In Search of Lost Poets

By Stan Persky | March 20, 2008

Roberto Bolano, The Savage Detectives (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 577 p., 2007, translated by Natasha Wimmer)

I first encountered, if that’s the right word, the Chilean-born writer Roberto Bolano (pronounced Bo-lahn-yo) as a real-life “character” in Javier Cercas’s novel, Soldiers of Salamis (2001; English translation, 2003). Cercas presents Bolano as a “softly-spoken, curly-haired, scruffy, unshaven Chilean” who offers his Spanish literary colleague some indispensable advice about writing. It is advice which rescues the book in which Cercas is stuck, the very novel that we’re reading, the one where Bolano appears as a character. In Soldiers of Salamis, a story about the history of the Spanish Civil War as seen from the present, Cercas portrays himself as a sad-sack, failing novelist and reluctant journalist, who is doing a series of newspaper interviews with various transplanted intellectuals, businessmen and athletes who have settled in Catalonia, the part of Spain where Cercas lives and works. Bolano is one of the interviewees.

Cercas gives us a thumbnail sketch of Bolano’s life, which includes, in addition to his Chilean birth and an adolescence in Mexico, a short stint as a would-be revolutionary in Allende’s Chile in the early 1970s, brief imprisonment in Pinochet’s Chile, followed by exile in Mexico, and then a wandering resettlement in Europe, some complicated medical problems, and finally a rather ascetic literary life with his wife and children in a small Catalonian town in Spain. We’re filled in on this background as Cercas and Bolano are having a drink at a bar and talking about Pinochet. “Naturally, I asked him what it’d been like to live through Pinochet’s coup and the fall of Allende. Naturally, he regarded me with an expression of utter boredom,” Cercas reports.

Then Bolano replies, “Like a Marx Brothers’ movie, but with corpses. Unimaginable pandemonium… Look, I’ll tell you the truth. For years I spat on Allende’s name every chance I got. I thought it was all his fault, for not giving us weapons. Now I kick myself for having said that about Allende… [He] thought about us as if we were his kids, you know? He didn’t want them to kill us. And if he’d let us have those guns we would have died like flies. So… I think Allende was a hero.”

“And what’s a hero?” Cercas asks.

Bolano pauses, then says, “I don’t know. Someone who considers himself a hero and gets it right. Or someone who has courage and an instinct for virtue, and therefore never makes a mistake, or at least doesn’t make a mistake the one time when it matters, and therefore can’t not be a hero. Or someone, like Allende, who understands that a hero isn’t the one who kills, but the one who doesn’t kill or who lets himself get killed. I don’t know. What’s a hero to you?”

The nature of a hero, it will turn out, is the epic subject matter of Cercas’s book. Trying to answer that question, with some further crucial help from Bolano, is what allows Cercas to finish Soldiers of Salamis. Among the many interesting things about Cercas’s novel, which is nonetheless “a true story,” is the way Cercas plays with fictional and real persons, as well as the now familiar postmodern way of challenging our notion of what a “novel” might be. In that sense, Soldiers of Salamis bears some affinity to Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller, and Tomas Eloy Martinez’s Santa Evita, both of which also oscillate across the border between the actual and the made up. All three books, by the way, seem to me certifiable masterpieces, and are a good place to start for anyone interested in exploring contemporary Spanish language literature.

Just as I was rather breathlessly finishing Cercas’s book, I was, coincidentally, visited by my Spanish language literary mentor, the Argentinian-raised writer Alberto Manguel. I was reading the book’s final pages, so I asked Alberto to wait for a few minutes and amuse himself until I got to the last word, an admittedly odd welcome, but one that he regarded as a perfectly reasonable request, since he too believes that reading comes before almost everything else. Once I had come to the satisfying end of Cercas’s sentences, I asked Manguel who was fictional and who was real in Soldiers of Salamis. I was reassured to learn from him that Bolano, a crucial figure in the story, was a real person, although I’d never read any of his work, or indeed even heard of him until I ran into him in the pages of Cercas’s writing.

Then, by sad coincidence, a couple of months later, in July 2003, I read in a newspaper that Roberto Bolano had died, at age 50, of liver failure, near Barcelona, and I felt that little stab of grief one feels when mortality assaults an acquaintance, an acquaintance whom I’d never met but became fond of nevertheless through a work of fiction. When, by further coincidence, I learned that a short novel by Bolano, By Night in Chile, had been translated into English, I immediately read it. Naturally—to use that word as Cercas does—I wouldn’t be bothering you with this rather elaborate lead-up if Roberto Bolano’s writing wasn’t magic. Certainly, that’s true of By Night in Chile, the first-person narrative of a deathbed confession by a right-wing Chilean priest and literary critic. It’s a pitch-perfect novella that some critics, including James Wood writing in the New York Times recently, regard as “still [Bolano’s] greatest work.” It’s a chilling indictment, as Wood says, of the “silent complicity of the Chilean literary establishment with the murderous Pinochet regime,” and thus raises central questions about the relationship between art and malevolent political power.

Only a smattering of Bolano’s work had appeared in English until last year when Natasha Wimmer’s translation of Bolano’s The Savage Detectives was published (it originally appeared in Spanish a decade ago, in 1998). It was greeted by English language critics with perhaps the most rapturous reception accorded a Latin American novel since Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; English translation, 1970). Well-known critics and writers, such as Ilan Stavans, Francisco Goldman, Daniel Zalewski, and Wood (writing in the Washington Post, The New York Review, the New Yorker, and the New York Times, respectively) hailed Bolano’s book as, for example, “an outstanding meditation on art, truth and the search for roots and the self” (Stavans). Its success has unleashed a cascade of translations of Bolano’s novels, novellas and short story collections—most of them written in the last decade of Bolano’s foreshortened life—including Last Evenings on Earth, Amulet, Distant Star, Nazi Literature in the Americas, and coming this year, a thousand page magnum opus, Wimmer’s translation of Bolano’s final work, 2666.

