Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Savage DetectivesThe Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What’s a Giggle Amongst Family and Friends?

I bought this book 15 months ago. I finished it yesterday. It started off as a crisp, thin-leafed semi-brick whose 648 pages intimidated me. I only got the courage to read it when a discussion group gave me the impetus I needed. Now, it sits less crisp, but read, on my desk, wondering who will read it next. Like me, it’s 15 months older, but we are both easing into middle age and are still making new friends. We two are friends now, as if we’ve known each other since adolescence. When I pick it up and flick through the pages, I notice my pencilled notes, and a page that I accidentally folded over when I closed it clumsily before putting it down and going to sleep one night. There’s a mysterious stain at the edge of the last 20 pages. Initially, I’d hoped it was water and I tried unsuccessfully to dry it, but I think it came too close to the furniture oil on a paper towel that I had used, ironically, to remove a water bottle stain on my desk during the week. We can’t expect to age without blemish. During the week, one of our daughters co-starred in a musical play. The other wrote an elegant letter of resignation from her part-time job, so that she could spend the next four months concentrating on her final year exams at secondary school. (Her employer thanked her for her letter and said she could have her job back any time she wanted it.) Both girls’ school netball teams were beaten by a stronger school this weekend. FM Sushi’s team lost narrowly by three. ("Though you think you did the job wrong/ You did it great.”) I scored the games and tried not to talk so much that my scoring suffered. I wondered what I would write in my review. I thought up things to say in the Cabbage Detectives Interviews. I giggled a lot. I’m going to miss that giggling.

Here is the Discussion Group:

Make sure you visit our "homage", "The Cabbage Detectives (Interviews)":

Oral History

Eighty percent of “TSD” by volume is written in an interview format that reminded me of the first time I ever encountered an oral history (Edie: American Girl, an early biography of Edie Sedgwick).

I was captivated by this style and the book, and still am.

In effect, it was a collective biography of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, told by insiders, though obviously the focus was Edie.

It was probably assembled from hundreds of interviews, lasting thousands of hours and resulting in millions of words.

Then it was distilled into one book of lasting crystalline beauty.

Studied Movements

I feel the same way about “TSD”.

You would normally expect a biography to be a study of one life lived. This is a study of multiple lives lived to the fullest.

It’s ostensibly about Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, two alter egos of the author, Roberto Bolano.

However, in contrast to “Edie”, it gives the impression of being more about a fictitious scene (a radical poetry movement called “The Visceral Realists”) than these two individuals who were pivotal in it.

Still, we learn a lot about these two, while listening to the tales and concerns of the interviewees.

It’s interesting that Belano and Lima are not interviewees, although there is no overt suggestion that they, like Edie, were dead at the time.

Those Damned Accretions

It’s customary for the author of an oral history to superimpose a narrative or some kind of chronological or thematic timeline over the top of the interviews.

If there is a thematic structure to the narrative of “TSD”, I am not conscious of it after just one reading.

I don’t really need one to enjoy it. For me, the book is like meeting someone and learning about them spontaneously “over time”, but not necessarily chronologically.

Over time, your knowledge of your friend, together with the detail of your friendship, grows by accretion, as if a whole is growing piece by piece in the hands of some cosmic potter (man!).

So it didn’t really matter to me that the Interviews didn’t seem to be going anywhere obvious, nor did it matter how long the Interviews ended up being in total.

I was just delighted to meet this many interesting people, as if it was one long party starting in the afternoon, going full pelt through the night and winding up in the early hours of the morning as the sun of a new day emerged above the horizon.

The Anthology of Life

Each interview is a vignette, a portrait. Collectively, they make up pictures at an exhibition.

We walk through the gallery, this pantheon housing the gods of Visceral Realism, observing each work, building an impression of the exhibition as a whole.

Like art works or an anthology of verse, it doesn’t matter what order we experience them in. The important thing is the lasting impression. Does it really matter that we encountered A before B, or B before A?

Measure for Measure

The most important impression is the vitality of the lives we are witnessing, not the sequence; the chaos, not the order.

The experience of reading the book is organic, not mechanical.

Bolano seems to be at odds with measurement. He explores some of these issues in a mock sexual context.

As the pimp Alberto shows us, it’s not the length of a penis that matters, it’s how you use it.

