Monday, July 21, 2008

Diving Into the Abyss

"While we search for the antidote or the medicine to cure us, the new, that which can only be found in the unknown, we must continue to turn to sex, books, and travel, even knowing they will lead us into the abyss, which, as it happens, is the only place we can find the cure." --Roberto Bolano

It's been probably four months in the process, but I've finally finished reading Roberto Bolano's 1998 novel The Savage Detectives (first published in English in 2007). Once or twice, I've mentioned it in one of my postings here, probably as a reminder to finish it. Other readings and writings interfered, and my hope was to have written an essay about the book awhile ago. Many an evening I'd be reading a different book and glance at the off-white spine of The Savage Detectives on my desk, feeling irked that I wasn't focusing on it. Now that the story has been bouncing around my head in a completed fashion for the last couple of days, I've realized a few things. One, without hyperbole, it's one of the greatest books I've ever read. Two, now that I look back, I've excitedly mentioned it in roughly ninety percent of the e-mails I've sent in the past couple of months. Finally, and most importantly, there was no need to kick myself for not finishing it sooner. The reading, much like the events of the novel itself, is about the journey rather than the set destination.

The following description will pretty much read like every available summary of the book, whether in print or online: Three Mexican poets (Arturo Belano, Ulises Lima, and the primary narrator, Juan Garcia Madero) devote their lives to writing poetry, living and experiencing everything they can for the sake of poetry, and eventually searching for an elderly, elusive poet (Cesarea Tinajero). Most of the book is composed of interviews and testimonies of the people they've met, known, or merely crossed paths with at various points. Since Belano and Lima are so uncompromising in their self-proclaimed Visceral Realist poetry movement, the interviewees have mixed opinions about them, ranging from admiration to unabashed loathing. And yet, the book is about so much more, especially the necessity for poetry (and all writing styles, in my opinion) to be a lifestyle and a mission, not just a product.

"For Bolano and the others, rejecting a career in poetry was a way of taking poetry as seriously as life itself--and vice versa. If the author lived what he wrote in this spirit, Bolano liked to say, the reader would naturally feel the urgency and live it too (Wimmer xiv)."

Admittedly, this barely scratches or truly identifies the book entirely, but doing so would be impossible. Bolano (who died in 2003) created a treasure for readers with willing time and energy--The Savage Detectives requires several readings (which alone could take months or years, depending on time), references scores of real poets and writers (as well as fictional ones), and has metaphors that run wild. I know, after a single reading, that I've missed several pages' worth, simply due to my sore deficiency in Latin American literature. Also, creating a list of the characters would take up a full sheet of notebook paper, probably including the margins.

I mentioned hyperbole in the first paragraph, and the paperback edition of the book is rife with examples: "mesmerizing, glittering, utterly unique," to name a few. As much as I have a problem with book and film blurbs, the descriptions fall into the same category of trying to summarize the novel's contents. There is simply no way to adequately describe it with just a few adjectives. Since it's a partly autobiographical, and it's meant to represent the true meaning of poetics (according to Natasha Wimmer's wonderful introduction), a reviewer cannot be blamed for having to rely on grand descriptions. Before I realized myself that descriptions of this work are tricky, I went online to find opinions and reviews. One blog complained about keeping track of the characters, and someone commented on the blog expressing irritation of not knowing "the point" of the book.

"Bolano...had always been fastidious in his work habits (Wimmer xxiii)." Since we know of his great attention to details, it's obvious that nothing is intentionally vague in the pages. The dozens of characters are essential, even if they only appear once or twice. On top of that, as wonderfully dense as the book is, there is nothing out of the ordinary as far as his descriptions or the novel's layout. To me, it's a sign of Bolano's genius and restraint. With so much narrative available, he could have easily added more metaphors and cross-sections, creating a Rubik's Cube of Pynchon or Gaddis-like proportions. It's as if he wanted to challenge any potential critics. "If you think this is confusing," he might have said, "you should see what else I'm capable of doing."

This isn't supposed to be an overt review of The Savage Detectives, since it has been available in English for over a year. As I've mentioned, reviewing it would be a Sisyphean undertaking. This essay is more of an appreciation of the power of writing and literature, both in the book and reflected in Bolano's lifestyle. An understood rule is that a reader should never confuse the author with the written product, but an exception can be made in this case. Bolano was the true definition of a poet/writer--traveling, living, experiencing, and cavorting. Artists of all mediums should look to him as a model, since he came awfully close to personifying the answer to the age-old question, "What is art?"

Appreciation also has to be given to Natasha Wimmer for her exceptional translation and important introduction. I don't read Spanish, and even if I did, I do not have an original copy of The Savage Detectives. However, while reading, I had the fullest confidence that nothing had been lost in translation, since even in English, the book maintained a wonderful lyricism that is no doubt multiplied in the original Spanish copy. While Wimmer's introduction might seem like a basic short biography at first, she provides much needed insights into Bolano's personality. Read the introduction for a second time after finishing the book--it's amazing how various passages from the novel will come to mind.

Finally, during my browsing for articles on The Savage Detectives, I found this video clip. The title is "SirJack Recommends The Savage Detectives." I was hoping that the dog would do something cute like pull the book off the shelf, but it's a strangely compelling clip nonetheless. Probably because the dog is so cute, even while doing nothing.

Work Cited:

The Savage Detectives. Copyright 1998 by Roberto Bolano. Translation copyright 2007 by Natasha Wimmer. Introduction copyright 2008 by Natasha Wimmer.

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