The Savage Detectives is a classic picaresque novel, one whose origins in Spanish writing go all the way back to Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Its protagonists, Arturo Belano and Ulisses Lima, are two avant-garde poets in Mexico City in the mid-1970s, who invent an aesthetics and a movement that they call “visceral realism.” In fact, Bolano and his friend Mario Santiago, upon whom the fictional alter egos of Belano and Lima are based, started exactly such a poetry movement in Mexico City called “infrarealism.” Naturally, we never quite find out what “visceral realism” really is.

The book begins with the diary of a 17-year-old poet named Juan Garcia Madero. The first entry is: “November 2: I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course…” and the second entry is: “November 3: I’m not really sure what visceral realism is.” Neither are we. But perhaps, just as Cervantes proposed his knight errant Don Quixote as an antidote to the popular romantic “novels of chivalry” of the early 17th century, Bolano is suggesting “visceral realism” as a counterpoint to the “magical realism” of the generation of Latin writers of the 1960s, Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, et al. Whatever “visceral realism” is or was, its roots and exemplars are to be found in a mix of Surrealists, Beats, Dadaists, the French poetes maudits, such as Rimbaud, with Borges and Kafka hovering not far off in the wings. Naturally, Mexico’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, Octavio Paz, is regarded by the visceral realists as their great establishment enemy, though Paz of course is unaware of their existence.

In any case, with the teenage Garcia Madero’s diary, we’ve entered Bolano’s landscape. Our hormonally-charged diarist introduces us to the fringes of Mexico City literary life, its cafes, streets, and characters, including our two protagonists, Belano and Lima. As well, there’s the young poet’s own introduction to steamy sex, art, and a mysterious quest for Cesarea Tinajero, a lost visceral realist precursor poet of the 1920s, who disappeared among the bleak towns of the Sonora Desert in northern Mexico decades ago. Garcia Madero’s mid-1970s diary provides the bookends for Bolano’s sprawling tale. Between the beginning and the end in the Sonora Desert, there’s a 400-page polyphonic middle that consists of the testimonies (or interviews, or detective-like interrogations) of some three dozen characters, who provide episodic, flickering accounts of the lives of the two poet protagonists seen over a twenty-year period (up to the mid-1990s), as well as tales of their own misadventures and fates, discussions of literature, and endless stories within stories.

Savage Detectives is at once a loony combination of road novel, a pastiche of the detective genre (complete with an angry pimp, car chases, crooked cops, and a waif-like former prostitute), and a lightly fictionalized autobiographical memoir of a displaced generation that winds up in places as far afield from Mexico City as Barcelona, Tel Aviv, and San Diego. The strength of the book is the off-beat, out-of-kilter, odd-ball stories that Bolano’s characters conjure up.

When you at last close the pages of Bolano’s madcap odyssey, those are the tales that haunt and touch you: a mad architect in an asylum telling us about “books for the desperate” (one of which we’re obviously reading). An octegenarian former poet named Amadeo who, during a night of mezcal drinking with the “boys,” as he sees young Belano and Lima, describes dancing in the 1920s with the near-mythical Cesarea Tinajero. A restaurant owner in Barcelona, where Belano works as a dishwasher, relates his mystical vision of lottery numbers that made him rich. Various authors at a Madrid book fair recount their contradictory and hilarious ambitions, a perfect send-up of literary life’s absurdities. In a park in Mexico City, there’s a curious pas-de-deux meeting, at last, between Ullises Lima and the great Octavio Paz. There are tales of innumerable loves, affairs, and polymorphous sexual couplings, all pervaded with appropriate melancholy. And toward the end there’s even a fading glimpse of Arturo Belano, adrift in the Liberian civil war, somewhere in a modern African heart of darkness, Arthur Rimbaud-like in middle age as dreams of poetry are ripped to shreds by gunfire.

As Francisco Goldman sums it up, Bolano “shows how time punishes us for the rebellious dreams of youth, bringing disappointment, painfully modest accomplishments, broken loves, illnesses, even violent death and, simply, the end of youth.” Despite the almost unrestrained praise lavished on The Savage Detectives, some caveats should be offered.

Critic James Wood hints at the problems when he suggests that the more intensely focused By Night in Chile may still be Bolano’s best work. Savage Detectives, by contrast, suffers from the sprawl of the picaresque. It also requires of readers a more than passing interest in poetry, not just to get the literary in-jokes with which it’s laced, but to absorb Bolano’s reflections on the nature of art. For the most part, when it comes to poetry, Bolano seems to suggest that what you get is invariably less than what you see, hence the wreckage of so much poetry and so many poets. And though this pursuit of lost poets is heavily populated with artificers, there’s not a lot here about actually writing poems. Bolano’s take on the process pales in comparison, say, to Orhan Pamuk’s Snow which, among many other virtues, is the most persuasive account of making art since Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth (1944).

While I’m not as ecstatic about Savage Detectives as some of Bolano’s other readers, Bolano’s voice, now silenced except in his work, is arrestingly unique. Ilan Stavans is right to say that Bolano’s book “is messy and perhaps overly amibitious,” a “fractured masterpiece,” as others have described it, but Stavans is also right to say that “Bolano had the courage to look at the world anew.” Naturally, what you see when you look at the world anew is sometimes a bottomless pit, the abyss itself.

Berlin, March 20, 2008. Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in N. Vancouver, B.C. His most recent book is Topic Sentence: A Writer’s Education. An earlier version of this piece appeared in Books in Canada.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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