up arms (though in this case it would be more correct to say “militancy”) and gave the little that we had, or the greater thing that we had, which was our youth, to a cause that we believed to be the most generous of the world’s causes and that was, in a sense, though in truth it wasn’t.”
Edmond Caldwell, however, eviscerates James Woods for wanting (as he puts it) to “domesticate” Bolaño, the way Woods “transforms The Savage Detectives into a story about growing into an adult ‘maturity’ after being disabused of adolescent enthusiasms such as aesthetic and political radicalism.” I’ll quote Caldwell at more length, if only because the personalized polemicism of Contra James Wood is enough like Arturo and Ulises hassling their bête noire Octavio Paz to warrant doing so:
“Reading Wood’s review, in fact, you would actually think that Savage Detectives was a book about apostasy. Wood even includes, apropos of very little, a quote from that arch-apostate Wordsworth: “We poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.” Superficially the quotation is supposed to apply to the sad fates of Belano, Lima and their cronies in the novel, but Wood is completely aware of its full resonance and has no doubt chosen it with that in mind. Bolaño and Wordsworth – it’s hard to think of a less suitable literary association; it tells us little about Bolaño’s sensibility or the book’s, although it speaks volumes about the reviewer.”
I’m with Caldwell, I think, though Woods’ review is too insubstantial for me to find all that much to get upset about. But seeing Bolaño as an apostate would be quite wrong, since there is nothing in Belano and Ulises that signals any kind of retreat from their ideals. The revolution fails, the visceral realists fail, their friends fail, their bodies fail, and their poetry is forgotten. But they still despise Octavio Paz, and they still struggle to be — however unsuccessfuly — whatever it is that they are. Bolaño went on, in fact, to emphasize this distinction, the difference between poets who believed and a world which proved not to be worthy of that belief:
“Needless to say, we fought tooth and nail, but we had corrupt bosses, cowardly leaders, an apparatus of propaganda that was worse than that of a leper colony. We fought for parties that, had they emerged victorious, would have immediately sent us to a forced-labor camp. We fought and poured all our generosity into an ideal that had been dead for over fifty years, and some of us knew that: How were we not going to know that if we had read Trotsky or were Trotskyites? But nevertheless we did it, because we were stupid and generous, as young people are, giving everything and asking for nothing in return. And now nothing is left of those young people, those who died in Bolivia, died in Argentina or in Peru, and those who survived went to Chile or Mexico to die, and the ones they didn’t kill there they killed later in Nicaragua, in Colombia, in El Salvador. All of Latin America is sown with the bones of these forgotten youths.”
As did García Márquez — another writer that Bolaño couldn’t stand — the book fights a desperate, failed rearguard action against that forgetfulness. But it does it because it decides, I think — or perhaps it simply has faith — that poetry is still worth doing, that dreaming and idealism can fail without being repudiated. This is not nostalgia, after all, but almost the exact opposite, the belief that doesn’t require anything like validation or victory to endure. And certainly Juan Garcia Madero himself is never repudiated; the gentle affection that Ulises and Arturo have for the boy is shared by the novel in a larger sense: nothing he does or says or is gives him any right to dominate the book the way he does, except that he believes with such a passionate intensity that Arturo and Ulises only tease him gently, sympathetically. Because whatever it is that the visceral realists are, it isn’t something that you get.