Similarly, it’s arguable that the intensity of an orgasm is more important than its duration, measured, like Dolores, in terms of “one Mississippi, two Mississippi”.

Lastly, the experience of being a poet and writing poetry is about much more than mastering the meter of the verse.

Perhaps, there is no better measure of pleasure than the pleasure itself.

These Things Happen

Similarly, time cannot be measured except in terms of the passage of something else (e.g., distance).

In a way, we’re not here for a long time, just a good time.

Yet, vitality reverberates in motion or movement.

Like Marcel Duchamp’s painting “Nude Descending a Staircase” (which is mentioned in the novel), Bolano depicts a sense of movement in the one frame, the novel as a whole.


Both the past and the future are superimposed on and appear in the present.

The passage of time can be observed in the present.

I keep the past alive by remembering it in the present.

I keep the future alive by anticipating it.

If I am alive, I move.

When the movement ceases, so does life.

You are the Stars that Guide Me and Light My Way

Despite my feelings about the absence of narrative structure, I still think there is a meta-structure at work in the novel.

Bolano as author is implicitly present in the narrative as Belano and Lima.

However, the tale is ostensibly told by the interviewees.

The self is defined in terms of the others; just as importantly, the self is defined by the others.

In contrast to Descartes’ maxim, “I think, therefore I am”, there is a social construction of self at work.

“You think of me, therefore I am.”

“I am your experience of me.”

“You are the stars in my cosmos. You are always there, watching me, comforting me. I don’t need a god to give me meaning. I have you.”

Bolano is working against the post-modern tendency toward solipsism and narcissism.

“You keep me alive by thinking and writing about me.”

Yet, perhaps the converse is also true: “I keep you alive by thinking and writing about you.”

Revolution and Freedom

Paradoxically, Bolano wrote the whole of the literary vehicle that makes this possible.

What are we to make of this?

Ultimately, literature is a social act, a form of social action.

What characterized the Visceral Poets was not just the fact that they wrote poetry, but that they were socially and politically engaged.

Their “generation all overdosed on Marx and Rimbaud”.

They rebelled against conformity, conservatism and the rigidity of tradition, both literary and political.

They wrote poetry that preserved youth, just as it preserved the present from the ravages of history.

They sought out the marvelous, when all around them was drab.

They resisted death as they resisted the passage of time.

Fiercely Modern

They rejected their own fathers and role models, becoming orphans on the way, not always discovering new fathers, except perhaps in fellow rebels such as Marx, Rimbaud, Trotsky, Gramsci, Lukacs, Althusser.

They found themselves trapped in diffuse labyrinths, so they travelled the world, navigating a sea of possibilities, exploring their spirit of adventure, seeking and finding youth, sex, love, friendship, experience, illumination and eventually death.

Then they realised that they were not alone, that Visceral Realism was not a destination, but just a mask that they wore on their journey toward modernity, that there had been others who sought modernity before them, the writer Borges, and the 20’s poet and mother of the Visceral Realists, Cesarea Tinajero, whose collected works they seek out in the passages that bookend the novel.

A Timeless Threnody

Bolano’s characters, like his own works, maintain a vigil over the body of life, literature and culture that lies dormant in the forgotten province of poets, essayists and professors.

They are a threnody that mourns our predecessors and their achievements, but somehow keeps them alive.

They create a dirge in what would otherwise be a void, a music that challenges silence, a being that defies nothingness.

Just as his characters look to the past, they inspire the future.

They become parents, mothers and fathers who inspire children and followers like the 17 year old Juan Garcia Madero.

They keep value alive and perpetuate it through the ages.

This is what Bolano did for us.

All he asks in return, now that he is dead, is that we do the same for those who follow us.


"The only real voyage consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes; in seeing the universe through the eyes of another, one hundred others--in seeing the hundred universes that each of them sees."

Marcel Proust

Autor! Autor!

How did you do it?
You made me giggle and cry.
Holy Bolaño.


Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 – “Belltown Ramble”

"It's an independent life
And you wanna see your eyes
Reflected in the world.

"You can walk a square
You can walk an oblong
Even just walk straight.

"You'll still be standing there
Though you think you did the job wrong
You did it great."

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