Bolaño’s Hazy Fiction
Natasha Wimmer begins her introduction to The Savage Detectives, one of the two masterpieces of Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño‘s career (the other being the as-of-yet-untranslated 2666) with one of the best introductory lines I’ve ever read:
In Mexico City in 1976, a twenty-three-year-old with wild hair and aviator glasses stood up in the Librería Gandhi, one of the bookstores that unwittingly supplied him with free books, and read a manifesto urging his fellow poets to give up everything for literature, to follow the example of Rimbaud and hit the road.
The true poet, he said, should abandon the coffeehouse and take the part of ‘the sharpshooters, the lonesome cowboys…, the spat-upon supermarket shoppers in their massive individual collective disjunctives” — the cunning, the lonely, the unnoticed and despised. This manifesto, titled ‘Leave It All Again,’ was the founding document of a movement called infrarealism.
After spending a good chunk of June with The Savage Dectectives (the novel weighs in at a paltry 648 pages) and now with Last Evenings on Earth — a more manageable collection of stories that explores many of the same themes as Savage Detectives, even recycling some of the novel’s characters — I’m beginning to appreciate Wimmer’s insight in choosing this point to begin telling Bolaño’s story, a writer who until recently, was largely unknown outside of the Latin American literati.
Roberto Bolaño was born in Santiago, Chile in 1953, but with the exception of a brief return to his motherland in 1973 (a return that was unfortunately timed to coincide with Pinochet’s coup) he spent his childhood and youth in Mexico City, growing up in the place whose gritty underbelly and explosive artistic scene was to become was of the major sources of inspiration for his writing. Bolaño lived in Mexico until 1976, and if the Savage Detectives holds any autobiographical credibility, he spent most of his youth shoplifting poetry from bookstores, drinking with the intellectuals and degenerates that hung out around the UNAM, and getting into heated arguments about the direction of Latin American politics and literature.
According to Wimmer (whose fantastic introduction is alone worth reading) Bolaño came of age as a writer during the Boom era of Latin American literature — a post-war period when the Cortázars, García Marquezes, and Vargas Llosas dominated the Latin American literary world, in effect dictating what was publishable and moreover, what “Latin American writing” was supposed to look like. While this period generated a host of young writers channeling their style, it also produced writers like Bolaño, reactionaries who “tended to see them as selling an exotic stereotype — dictators, whores, patriarchs, and ghosts — for export only.” In the minds of these post-Boom writers, “the situation in Latin America had changed. The dictators, for the most part, were gone. Capitalism, the World Bank, and the international drug trade replaced caudillos, death squads, and political persecution as the new face of evil. The phantasms and terrors of the Boom generation had mutated into something more diffuse, unmoored from the local.” This vision is one that percolates throughout all of Bolaño’s writing: unlike the fantastical or darkly realist worldviews of the writers who came before him, Bolaño’s work is marked by a creeping sense of displacement, a haunting and tragic feeling that something is slipping away, although we’re not exactly sure what, or for whom.
In 1977, Bolaño left Mexico City and the Americas for good, arriving in a Spain jubilant from Franco’s recent death and just beginning to enter into the period that would eventually be known as La Movida. After taking a series of odd jobs around Barcelona and the Costa Brava — garbageman, dishwasher, night-watchman at a campsite — Bolaño eventually settled in the small seaside town of Blanes, marrying a Catalan, raising a family, and until his 2003 death from liver disease, steadily producing a growing body of novels and short stories.
The Savage Detectives, which has of late achieved somewhat of a cult status in the world of independent bookshops, is, like all of Bolaño’s writing, very strange, and extremely difficult to describe without leaving you to wonder whether you’ve missed something integral. The novel opens with the journals of a young writer, Juan García Madero, and the first part of the book follows his bizarre introduction into the world of ‘visceral realism,’ an obscure literary movement that seems to bear a striking resemblance to infrarealism. Although the novel is constructed around the accounts of visceral realists and those who float in and out of their circle, the movement itself is never really defined — the first line of Savage Detectives is “I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists,” and the fifth is “I’m not really sure what visceral realism is” — and instead, visceral realism functions largely as a plot device, motivating the characters’ attempts to find the movement’s lost (and entirely unpublished) patron saint, Cesárea Tinajero.
After chronicling García Madero’s induction and entanglement with the surreal world of the visceral realists, the novel then shifts, moving its focus onto the migrations of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, visceral realists, sometime best friends, and The Savage Detectives‘ true protagonists. Although the largest section of the novel deals with the lives and travels of these men (the thinly disguised alter egos of Bolaño and his friend Mario Santiago) the book is written entirely in the form of journal entries, and none of these entries are actually those of either Belano or Lima, the writers in question. Instead, their stories are told by those around them, from friends to cellmates to lovers, from those who knew them back in the D.F. (Mexico City’s distrito federal) to those who met them by chance while also trying to get by in a country distant from their own. Like Cesárea Tinajero, the writers in question are those who have no voice, and instead, the narrative takes the form of the voices surrounding them.
The abstruse and voyeuristic quality that surrounds Bolaño’s narration is one that recurs throughout all of his work. Very often, readers are dropped into stories with little idea who is telling them or why, and then drawn further and further into cryptic pseudo-mysteries that usually end without resolution or clarity. Like Paul Auster’s metaphysical detective stories, Bolaño is more interested in the mechanics of suspense and the aura that surrounds it than in clean endings or neat explanations. In “A Literary Adventure,” a story collected in Last Evenings On Earth, an unnamed narrator recounts a mounting — and perhaps imaginary — feud between A and B; A being a minor writer afflicted with a pathological jealousy towards his more successful contemporary, and B being a brilliant writer whose lavish reviews account for A’s literary recognition. With an unexplained capacity of omniscience, the story’s first-person narrator trails B in his growing paranoia about A until the story finally reaches its climax, or just as possibly, its anti-climax. It is this strange and tragic sense of exile Bolaño brings to his storytelling that led Wayne Koestenbaum to comment in Bookforum, “I am addicted to the haze that floats above Bolaño’s fiction.”
But while Bolaño’s writing seems to originate from a missing center, it is also deeply bound up with a sense of vitality, an adolescent passion for life written from the perspective of one who has already lived it and now can look back with fondness and remorse. If one is to read Bolaño through his characters — and the densely autobiographical nature of his writing could certainly justify a case to do so — then his narrators’ haunting retrospection, their inclination to travel forward with the ghosts of the past in some sense invokes the older, dying man in Blanes channeling the young man on the table in the Librería Gandhi. But in keeping with the unresolved quality of his prose — and the detective work required to read him — his work exceeds easy frameworks. Bolaño’s writing is not just imbued with the Proustian quality of writing for writing, of writing against death, but also the urgency of a young revolutionary who feels politics all around him yet cannot respond to it, the reflections of the writer and former radical struggling to find a foothold in a world that is no longer coherent.