A few weeks ago, I finished reading Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. Somewhat similar to when I finished reading 2666, I was left somewhat speechless… a bit dumbfounded, if you will, but not out of some sort awe at Bolaño’s powers. It’s more like being stuck somewhere between confusion and enlightenment. Did I just read the equivalent of sublime avant garde jazz or is this just some guy making noise that doesn’t fit into regular categorization?!!! I’ve grown rather fond of Bolaño, but I often can’t even simply commit to saying I’ve liked whatever book of his I’m reading. It’s complicated. It feels like he’s some sort of blackhole that inevitably pulls me in… a literary gravitational force of eventual crushing density.
And you can’t really assess his works until you reach the end, until you’re sucked into an event horizon that neither you nor any light will ever escape. They don’t make sense in parts. The rhythm is awkward. Tangents can be painfully long and pointless. Sentences or paragraphs will reveal poetic and poignant insights. A dark sense of humor grows slowly over the reader like mold. High- and low-brow tango on the same dusty dance floor. Even trying to describe his work pulls you into ridiculous metaphors and romanticized analogies. What keeps me coming back? I adore how weeks after I’ve put down the book, I’m still asking questions, still holding an interior dialogue with the text trying to tease out whatever truths it might have revealed to me. Most other books, I simply move on from and often forget how they even ended because I’m so eager (and, admittedly impatient) to start on the next book.
I’ve read lots of English-language praise for Bolaño and yet I’m continually amazed how someone who defined themselves as a poet never gets any posthumous recognition for his poetry. And yet his powers of observation and beautiful turn of phrase can simply delight as when he describes that first amorous encounter with Maria: “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.” There’s a continual bouncing back and forth between beauty and reality, tenderness and violence, and the moments in life that capture these artificial polarities all at once. Literature itself always seems to be at the heart of his writing, holding a place of elevated importance, offering a chance at immortality, or sometimes just temporary celebrity.
And what happens when these so-called “savage detectives” actually follow all the leads and trace down the elusive poet Cesárea Tinajero? They end up getting her killed. But that’s the thing about his books–they’re not easy to synopsize. They resist easy categorization. The Savage Detectives is part autobiography, part historical novel, part “love letter” (to his own generation, according to Bolaño himself), and very much a tale of friendship and adventure pieced together by so many disparate voices. Which is why many readers think it’s pure brilliance and many simply scratch their heads thinking they just read a book about nothing. That’s life.
If I might borrow a somewhat longer passage, it would be this one opening chapter 23 (if one can have a favorite chapter, this would be it for me):
“For a while, Criticism travels side by side with the Work, then Criticism vanishes and and it’s the Readers who keep pace. The journey may be long or short. then the Readers die one by one and the Work continues alone, although a new Criticism and new Readers gradually fall into step with it along its path. The Criticism dies again and the Readers die again and the Work passes over a trail of bones on its journey toward solitude. To come near the work, to sail in her wake, is a sign of certain death, but new Criticism and new Readers approach her tirelessly and relentlessly and are devoured by time and speed. Finally the Work journeys irremediably alone in the Great Vastness. And one day the Work dies, as all things must die and come to an end: the Sun and the Earth and the Solar System and the Galaxy and the farthest reaches of man’s memory. Everything that begins as comedy ends as tragedy.”
This is the fourth Bolaño book I’ve read (all in the span of the last year). I started with 2666 (mammoth and as frustrating as it was enchanting), hit up the library which had A Night in Chile (my least favorite thus far) and Antwerp (my favorite so far; a slim prose-poem-like work that reads more like a series of half-remembered visions written when he was only 27) before moving on to The Savage Detectives. Love, life, sex, friendship, literature, and the violence of the modern world–recurring themes like stardust sucked into the singularity that is Bolaño, an entity we can no longer see, but whose pull remains inescapable.