Art has gone crazy, boys, I said, and they said: it’s always been crazy
Life is unpredictable. Everyone dies. No one will remember you. This is, of course, an oversimplification of sorts, but is the main theme that is intricately woven through the confessional style of this monumental work of trickery and literary mastery. The Savage Detectives is a sprawling Latin American novel by Roberto Bolaño that seeks to both ostracize the author and his form of literature/poetry while at the same time striving to re-re-redefine Latin American literature and the definition of being an artist as a whole.
It would prove to be an impossible undertaking to summarize this novel, a work that is divided into three parts, the first and third being the daily journals of aspiring Visceral Realist Poet Juan Garcia Madero and the second section (the meat and the potatoes of the novel) a five-hundred page series of interviews with people who have at some point in life come into contact and been affected by either the leaders of the poetic movement Visceral Realism Arturo Bolano or Ulises Lima.
We begin with a simple sentence from Madero, an invitation to join the Visceral Realists, an invitation we would be foolish not to accept. Madero is a young and brilliant boy with sexual and poetic prowess. A boy who is both confident and insecure, lost in the sea of Mexican identity. He finds himself torn between the bourgeoisie wishes of his family, notably not his parents, and the visceral realists, a band of young Mexicans living the bohemian lifestyle and searching for a greater truth than any Latin American magical realism can offer. The great enemy is of course Octavio Paz, possibly the only well known poet from Mexico and statesman of Latin American Literature.
Madero is the reader’s introduction to our two literary heroes and dominant figures throughout the story, Arturo Bolano and Ulises Lima. These two young men are the mysterious figures with limitless power, though few have read a word they have written, a power they wield over a group of young artists in search of a larger purpose. The fact that Bolano and Lima seem to be petty criminals constantly failing to launch any poetry magazine off the ground seems to only enhance their legend as men ahead of their time. One could try to describe every character and intricacy of this novel, but that person would only be feeding into the goal of this work.
Bolano and Lima eventually leave Mexico City, Visceral Realism and any permanent life behind, choosing to be itinerant for the rest of their lives. Visceral Realism was never really alive, not according to those who had involved themselves in the movement, though eventually it will be studied, if not by waves of people, at least by one academician who finds meaning in what he is able to learn regarding an undocumented literary movement that can only cobble together a handful of published poems. In fact, to academia Bolano and Lima do not exist and if they do, it is only to those who are interviewed about the subject, the fact that they have published little to nothing renders them meaningless to history. This poses the first major question of the work, how do we define success and if success is the personal barometer to personal artistic satisfaction. Or better stated, does any of it matter if that’s the kind of thing you’re interested in, success? And is success better appreciated alone or within a greater context of your peers.
Visceral Realism is dead, said Requena, we should forget about it and make something new. A Mexican section of surrealism, I murmured. I need something to drink, I said.
This question of whether it is even possible to be an original at this juncture of literary and artistic history, this is another topic Bolaño as author is dealing with through an oral history. The second section of the book, the challenging and important section, is a series of interviews with figures that are important to the lives of both Bolano the character and Lima. From old guard poets to thuggish Austrians, Bolano and Lima have traveled the world from the late 70’s to the mid-90’s and confronted, contemplate and inserted themselves in. Israel, Africa, France, Spain, England, Mexico, Chile, Panama, Nicaragua, these men have worked and lived everywhere. They have mooched and made friends. They have lurched, lived and loved, to a point that they can say that their living has been their art. The world a canvas and the interactions they have had their brushes. They scantily have a dime to spend or a bed to lay in, but they always seem to have a hope, all be it one that lies far away, that at some point greatness will arrive.
While Bolano and Lima are quick to criticize art, people, cities, governments, jobs and cliché bourgeoisie life, what Bolaño is really doing here is reminding us that everyone is a unique being and it's the journey they take that influences their place in history (of course that history is essentially the history of one).
Loneliness, love, death, sex, lies, art, family, literature, intellect, paintings, poems, pranks, privilege, penis, pussy, hunger strikes, hallucination, birth, murder, equality, discrimination, damnation, visceral realism. A series of catalogs chronicling lives tied in one tight bale of hay for a few short years and then thrown in the back of a truck and driven through the world to be strewn apart. The book is enormously entertaining, gigantically cerebral and sentimental.
…the search for a place to live and a place to work was the common fate of all mankind.
After finally finishing the book you flip back through the pages fondly remembering little sections that you’ve forgotten.
At the time I thought it was a sad story, not because of the story itself, but because of the way he told it.
In a generation of writers groomed by creative writing programs Bolaño reminds us that what literature and art really needs are people on the ground, living and grinding through this world, seeing the ugly side, remembering the unfortunate events and ruminating over them for decades. Most importantly, and the reason this novel is brimming with greatness, is that literature, art in general, is about being the great trickster mirror man, reflecting the worlds most grotesque, farcical, comedic, sweet, melancholy and bitter moments into some series of words, brushstrokes, horn blows or sculpted stone that remind us of the simplicity of that complexity. That through the complex undertaking that is art, specifically literature, we can see the pure simplicity and joy that life as a human really has to offer. Bolaño is reminding us that literature can be a colossal force of nature blowing through us and sparking our imaginations through a rough and tumble realism.
You have to live your life, that's all there is to it. A drunk I met the other day on my way out of the bar La Mala Senda told me so. Literature is crap.
~Craig A. Platt