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Recently read – The Savage Detectives

August 28, 2010

The Savage Detectives is a book written by the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, published in 1998, written in Spanish and translated into English by Natasha Wimmer.

Bolaño, as you may, has rocketed into stardom in the past few years with the publication of two major novels and some short story collections. He’s also very dead, having passed away from liver disease in 2003. He’s also something of a mystery, having spent 30 years as a nomadic minor poet – finding success writing prose late in life, then dying just before he was discovered by the English-speaking world.

His death has perhaps helped his ascent to literary fame… but in any case, I’m happy to say I loved reading The Savage Detectives, and that it appears that Bolaño’s soaring reputation is justified. The book is partly autobiographical (one of the lead character’s name is “Arturo Belano”) but the story of the two nomadic young poets is not told by themselves, but by dozens of different characters whom they encounter over the years.

The range of different voices and personalities is quite astonishing, and as the book moves along it continues to introduce new and engaging characters. Many of them are quite eccentric or even deranged, and while it’s normally true that eccentric people aren’t nearly as interesting as they think they are, there’s enough of a solid grounding on the earth and in human nature to keep up interest.

My favourite voices are Joaquín Font, the father/architect/patron of young poets who starts out somewhat disturbed and ends up in an insane asylum, though it’s never clear how crazy he actually is; Amadeo Salvatierra, an aging poet who seems thrilled that two boys would seek him out to ask questions about his past, enough so that he breaks out a bottle of irreplaceable liquor; Heimito Künst, one of the more far-out voices in the book, but also strangely believable and thus scary; and of course Auxilio Lacouture, the poetess who spends two weeks alone in a university bathroom after the school is raided by the army.


“And I can’t say that Álamo was much of a critic either, even though he talked a lot about criticism. Really I think he just talked for the sake of talking. He knew what periphrasis was. Not very well, but he knew. But he didn’t know what pentapody was (a line of five feet in classical meter, as everybody knows), and he didn’t know what a nicharchean was either (a line something like the phalaecean), or what a tetrastich was (a four-line stanza). How do I know he didn’t know? Because on the first day of the workshop, I made the mistake of asking. I have no idea what I was thinking. The only Mexican poet who knows things like that by heart is Octavio Paz (our great enemy), the others are clueless, or at least that was what Ulises Lima told me minutes after I joined the visceral realists and they embraced me as one of their own.”

“By the feel of her breath I realized that I was only fractions of an inch from María’s face. Her fingers ran over my face, from my chin to my eyes, closing my eyes as if inviting me to sleep; her hand, a bony hand, unzipped my pants and felt for my cock. Why I don’ t know, maybe because I was so nervous, but I said I wasn’t sleepy. I know, said María, me neither. Then everything turned into a succession of concrete acts and proper nouns and verbs, or pages from an anatomy manual scattered like flower petals, chaotically linked.”

“And then I hit 1968. Or 1968 hit me. Now I can say that I felt it coming, that I smelled it in bars, in February or March of ’68 but before ’68 really became ’68. Oh, it makes me laugh to remember it. It makes me want to cry! Am I crying? I saw everything and at the same time I saw nothing. I was at the faculty when the army violated the university’s autonomy and came on campus to arrest or kill everybody. No. There weren’t many deaths at the university. That was Tlatelolco. May the name be forever etched on our memory!”

“But mostly I looked out the window. The gray sky. And sometimes I looked toward Israel. One night, as I was drawing in my notebook, my good friend Ulises asked me: what were you doing in Israel, Heimito? I told him. Searching, searching. The word searching alongside the house and the elephant that I had drawn. And what were you doing, my good friend Ulises? Nothing, he said.”

“A few days later, my daughter came to see me. Did you hear about the earthquake? she asked. Of course I did, I said. Have many people died? No, not many, said my daughter, but enough. Have many of our friends died? None, as far as I know, said my daughter. The few friends we have left don’t need the help of any Mexican earthquake to die, I said. Sometimes I think you aren’t crazy, said my daughter. I’m not crazy, I said, just confused. But you’ve been confused for a long time, said my daughter. Time is an illusion, I said, and I thought about people I hadn’t seen for a long time and even people I’d never seen. I’d get you out of here if I could, said my daughter. There’s no rush, I said, and I thought about the earthquakes of Mexico marching towards us out of the past, trudging on beggars’ feet, straight toward eternity or Mexican nothingness. If it were up to me, I’d get you out of here today, said my daughter. Don’t worry, I said, you must have problems enough of your own. My daughter just looked at me and didn’t say anything.”

“In a dream, said the boy, I couldn’t have been more than seven, and I had a fever. Cesárea Tinajero’s poem? Had he seen it when he was seven years old? And did he understand it? Did he know what it meant? Because it had to mean something, didn’t it? And the boys looked at me and said no, Amadeo, a poem doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything, except that it’s a poem, although this one, Cesárea’s, might not even be that. So I said let me see it and I reached out my hand like someone begging and they put the only issue of Caborca left in the world into my cramped fingers. And I saw the poem that I’d seen so many times:”

“The same way you see the night sky, I saw the 0, the 1, and the 2, but the sequence was different, the figures came faster, and when I passed the Liceo, a number appeared that I had never seen before: 3. I stopped agonizing over it and went to bed. That night, as I was undressing the dark room, listening to the snoring of the two bastards I had for roommates, it occurred to me that I was going crazy, which struck me as so funny that I had to sit down on the bed and cover my mouth to keep from laughing out loud.”

“One night, while we were making love, I told him. I told him that I thought I was going crazy, that I kept having the same symptoms. I talked for a long time. His response surprised me (it was the last time he surprised me). He said that if I was going crazy then he would go crazy too, that he didn’t mind going crazy with me. Do you like to tempt fate? I said. It’s not fate I’m tempting, he said. I searched for his eyes in the dark and asked whether he was serious. Of course I’m serious, he said, and he pressed his body close to mine. That night I slept peacefully. The next morning I knew I had to leave him, the sooner the better, and at noon I called my mother from Telefónica. In those days, Arturo and his friends didn’t pay for the international calls they made. I never knew how they did it. All I knew was that they had more than one method and they had to be swindling Telefónica out of thousands of millions of pesetas. They would find some telephone and hook up a few wires and that was it, they had a connection. The Argentinians were the best at it, hands down, and then the Chileans.”

“I think we make a wonderful couple: people look at us and nod their heads. We embody optimism and the future in a certain way, a way that’s pragmatic and thoughtful too. Some nights, though, when I’m in my office putting the final touches on my column or revising a few pages of my novel, I hear footsteps in the street, and I think, I could almost swear, that it’s the mailwoman out delivering mail at the wrong time of day. I go out onto the balcony and I don’t see anyone there or maybe I see some drunk on his way home, vanishing around a corner. Nothing’s wrong. There’s no one there. But when I go back to my desk, I hear the steps again, and then I know that the mailwoman is working, that even though I can’t see her she’s making her rounds and she couldn’t have picked a worse time. And then I stop working on my column or my chapter and I try to write a poem or spend the rest of the evening writing in my diary, but I can’t. The sound of her sensible shoes keeps echoing in my head.”

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