Review: Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives
by David Orr, Carmine Starnino, and Marcela Valdes
Bookninja is pleased to bring you this well-considered conversation between three of North America’s best crtics discussing Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, which won the Herralde Prize and the Rómulo Gallegos Prize when it first appeared in Spanish in 1998. This sprawling, magnificent story is finally available in English (tr. Natasha Wimmer), and it’s definitely a must-read text.
Combining a diaristic form with documentary interviews, The Savage Detectives elevates the traditional artist’s coming-of-age story to a place of high pathos, low erotica, extreme comedy, and high genre all the while anticipating the current, neurotic yearning for memoir, for what’s ‘true’.
Bookninja brought together New York Times poetry critic David Orr, Washington Post book critic Marcela Valdes, and Canadian uber-critic Carmine Starnino to discuss their takes on this awesome novel.
Marcela Valdes: The Savage Detectives is a marvelously structured, playful book about many things, but what interests me—and, perhaps, a good place to start this conversation—is the way Roberto Bolaño portrays the clique-ishness of the Mexican poetry world during the 1970s. Clearly his scenes are written for comic effect, but many, if not all, of the poets he portrays are based on actual persons, and as someone who’s not part of the contemporary poetry world, I wonder how you feel his portrayal compares to the politics of poetry in the U.S. or Canada.
Carmine Starnino: To my mind, he nailed it. Bolaño convincingly captures not only the poetry world as a subculture, but, more specifically, the poet in his pre-publication stage of adolescent rebellion. It’s the stuff, I think, only an insider would know. After all, as you suggest, Bolaño was inspired by pivotal events in his own life (like the wonderful teacher-student workshop confrontation that opens the novel) and many of the main characters are surrogates of his friends when growing up in Mexico (visceral realism, for instance, inspired by a real-life faction he founded called Movimiento Infrarrealista de Poesia). The low-life likemindedness of Bolaño’s young poets no longer has much of an equivalent in North American poetry (post-Beats, we’ve become warier of grass-root movements, we’re more professionalized, our sense of self more academically located) but so much else is still true: the over-the-top literary opinions, the us-and-them demonizing, the remorseless sizing up of major figures, the voracious “steam-engine” reading habits (I certainly heisted a few books in my day!). But perhaps your phrase “the politics of poetry” gets closest to Bolaño’s real aim: a meditation on Mexico’s then-political atmosphere as filtered through the louche and feckless activities of this particular community. Everyone in the novel—young and old—seems locked in a holding pattern of deferred expectations, and it’s hard to resist reading that as Bolaño’s projection of the Latin American sense of self.
David Orr: Yes, this is one of the better descriptions of Young Poethood that I’ve read. As Carmine rightly notes, you won’t find many younger North American poets being pursued by pimps—they’re more likely to be pursued by bursars—but what poet wouldn’t recognize some part of his earnestly ridiculous younger self in sentences like these?:
For a second I waited for her to ask me back to the storage room [for a blow job]. But Rosario wasn’t Brígida, that much was immediately clear. Then I started to think about the abyss that separates the poet from the reader and the next thing I knew I was deeply depressed.
How many poems have I written?
Since it all began: 55 poems.
Total pages: 76.
Total lines: 2,453.
I could put together a book now. My complete works.
Or my personal favorite:
While I was in bed with Rosario, it occurred to me that Mexican avant-garde poetry was undergoing its first schism.
Over time, of course, poets become more subtle, but that doesn’t always make them more reasonable. A surprisingly large part of the conversation among American poetic factions is still reminiscent of the furious slapfight that takes place in Álamo’s seminar (“I accused Álamo of having no idea what a rispetto was; nobly, the visceral realists admitted that they didn’t know either but my observation struck them as pertinent, and they said so…”).
Putting aside the manners of the poetry world, though, I have to ask: What about the poetry itself? What do you make of Bolaño’s decision not to include any lines from García Madero or Ulises Lima or Arturo Belano? We do get some titles from García Madero—“Everybody Suffers” and “15/3,” which bode, shall we say, not well—but that’s about it. And yet (for me, at least) The Savage Detectives is still a great novel about poetry. Why?
MV: One of my favorite lines in the book is “No one has read any of my poems, and yet they all treat me like one of them. The camaraderie is immediate and incredible!” It’s one of those lines that’s both hilarious and rather true: writers often make friends with each other before they’ve actually read each others’ works. And Bolaño is great at getting the social dynamics of the literary world, even if he doesn’t give us many examples of his poets’ work.
I would argue that García Madero actually does have a few poems in the book, but they’re crazy poems, poems meant to poke fun at poetry. They’re poems in the tradition of Cesárea Tinejo’s poem on page 353: the straight line, the squiggly line, the jagged line. The ones that Belano and Lima spend half the book searching for and that turn out to contain no words at all.
In this context, García Madero’s drawings on pages 543 to 546 and on the last two pages of the book can be read as “poems”—an idea that’s sort of intentionally ridiculous. After all, faced with Tinajero’s poem, Lima and Belano declare that it’s “a joke covering up something more serious.” And this same idea—that is, the idea of the dead-serious joke—also pops up in one of Bolaño’s essays about the Chilean anti-poet Nicanor Parra, whom Bolaño considered the greatest living poet in the Spanish language.
