The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño recounts the lives of two aspiring poets, Ulisses Lima and Arturo Bolaño, along with their circle of poets that, for poets, spend a surprisingly small amount of time writing or publishing poetry. Despite the paucity of presses willing to accept their work, however, the poets still continue in their roles as seekers and the narrative takes the two protagonists on a series of trips or varying adventures.
The first and third sections of the book are set in Mexico City and told from the third person while the substantially larger middle portion of it approaches those characters from the perspective of strangers and friends, not always in chronological order, which they encounter in Spain, Nicaragua, France, Israel and Monrovia. The split sections are not just changes of style, but in time as well. Chronologically the first sections is first, the third section is second and the second section is the third. This break-up of the events is at a significant point, just after the boys have spirited away a prostitute from her pimp, and the results of this, which surely inform the subsequent chronology, isn’t learned until the end. I’ve not normally liked the results of the authors that have written in such a vein, what immediately comes to mind is Nabakov’s Pale Fire, Bolaño’s work isn’t as purposively alienating though he too does have his moments of seemingly excessive erudition.
Moving from this issue of time and going back to the protagonists, Lima and Bolano’s lives, just like those that in one way or another look up to them, are tragic. It’s not just the poverty of many of the characters, such as Luscious Skin who lives in a shack on the roof of an apartment building, but the manner in which they all seek for a truth leads them to be so far alienated from those around them. They are tragic people, largely outcasts from society with limited capacity to feel connected to it, they have tragic loves, obsessing over people that they can’t have, they are tragic actors, who flirt with death and wandering as a coping mechanism over their variance and even antagonism to official Mexican culture and preference for the classical and avant garde. It is in fact their love for the latter that informs the name of the poetry group that consolidates around Lima and Bolano. They call themselves the “visceral realists”, as an ode to another group of Mexican poets who went by the same name forty years before and they connect it to the Flores Magon, Tristan Tzara and the stridentists.
Lima and Bolano are seekers after poetry in a religious sense. Their obsession is not just with reading the works of various famous literary circles but in learning all of the history between the authors. This is evident later in Belano’s life in his deep reading of the Generation of ’98 once he is in Spain, but is first seen with his concern in learning about and interviewing the surviving members of the Mexican stridentists and seeking to learn about one of their members Cesarea Tinajero. The search for her takes up the majority of the third section and is almost a quixotic tale as for all intensive purposes she has published only one poem in a small run journal and this poem consists solely of three lines without text – a straight line, a wavy line and a jagged line. The energy which they exert and the results they end up getting is highly telling of their tragicomic embrace of the literary arts. As such a polyphonic work ought to suggest just by such a categorization, their perspective is not the only one highlighted and this anomie and aimlessness, at times excruciating detailed in Belaño and Lima’s account outside of Mexico highlights their general aimlessness and anomie following the discovery of Tinajero, and they are contrasted with several other poets of people whose politics is not limited to poetry. There are numerous Trotskyites, the fault them for their lack of real political commitment, there are the peasant poets, followers of Octavio Paz, publishers and just normal people for whom the literary world is not so much of a drive which all mock them for their pretensions and posturing.
Having just read The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide before this I completely agree with James Wood’s comments on the novel that despite these divergences from character and form it is in Many ways like Gide’s work in that one of it’s major themes is what exactly does it mean to be a writer. Chapter 23 specifically, is where I believe that Bolaño accomplished some of the best of his writing in this regard, not as letters to a young poet a la Rilke, but as Diogenes Laetrius. Bolaño even puts in a Marxian-Hegelian twist in the ending of all of their stories by rewording the famous “first as tragedy, second as farce” line in what I think is one of the most compelling sections of the book. Here we can see not just fragmented details of the journey of the spirit of these two poets, but how it is that the others writers relationships to society, their notion of truth, etc. informs their station in life.