What an impossible book to summarize, Roberto Bolaño's 'The Savage Detectives'. An exploded novel with dozens of narrators and a frenzied story spilling out from 1975 Mexico City into three continents and two decades... A tragic account of two young poets living out their lives with Beat intensity, seen through the variously shaded lenses of characters one, two, even three degrees removed from them... A bookish book about a search, deep into the Sonora desert, for a mysterious woman poet who a generation before them started a poetry movement called visceral realism...
'The Savage Detectives' is all this and more, brimming with strands of narrative, ideas and references. Perhaps visceral realism explains it best - it's the kind of literary trick Bolaño delights in, inventing a name for his own style and then portraying it as an obscure avant-garde phenomenon whose only quoted example in the book is a little drawing.
Whether it's prose or poetry, Bolaño's love of literature jumps from every page, not as some stale record of reality ("Dust and literature have always gone hand in hand"), but as an all-consuming part of reality itself, on a par with sex and death. In a New Yorker review, Daniel Zalewski summed up the book's spirit: "Not since Rimbaud has the world of verse seemed so criminally seductive." He might have added that not since Malcolm Lowry has Mexico been described so feverishly poetic. (Lowry lends the book its motto, and Rimbaud, even though the story is about so many poets, is the only one quoted at length, with 'Le Coeur Volé' ('The Stolen Heart'). Another inevitable reference is the hypertextual universe of Julio Cortázar's 'Rayuela' ('Hopscotch').)
Or as one of the many narrators states, walking through Mexico City with some fellow poets:
Literature isn't innocent. I've known that since I was fifteen. And I remember thinking that then, but I can't remember whether I said it or not, and if I did, what the context was. And then the walk (but here I have to clarify that it wasn't five of us anymore but three, the Mexican, the Chilean, and me, the other two Mexicans having vanished at the gates of purgatory) turned into a kind of stroll on the fringes of hell.
There is indeed a growing sense throughout the book that "literature isn't innocent", a lurking fear not identified until the end of the story which drives the two main characters, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, on their self-chosen exile. This is heightened by the fact that their adventures are described exclusively from the perspective of others, onlookers, fellow poets, critics, lovers, along with a young aspiring poet called Juan García Madero whose diary bookends the narrative.
The middle part of the book all but loses track of the story it started - Lima and Belano going on a quest to find an old visceral realist poet called Cesárea Tinajero - but Bolaño purposely records the aftermath first, showing how these savage detectives got derailed in their own quest, leaving a trail of commentary on their vagabond lifestyles. In one of the book's many outrageous scenes, Belano and another poet who might write a bad review of his work duel with swords on the beach of Barcelona. The scene is described by the second of Belano's opponent.
In a brief moment of lucidity, I was sure that we'd all gone crazy. But then that moment of lucidity was displaced by a supersecond of superlucidity (if I can put it that way), in which I realized that this scene was the logical outcome of our ridiculous lives. It wasn't a punishment but a new wrinkle. It gave us a glimpse of ourselves in our common humanity. It wasn't proof of our idle guilt but a sign of our miraculous and pointless innocence. But that's not it. That's not it. We were still and they were in motion and the sand on the beach was moving, not because of the wind but because of what they were doing and what we were doing, which was nothing, which was watching, and all of that together was the wrinkle, the moment of superlucidity. Then, nothing. My memory has always been mediocre, no better than a reporter needs to do his job.
But it's in the final part of the novel - in a dramatic shootout impossible to explain in a few words - that Bolaño supplies the focal point for all the fractured stories preceding (or, chronologically, succeeding) it. It's when the young poets lose their innocence, and realize that life tends towards atrophy, towards mere witnessing, interpreting and archiving, unless tremendous amounts of creative energy are thrown at it. 'The Savage Detectives' shows how life, defiantly and exuberantly lived, is poetry.
As Bolaño wrote in his poetry collection, 'The Romantic Dogs':
It's 1976 and even though all the doors seem to be open,
in fact, if we paid attention, we'd be able to hear how one by one the doors are closing.
The doors: plates of metal, reinforced iron grills, one by one they go on closing in infinity's film.
But we're 22 or 23 years old and infinity doesn't scare us.