The Savage Detectives By Roberto Bolaño

“I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists,” relates our narrator, Juan Garcia Madero. “I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.”

The novel begins in 1975, an era which critic Rodrigo Fresán described as “a time when Latin America no longer believed in utopias, when paradise had become hell, and that sense of monstrousness and waking nightmares and constant flight from something horrid permeates.” The story is told through Juan Garcia Madero, a young admirer of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima – two champions of visceral realism, a poetry movement one member describes as an attempt to “shake the foundations of Mexican poetry.”

Belano and Lima are the archetypal bohemian poets. They fund literary magazines by selling marijuana and brazenly storm literary workshops to read their own poems at the top of their lungs. Above all, however, they live for Visceral Realism: a rebellion against institutionalized poetry, government grants, and the followers of Octavio Paz; a Clockwork Orange-like revolt against the poets and poetry whose loyalties lay with the Mexican PRI government.

Just as we allow ourselves to believe we can grasp the wispy nature of Ulises and Arturo, the author distances us, giving the duties of narration to various people who have, over the span of thirty years (from 1976-1996), crossed paths with the two poets. The narrators range from friends, lovers, literary critics, and madmen, each storyteller harshly memorable and often revealing just as much about themselves as they do about Belano and Lima.

One account is told by Joaquin Font, a formerly successful architect. One night, Juan Garcia Madero sees Joaquin with one of his daughter’s friends, a prostitute named Lupe. Madero finds out that Joaquin is hiding Lupe from her psychopathic pimp, a man named Alberto who “isn’t afraid of anything” and has a daily habit of measuring his dick with his giant knife, “to make sure it hasn’t gotten any smaller.” Joaquin shelters Lupe in hotels and eventually his own house, its walled gates put under siege by the pimp and a force of crooked cops. The siege is broken when Belano, Lima, and Madero escape with Lupe in Joaquin’s Impala.

Years later, Joaquin is attending a party when he wanders off. Suddenly, his lost Impala passes outside the gates, a ghostlike shadow, crawling from the darkness of his past into the pale moonlight. “Half eager and half afraid, because [he] thought [he] would see Cesarea Tinajero, the lost poet,” at the wheel, he loses sight of the car, and then in “a burst of utter Mexican-ness” he understands “that we were ruled by fate, and that we would all drown in the storm.”

The “Mexican-ness” and concept of fate is one that Bolaño returns to frequently in his writing, and may help us understand the collective history from which Bolaño draws his work. One character mentions “camaraderie” and “the strong sense of shared ideals” that Mexican authors possess, possibly due to a history so unlike our own. It is one where the literature is drenched in the blood of revolutions, held back by dictatorships, and abandoned in the heat waves of the Sonora Desert. Perhaps these differences are the reason why so many Latin American writers, despite much critical acclaim, are not widely read outside of their own countries.

Take, for example, The Observer’s list of “the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time.” Strangely featuring only 95 novels, it lists three Spanish language works and a small handful of novels written by foreign authors. The rest, almost 80 out of the 95 available, are written by Anglophone men. The top 100 list released by The Guardian is more diverse, yet still devotes the majority of their list to European and American writers. This is common among a society that traces its literary, moral, and political origins up from the Greeks, through the Bible, and past the Industrial Revolution into modernity. How can we relate to literature forged from an entirely different set of ideals, morals, and social backgrounds than ours? India, for example, boasts the longest poem ever written, the magnificent Mahabharata, a Hindu epic that includes the famous Bhagavad-Gita. Similar Western epic poems, such as the Iliad or Odyssey, are required reading while the equally worthy Mahabharata is not. Perhaps the disparate moral and idealistic backgrounds between the West and East are to blame, but why then do the nations of Latin America, so geographically near to us, suffer the same fate?

One striking point to be made is that, while Western readers remain largely unaware of foreign literature, non-Westerners are certainly aware of our classic works. Bolaño appears aware of this reality, and at one point in The Savage Detectives, the daily reading of the Visceral Realists is revealed, including: The Lost Fire Brigade by Spike Hawkins, Sang de Satin by Michel Bulteau, and Le Parfait Criminel by Alain Jouffroy. Not only are these poets widely read in their native literature, but in the rest of the world as well. Speaking on the differences of Western and Eastern literature, writer Leslie Schenk points out “the well educated Japanese knows the Western Canon as well as he knows the Japanese and the Chinese Canons.” This is certainly not a point of who is more educated, but rather that they get to enjoy a wider variety of literature than us, and that is a loss we must place squarely on ourselves.

Hopefully, the availability and success of Bolaño’s work will inspire demand for more work from the deep and talented well of Latin American authors. More importantly, it should move us to be more open minded with the selections of what we read, not relying on anthologies or “Top 100 Lists” to tell us what we should be reading. One story that has always impacted me was the revival of John Donne’s poetry by T.S. Eliot in the early 20th century. “Eventually,” my professor said as she explained, “all great minds will be found.” But what about the centuries of people who lost out on Donne? We cannot let our apathy keep hidden the great works of unfamiliar languages in our lifetimes; instead, we must seize the opportunity to discover these writers for ourselves. Sadly, these opportunities do not last; Bolaño himself died at the relativity young age of fifty while awaiting a liver transplant in 2003. The Savage Detectives is a tremendous book, and Bolaño is a very fine author; hopefully his writing can be to foreign literature as Eliot was to Donne. Hopefully, it will help thousands of readers discover the unexamined literature of the entire world, not simply the Western one.

// Mac Fairbairn

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