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Vol. LXII, No. 30
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
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Book Review

Daring Darkness: Roberto Bolaño’s “The Savage Detectives”

Stuart Mitchner

“One night — days before he was hospitalized — Bolaño … kept repeating an extremely bad joke — a joke that he thought was incredible and that I can’t tell here because I still don’t understand it.”

Every now and then a reading experience challenges terminology. Words like “novel” and “book” seem inadequate. I’ve had three such experiences in the past year, Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, Alexander Theroux’s Laura Warholic, and Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, first published in Spain in 1998 as Los detectives salvajes, released here last year in Natasha Wimmer’s translation by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG) and now available in a Picador paperback (648 pp., $15).

Reading Bolaño, who was born in Chile in 1953 and died in Spain in 2003 while waiting for a liver transplant, I kept thinking of D.H. Lawrence’s celebration of the novel as “the highest form of human expression so far attained” because “it is so incapable of the absolute…. You can fool pretty nearly every other medium…. In the poem and the drama … you let the human word fly a bit too freely. Now in a novel there’s always a tom-cat, a black tom-cat that pounces on the white dove of the word … and there is a banana skin to trip on, and you know there is a water-closet on the premises.” The passage ends with a list of the things a character in a novel has to have “relatedness” to: “snow, bed-bugs, sunshine, the phallus, trains, silk-hats, cats, sorrow, people, food, diptheria, fuchsias, stars, ideas, God, tooth-paste, lighting, and toilet paper.”

In The Savage Detectives the poet tom-cats make a meal of the white doves and there are plenty of banana peels, some of which take the form of incredible “jokes” like the one Bolaño’s friend Rodrigo Fresán refers to in the passage quoted above. After suggesting that “anyone” can write well or even “marvelously well” in his speech accepting the Gallegos Prize for The Savage Detectives in 1999, Bolaño went on to say that “writing of quality” was “what it’s always been: to know how to thrust your head into the darkness, know how to leap into the void, and to understand that literature is basically a dangerous calling.” Bolaño’s two poet heroes (and “visceral realist” anti-heroes), Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, along with Cesárea Tinajero, the legendary “stridentist” poet they are searching for in the last of the book’s three parts, not only understand the unattainability of the absolute, they risk the darkness and the void in the service of their calling. For the poets, and for their author, poetry has a life beyond the printed page. Readers looking for lines or stanzas of verse in this vast novel teeming with poets and schools of poetry won’t find much beyond three stanzas from Rimbaud, some lines of Archilochus of Paros, and three line-drawings said to represent Cesárea Tinajero’s only published poem.

There are versions of Bolaño’s “void” throughout The Savage Detectives, right up to the concluding scene in Sonora where the poets put their lives on the line, but the definitive version of the metaphor-made-manifest for “writers of quality” to leap into is a “chasm” in a campground near Castroverde, in the Spanish province of Lugo. Deep down inside it the darkness “howls” (it’s called the Devil’s Mouth), and when a young boy falls into it, the only person capable of going to his rescue is — who else but Bolaño’s alter ego, Arturo Belano? Bolaño accomplishes a still greater creative leap by relating the event in the unlikely and audaciously inappropriate voice of a pompous lawyer named Xosé Lendoiro. For 23 pages the great man (who calls himself “the giant”) postures and preens (phrases in Latin encumbering every other sentence) as he plays at being a poet and a publisher of poetry (who also deigns to publish Arturo Belano). This tale told by an idiot is so wild and wonderful, you want to read it over again even as you’re savoring the wind-bag’s self-confessed comeuppance (“I realized what Arturo Belano had known from the start: I was a terrible poet”).