Humor was a big deal for Bolaño—one of his ambitions as a writer was to add to Latin America’s relatively threadbare tradition of comic writing—and these “poems” I believe are supposed to hint at the fact that García Madero is following in Tinajero’s footsteps in more way than one.
But for me the thing that really makes The Savage Detectives a great book about poetry, or about writing in general, is the ignoble fate of most of the poets in the book. We see so many of these characters not only when they’re young and sexy and full of ambition but also when they’re older, entering middle-age and facing the consequences of their hard, loose living. There’s a sense of entropy, of things falling apart. And of course, most writers don’t end up rich or famous so this portrayal feels both honest and rather noble.
CS: I agree, but couldn’t that “ignoble fate” also explain why Bolaño chose to leave out the poetry? It seems to me that he’s writing about these scamps not because they are exceptional but precisely because they are not. Literary movements like the visceral realists are a dime a dozen, which is partly why the novel’s ending was, for me, so moving: all that manic energy wasted on vouchsafing what is, quite likely, terrible poetry. Terrible in ways that is symptomatic of these sorts of manifestoing brat packs. We don’t need to see any examples of their work to know this. In fact, you could almost say that by excluding their poetry Bolaño is making a subtle point about the avant-gardist tendency to get caught up in concepts not cadences.
Belano and Lima’s search for Tinajero sums this up quite nicely. No record of Tinajero’s work exists but her legend is so intoxicating that merely being credited with writing great poems is as acceptable as actually having done it. Belano and Lima couldn’t ask for a more perfect patron saint. As seriously as these young poets take poetry, the discipline of actually writing the stuff seems remote from their adventures. It’s as if no one dares make any decision that would mean long stretches of sitting-at-the-writing-table tedium. Poets like Belano and Lima—poets whose lives are long on convention-flouting and short on art—have brought to their calling all the creativity that should, by rights, have gone to their writing.
The Savage Detectives, in other words, isn’t really a portrait of the poetic sensibility or about the growth and education of a group of poets. The novel instead dramatizes one of the most awful truths about being a poet: you must deceive yourself if you are to survive in the world. “The really hard thing,” British poet Peter Porter once said, “is to make your own destiny coincide with the necessity of your art. Most poets are forced to fake the coincidence, if only because they cannot bear the thought of being judged irrelevant by history.” The Savage Detectives is a novel about the intolerable consequences of “faking the coincidence.” On some level, every poet knows that, when it comes to posterity, the math is unforgiving. No matter how doggedly we might work to transcend it, oblivion is our most likely reward; and for the majority of us—let’s be frank here—the most justified.
The visceral realists are, therefore, like every other revolutionary literary collective that fought a losing battle against a world that failed to take their point of view into account. So in a sense, it doesn’t matter what their poetry was like. Because even if it were given to us, we wouldn’t “get” it. You had to be there.
DO: Carmine makes two very good points here: First, that Bolaño means for us to see the visceral realists as unexceptional; and second, that their poetry is “quite likely” terrible. And yet it seems important to note that “quite likely” isn’t “certainly.” Although The Savage Detectives is (as Marcela notes) a story about “things falling apart,” and although Bolaño strongly implies that the “movement” amounts to little more than delusions and dope-peddling, we’re never given solid proof that Lima, Belano and García Madero are lousy poets.
The omission matters, I think. Bolaño is a versatile stylist—surely it wouldn’t have been beyond him to give us a few examples of dreadful writing, especially since doing so would have made the novel even funnier. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t because if there were no question about the visceral realists’ incompetence, then The Savage Detectives wouldn’t be a book about young writers who are probably losers, it would simply be a book about losers. That would be a much less interesting work. As it is, we’re given the hope—an improbable, laughable hope, maybe, but a hope nonetheless—that something genuine might lie beneath all the posturing.
This makes the novel both gentler and more cold-eyed. Because we can’t be certain Bolaño’s characters are fools, we can’t dismiss their aspirations completely—but it is the sheer unlikeliness of those aspirations that makes the visceral realists’ situation so wretched. I said earlier that I thought The Savage Detectives was a great novel about poetry, but it might be more accurate to say it’s a great novel about almost-but-not-quite deserving pity. At the end of the book, after the violence, García Madero writes, “Lupe told me that we’re the last visceral realists left in Mexico. I was lying on the floor, smoking, and I looked at her. Give me a break, I said.” The tone of those lines, sadly, is something most writers understand all too well.
David Orr writes the column “On Poetry” for the New York Times Book Review.
Carmine Starnino has published three volumes of poetry, most recently With English Subtitles (Gaspereau Press, 2004). He is the author of A Lover’s Quarrel, a collection of essays on Canadian poetry, and is the editor of The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry. His fourth book of poems This Way Out is forthcoming from Gaspereau in Spring 2009. He lives in Montreal.
Marcela Valdes is a freelance journalist and book critic who specializes in writing about literary fiction and Latin American culture. A contributing editor at Publishers Weekly and a director of the National Book Critics Circle, she also writes features, essays and reviews for The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Believer, The Nation, and Bookforum.