January 19th, 2009
Roberto Bolano’s “The Savage Detectives” is a throng, nothing but voice, dense and heaped and onrushing, diary and anecdote and account & perspective piled on account & perspective until the mind hums in warm bliss, the kind you get in crowds, pressed among others drunk-sweaty & waiting for amps to crackle; you do like crowds don’t you?
I love them. I love their teem & their press. But it has to be a legitimate sardiney mob, it can’t just be 8 people sparsely populating a slowly-filling dance floor. There can’t be space to really stretch my arms. There must be such press that I temporarily overcome my lifelong shivery people fear and achieve a kind of magic solitude among a space filled with bodies. So that you’re so jammed in you can’t focus on faces or sets of eyes, it’s just you and big anonymous Other. A kind of escape from fear of a thing — here, other humans — by living within the very aggregated, undiluted fulfillment of it.
Bolano’s novel offers this. It offers mass of voice, chorale of being, of processions of people trying to sing their impassioned stories about what the hell happened to them between life and Mexico and politics and poetry and money and sex and death. It’s not a plotted narrative so much as a a polyglot town hall meeting about the state of the spirit with everyone sobbing and gnashing and laughing in each other’s faces and hunting around for the goddamned microphone. Bursting to tell their side of — of what? Of what story?
Of Mexico in the 70s and 80s. More specifically, of Mexico in the 70s and 80s and how its disaffected youth, its young poets and students, lacking faith in religion or state, grope for something else to trust in. Of young poets and students who turn to art instead. Of what happens to these kids, these impoverished self-destructive kids chasing after truth in poems and the legends of the poets who made them, elusive & magical Nadjas & Godots with names like Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima and Caesera Tinajero (get used to those names; they’re the hunted/speculated-upon/wondered-about/ fantasized-over/derided/ridiculed triune throughout much of the novel). Of quests, fruitful and fruitless chases not for riches or vengeance or maidens or power, but instead for meaning in the way we express ourselves and thereby document the world. And of the absurdity and tragedy and nobility of that quest.
This is a rich novel, and what it lacks in plot it more than makes up for in character and timbre of voice. There is the careful pizzicato of Luis Sebastian Rosado’s romantic & ginger accounts of his trysts with Luscious Skin. There is the good-natured, naive, angsty viol of Juan Garcia Madero. There is the gnashing distemper of Barbara Patterson’s interviews, bilious as a sonata for violin-bow scrape. There are hilarious piccolo pipings of the self-important pedants & sycophants hanging on to and chasing after poets who themselves are hanging on to and chasing after poets. And there is the mystical violin shimmer of why it all matters, why we care, why penniless pilgrims seek so endlessly, travel so widely, for a glimpse of what they hold to be wellspring of spirit, for just one stanza, for just one line, just one image that can make what we endure on the planet seem worthwhile.
A mad book, a hilarious and terrifying book, this is a book to read in hungry, starving animal gulps. Stop and catch your breath when you read too fast — which you will — beat your chest while you clear your throat. Now tuck back into it like a wolf.
C. Way/ SnailCrow.com © 2009