Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Savage Read Without Detectives

Michael Sedano

In keeping with Daniel Olivas' column on Monday, here is the opening paragraph from Roberto Bolaño's novel The Savage Detectives, as translated by Natasha Wimmer:

"November 2. I've been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way."

On December 23, the narrator, a 17-year old boy named Juan García Madero, contributes what to me would have been a more cogent opening line:

"Nothing happened today. And if anything did, I'd rather not talk about it, because I didn't understand it."

In a nutshell, there's the sum and tenor of 577 generally tedious pages of adventurous writing. I suspect a plurality of readers will find the opening segment involving, then will get bogged down, or lost, in the abrupt stylistic shift of the middle of the novel, and probably stop reading somewhere in the mid-hundreds. Can't say as I blame them, although I stuck it out to the bitter end, having invested too many hours seeing if I could make sense of what was going on.

The opening segment takes place in 1975 with García Madero abandoning his university studies to join the oddball poets and barmaids of Mexico City. Bolaño creates a sentimental map of the city, the character wandering the various quarters of the city searching the cafés and bars for the twenty-something poets who have opened their clique to the youth. In the process he beds one of two sisters and gets tangled up in the girl's altruistic plan to liberate a whore from her pimp. The girl's father, however, complicates matters when the boy discovers the father has taken the whore as a Sancha, ensconced her in a cheap hotel, but has to flee to the family home when the pimp discovers the love nest. 1975 ends with the boy, the whore, Lima and Belano--two disreputable poet-tipos--fleeing Mexico City after an armed confrontation with the pimp and a corrupt cop.

Exciting and colorful material there. Then the narrative shifts from the diarist story teller to that of a documentary film interviewing a mixed cast of characters. Here the story wends its way back and forth in time, between 1976 to 1996, tracking the movement of the two poet-tipos as they travel about France, Spain, and Israel. Another thread--the detection element--tracks the search for Cesárea Tinajero, the mother, or perhaps chief muse, of this visceral realism literary movement. In subthreads we learn more about the personal lives of the the visceral realists introduced in the opening section, and various gente who come in contact with the mythic Lima and Belano, and Octavio Paz' secretary. Much of this actually has interest and delight as Bolaño uses it for sketches of a certain mode of literary life in Mexico City. But it's long and could easily benefit from a liberal paring, especially as a character remembers the name of a poet, then another, then another, another, another, another...

The novel wraps up reverting to 1976, with the fleeing quartet arriving in northern Mexico, pursued by the vengeful pimp and his cop enforcer. The detectives finally find the mother of visceral realism in a remote Sonoran village. In a fatal confrontation with the pimp, Cesárea Tinajero saves their lives but is shot dead in the process. One of the poet-tipos knifes the pimp, and the cop is gut-shot and will die a slow, painful death. As I note, I suspect many readers will abandon the novel and won't ever get to this climactic desert confrontation, so this is not a spoiler revelation.

I actually felt a bit sorry for the translator, saddled with what must have been a rich variety of colorfully abusive language that ends up in English as fuck this and fuck that. After numerous such linguistic devolutions, I was reminded of the scene in the film El Norte, when the Guatemalteco elder counsels the about-to-be emigrants that, in order to sound like a Mexican, they have to pepper their speech with liberal uses of "chingado" this and "chingada" that. Aside from a bit of French verse, little is untranslatable, except for a moment of fun at the end of the novel. The insufferable García Madero quizzes the falso poets about classical poetic schemes and tropes, none of which the street girl and the two tipos understand. To turn the tables, they quiz García Madero on a unique idiom they speak. Early, early in the novel, a character complains that Lima and Belano speak this language--it has a name though I cannot cite it--and finally on the 532 page, we're treated to a sample that runs two pages:

"All right, Mr. Know-It-All, can you tell me what a prix is?"
"A toke of weed," said Belano without turning around.
"And what is muy carranza?"
Something very old," said Belano.
"And lurias?"
"Let me answer," I said, because all the questions were really for me.
"All right," said Belano.
"I don't know," I said after thinking for a while.

I was surprised to find Bolaño's novel so tedious. I glanced at the blurbs on the back cover and noted the breathless praise heaped upon it. "Powerful and sophisticated." "premier Latin American writer." "The great Mexican novel of its generation." Maybe it's just me, as despite my problems, I wasn't entirely bored with it. I suspect the difference is similar to the differences that stretch between, yet link, the music of Beethoven to Dvorak and Stravinsky, then on to Suk and Schoenberg and beyond into the 21st century. The new stuff is somewhat interesting, musically tolerable, and more so because it often is quite short. Bolaños sets that model on its head with 577 pages, some filled out with nearly interminable lists that, like December 23, either have nothing happening, or I didn't understand them.


La Bloga welcomes your comments here, particularly if you have a more solid footing to go on for The Savage Detectives. I'd dearly love to learn your appreciation of Bolaño's effort. La Bloga welcomes guest columnists. If you'd enjoy becoming our guest, click here, or when you've got a mind to share, drop us a comment on the day's post.


Manuel Ramos said...

Bolaño is one of my favorite authors so I was disappointed when I read your review of Savage Detectives. Not with your review, of course, but with the idea that someone actually did not like Bolaño's writing. I haven't read this book but was looking forward to it. I hope that I will have a different opinion about the book, but we shall see, no? I thoroughly enjoyed his short story collection, Last Evenings on Earth, and the novel Distant Star. Bolaño's importance continues to grow even though he has been dead for five years. And if you think 577 pages is long, check out his last novel, 2666, which comes in at 1100 pages.
I have yet to read that one, too.

Ciudad Universitaria said...

Roberto Bolaño is one of my favorites authors and "The Savage Detectives" is the first book I read by him. As with most of his writing, this book can be interpreted as hyperbolic biography of his teenage years in México and his life as a mature man in other parts of the world. Bolaño dedicated his life to literature and it was only until he was forty years or so that he was recognized for his work. What I enjoyed most about this book is his position against the “official culture and literature”, (for example Octavio Paz is afraid of being murder by the visceral realists) and the fact that he thinks every author is most importantly a reader, hence his never-ending list of poets and writers. I do agree with what you mentioned about the translation. The translator, I imagined, most likely had the hardest time translating it. I read it in Spanish and there are some Mexican idioms, like many of us know, that in English they just don’t say the same. I hope that you will give Bolaño another chance; I recommend “Amulet” and “Distant Star”. I also, as Manuel Ramos, need to read 2666, 557 of Bolaño’s writing is never enough, but 1100 would do the trick.