Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Review: The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

© / Timothy Kennett
I fell in love over the summer with the Chilean national team, just like I did four years ago. They played at the World Cup again, and they were again beautiful and aggressive and thwarted. As in 2010, circumstance conspired to keep them down. Four years ago they drew Brazil and Spain, who won the tournament; this year they drew Spain and Brazil again and also the Netherlands, who finished third. Chile play an exciting style inculcated by the Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa (nicknamed 'El Loco') in 2007 which features an almost-suicidal high press, quick passing combinations, verticality, verve and lots of running around. The players play for the team, run for the team, die on the pitch for the team, replacing the solipsistic genius much of South American soccer craves with socialist utopianism. Since Bielsa, these have been Chile's principles, its identity, and they stick to them, even when a more pragmatic, more conservative approach might be more successful. They stick with their principles, and they fail, gloriously, with a hint of fate's cruelty. This year when they played Brazil they hit the post in the last minute of extra time and hit the post again with the last penalty kick and were out.

Roberto Bolaño was Chilean, sort of. He was one of those people who defies national definition. He was born in Chile and moved to Mexico and then back to Chile and was then exiled when Pinochet came to power, returned to Mexico, possibly via El Salvador, and then moved around Europe before ending up in Spain. His biography reads like the plot summary to a Spanish-language Kerouac imitator.

Bolaño died in 2003, so he never got to witness the Bielsista revolution. I'm not sure whether he liked soccer. Maybe he saw it as some gross thuggish distraction. (Austrian anti-semite Heimito Künst seems to like it the most: “I drew a dwarf with an enormous penis […] Then I got tired […] I got into bed and started to think. I thought about the underground factories where the Jews built their atomic bombs. I thought about a soccer match. I thought about a mountain.”) Maybe he thought it was boring. Maybe he would have supported Mexico, or Spain. As a Trotskyite, he may well have approved of revolutions, and of Bielsa's left wing tendencies (Bielsa once refused to shake the hand of Chile's right wing president Sebastian Pinera). He might have looked at this Chile team and seen something of himself.

The Savage Detectives was published in 1998, won (according to the blurb of my copy) the Herralde Prize and the Rómulo Gallegos Prize (wow) and did much to establish Bolaño's reputation as a writer who is worth reading, overwhelming his previous reputation as an itinerant heroin addict. The novel reminds me, of all things, of Max Brooks's World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, mostly because the narrative is a series of purported transcripts of interviews, but also because a lot of the characters are sort of like zombies. It's mostly about self-proclaimed poets who found their own poetry movement and talk about it a lot while they drift around drinking and fucking and thieving, crashing on friend's floors and going on vague pilgrimages to Tel-Aviv, trying to fall in love (“You can woo a girl with a poem, but you can't hold on to her with a poem. Not even with a poetry movement.”), but mostly being in love with themselves.

Just as it is common for dance music to be about how great dancing is and hip-hop to be about how great at rapping the rapper is, literature can often be about how romantic and exciting literature is, as if people need convincing that stories are still good. The Savage Detectives is very much concerned with glamourising literary pursuits; this is perhaps the whole point of the existences of Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, the poets whose meandering lives are followed at a distance through the many stories that make up the novel. The two are somewhat like prophets and cult leaders and travelling bards, and somewhat more like the title character of Inside Llewyn Davis. They stay for the night and make a show of buying you beer and then wander off in search of a semi-mythical Mexican forbearer just after you've fallen in love with one of them. It is important to note that everyone seems to be in love with either Lima or Belano. It is more important to note that neither poet ever demonstrates their poetic ability on the page. The reader has no idea whether they are good poets, or productive poets, or poets in the sense that five year olds who write poems to their parents for Father's Day at school are poets. Whatever poetry they have exists in their undying faith that telling people how literary they are is glamorous, and in their own glamorised, confused lives. They are poets whose poetry is performance art, and whose whole lives are performances, and whose performances are recorded in stories in a novel.

The multiplicity of stories is also significant. Lima and Belano are the novel's central characters, but they are denied a voice. Their lives become fragments, and, in the process, become mythic. The reader is reminded more of the joy of storytelling than of anything else, as stories of bohemianism and crime and love and despair and hitchhiking and grape picking and fishing and crying bustle together. The novel's structure allows us to keep our distance from Lima and Belano, and therefore allows us to finish the novel without hating them and their pretensions. Most of the pair's mythos and glamour comes from them not being around: when they aren't around, they could be doing anything. When they are around, they're mostly lying in a sleeping bag reading Ezra Pound for 48 hours straight.

Belano and Lima have a glamour that threatens to dissolve. When they are in motion, propulsive and moving away, you can believe them to be the beginning of Latin American literature's rebirth. This is the case, Bolaño suggests, with all glamour and with all the dreams of youth. “Have you seen Easy Rider? That's right, the movie with Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson. That was basically what we were like back then. But especially Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, before they left for Europe. Like Dennis Hopper and his doppelgänger: two dark figures, moving fast and full of energy.” Everything is glamorous in the movies, even failure, and Lima and Belano live as if constantly on screen. As a linear narrative, this tendency towards glamour would be unbearably something: too smug, or too naïve, or too obvious, or too self-obsessed. As a labyrinth of stories and voices in which the poets are only occasionally glimpsed disappearing around a corner, the poetry of their lives can exist, as precariously as anything exists in a labyrinth.

There is a moment where one of the stories of Belano and Lima's escapades is repeated: “I told the whole story again, from beginning to end, to the manifest boredom of Álamo and Labarca [who had already heard it] and the sincere interest of the inspector. When I was done he said ah, the lives you writers lead.” This is the effective of the labyrinth – disorientation. If we saw the story repeated again and again, we too would be bored. But to see stories refract and explode and ramble and accrete and do all the other things Bolaño lets them do across the novel is to be perpetually in the position of the inspector, perpetually impressed. To have perpetually the youthful eyes of the 17 year old poet who narrates the novel's first and last sections. To stay young and idealistic even as Belano and Lima age and fade. To continue to believe in love and poetry even after both seem long ago to have died.

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