Thursday, January 29, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 28 (Roberto Bolaño)

Bolaño, Roberto
Los detectives salvajes

Ok, I'll just come out and say it: I LOVE ROBERTO BOLAÑO!

If I had to narrow down my choice of books to own to those that would fill a single shelf, Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives) would surely be one of the novels residing there.

I ordered this through Talking Leaves...Books last summer (The Summer of Reading In Spanish, which has since morphed into The Year Of Reading In Spanish). I ordered it in May, but it took about six weeks to arrive from Spain (2666 took 3 months!). It took me about a month to complete. Compared to a lot of writers, Bolaño's Spanish is pretty easy for me to read (I am reading Lezama Lima's Paradiso right now, which will either kill me or make me stronger, likely the former). I did have to look up a lot of the expletives, of which there is no shortage in this book. For instance, in one passage a character propounds his theory that all poets are queers. He then divides the term "queer" into about ten different sub-categories like "faggot," "fairy," "cocksucker," et al, before telling us which poets fall into each one. I ended up having to check out Natasha Wimmer's amazing English translation in order to grasp the English equivalents of many of the idioms being used.

I guess one reason I love this book because it's about young poets trying to remake the world in their own image. They call themselves the "visceral realists" and their movement is known as "visceral realism." Apparently this is based on a real movement founded by Bolaño and poet Mario Santiago Papaquiaro called "infrarealismo." There's a whole website (in Spanish) devoted to them here. It quickly becomes a book about the myth of the poet and the way that myth reproduces and reinforces itself in the minds of readers and writers. (There's an interesting article in the NY Times about the way Bolaño himself perpetrated and perpetuated mythic falsehoods about his having been briefly jailed in Chile during the Allende coup and also about his having been addicted to heroin early in life.)

His primary narrative device -- the firsthand account, witness testimony -- while seemingly bringing the reader close to the story, actually serves the opposite purpose. Just about every character in the book at some point or other has a chance to speak, except the two protagonists, Roberto Belano and Ulises Lima, both young poets in Mexico city in the mid-seventies. Their absence produces in the imaginations of their circle of friends all kinds of fantastical accounts about their activities. They take part in revolutions, perform all manner of real and/or literary derring-do (including a duel with a literary critic), deal drugs, befriend prostitutes and criminals, etc. But they never speak. All the while we are treated to a panoramic view of the 20th century avant-garde through the idealistic lenses of youth. 

Anyhow, Los detectives salvajes is at once profound, funny, dark, obscene, affecting, and erudite. Think "On The Road" meets "Don Quixote" by way of Borges, and you'll get the idea. My only disappointment, alas, is the quality of the binding of the Spanish edition. After one read, the spine is completely cracked and I can tell the pages will start to fall out in a couple of years. I guess I'd better read it again soon.

There's a brief excerpt from the opening section of the book here.

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