But Lendoiro’s story doesn’t end there. Only one among Part II’s almost 450 pages of narratives and testimonies from 50-plus characters in various specific sites between 1976 and 1996 (Parts I and III, composed of entries from a young poet’s journal, take place in Mexico), this section achieves a literary splendor in spite of its unworthy subject, who sounds like a hapless night club comic when he says, in conclusion, “Now it would be nice to tell a joke or two,” and proceeds to tell “a Galician joke” that is about as funny as the last stanza of “Ode On a Grecian Urn” and as good an example as any of Bolaño’s predilection for incredible jokes. “Maybe you’ve heard it before,” the lawyer begins. “A man goes walking in the forest. Like me, for example …. And the man goes walking, I go walking, through the forest and I run into five hundred thousand Galicians who’re walking and crying. And then I stop (a kindly giant, an interested giant for the last time) and I ask them why they’re crying. And one of the Galicians stops and says: because we’re all alone and we’re lost.”

By the time you come to this “punchline,” all the human and literary energy you’ve absorbed make it resonate as if the previous 400-plus pages had been condensed into the four stanzas of a single, incredibly rich poem.

Bolaño’s Women

One of the many pleasures in The Savage Detectives derives from Bolaño’s enjoyment of his female characters and the way he uses them to provide intimate access to his poet protagonists. The 20-year comings, goings, and sightings of Belano and Lima are narrated by a chorus of different voices, of which the frankest, funkiest, and most evocative belong to women. It’s not that Mary and Edith and Barbara and Lupe and the charmingly straightforward bodybuilder barmaid, Maria Teresa, among others, are necessarily great characters, it’s that they provide earthy, funny, touching insights into the poet subjects, as well as being (most of them) poets and artists of one sort or another themselves. A British girl named Mary Watson delivers a slice of post-sixties European road life that evokes the best work of Wim Wenders while making it clear that what Bolaño has to offer is no more confined to Latin American literature and culture than films like Paris, Texas, and An American Friend are to German cinema.

Bolaño’s women are worth a column or two by themselves. There’s the female letter carrier one poet falls in love with against his better judgment and becomes haunted by to the point of obsessively retracing her postal route. Then there’s Edith Oster, the daughter of the Mexican underwear king, who describes her affair with Belano and is engagingly open about herself, so much so that she comes alive for us almost as soon as she starts talking (“Back then I was fat or I thought I was fat and I was a nervous wreck. I cried at night and had an iron will”). Henry Miller himself might have admired what Bolaño is able to make of Edith’s smell.

Larger Than Life

“I felt more alive reading it than I felt when I went out and lived my life,” says Farrar, Straus editor Lorin Stein in a Washington Post article about The Savage Detectives (“A Writer Crosses Over”). Translator Natasha Wimmer says she felt the same way. It may be presumptuous for someone with no knowledge of the Spanish original to heap praise on the translator, but this reads like one of those rare translations that breaks through the language barrier without ever losing touch with the spirit of the author. This translator has gone bravely into Bolaño’s darkness, made the “leap into the void,” and shared his understanding that literature is “basically a dangerous calling.”

September 11

According to Natasha Wimmer’s introduction, the fact that Bolaño was diagnosed with a fatal liver disease in 1992 means that “nearly all his fiction was written under the threat of death.” There are passages all through The Savage Detectives, in fact, that seem to have been written by someone who has come back from the dead to tell his story. When I first read the following passage, my response to the intimations of the date blinded me to the context, which I’ve edited out in order to duplicate the effect: “It was on September 11. A group had gathered to remember that dismal day. Suddenly someone started to talk about evil, about the crime that had spread its enormous wings over us.”

The date in question was September 11, 1973, when a military coup ousted Allende and, in effect, sent Bolaño on his way to Mexico City, Barcelona, and The Savage Detectives. Natasha Wimmer’s translation of the author’s 1000-plus-page last work, 2666, is due out from FSG sometime this year.

Note: The D.H. Lawrence quote is from a 1925 essay on the novel that I copied into a journal some years back. The quote from Rodrigo Fresán is part of a long, fascinating article (“The Savage Detective”) in the journal called The Believer.

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