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Roberto Bolano: Another Failure

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Monday, March 24, 2008

By JD Adamski


Raymond Chandler, along with his contemporary Dashiell Hammett, is considered the master of the hard-boiled detective novel. His acerbic wit combines with mellifluous literary allusions to lift entire passages out of the realm of genre and into that of literature. In truth, Chandler had little respect for the whodunit fiction created by Edgar Allen Poe, which was then perfected by English writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, and then exported back to the States, where urbane lounge-chair detectives were replaced with hardened men who performed their thankless jobs while chomping on two-bit cigars and wandering derelict alleys. Chandler was, at heart, a failed modernist writer — much in the vein of a D.H. Lawrence. Pulp was a fallback, and though he eventually embraced his position in the echelon of such writers, his bitterness toward the genre never completely subsided.

Such is the case with many of the world’s most gifted individuals: great dancers wish they could sing, soulful vocalists yearn to act, thespians connive to direct and many directors think they can do everything. Thus, not yet 10-years-old by the time Chandler exited this temporal plane, another fish wished it could fly, spending much of its life flapping its fins before finally embracing its own unique design.

Born in Santiago, Chile in 1953, Roberto Bolaño spent his youth in a small town south of the capital. In 1968, Bolaño moved to Mexico City with his family, the same year as the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) was overrun by government troops and hundreds of student and faculty protestors were slaughtered in Tlatelolco Plaza. A committed Trotskyite at 19, Bolaño returned to Chile to support democratically elected Populist president Salvador Allende, who was attempting revolutionary changes throughout the country. But in 1973, after escaping execution when the CIA-backed coup led by General Augusto Pinochet took control of the country, Bolaño fled back to Mexico. His experiences during that dangerous year would forever serve as a touchstone for the rest of his peripatetic life.

As a teenager and up until his death at 50 from liver failure, Bolaño fancied himself foremost as a poet. While living in Mexico with his lifelong friend, Mario Santiago, Bolaño organized a group of guerilla poets, the Infrarrealista de Poesia. The group held ad hoc readings and noisily disrupted those of their sworn enemies, the champions of the status quo (poet Octazio Paz being enemy numero uno). Much of Bolaño’s wild antagonisms, rambunctious public outbursts and vehement denunciations of anything and everything, resembled a sort of irate Dadaism.

Though he wrote constantly throughout his 20s and 30s, Bolaño’s works were sparsely published, including a slim collection of poetry and a short novel co-written with Antoni G. Porta. Then nothing for the next decade. Beleaguered by his transient lifestyle (he moved to Europe in 1977) and low-paying jobs, Bolaño vanished from view.

It wasn’t until the early Nineties, having settled outside of Barcelona with his partner Carolina Lopez, that Bolaño began to write prolifically and publish his prose more steadily. By then Lopez and Bolaño had borne their first child, and with the romance of living a poet’s impoverished life dissipating, reality quickly set in. Motivated by a thinning pocketbook, like Raymond Chandler before him, Bolaño started to write the sort of works he felt were beneath his true calling. But where Chandler wrote about the travails of a streetwise shamus named Marlow who waxed prophetically and tossed about snippets of literary gold while kicking down doors and toeing rivulets of blood, many of Bolaño’s characters — and there were multitudes — seemed to strictly adhere to the somewhat Gnostic Infrarealismo manifesto Bolaño had written two decades earlier.

The manifesto demanded that all members shed the noose of modern society and search the world to find their true voices in an unrestrained existence. So as Bolaño did, so do many of his characters: almost always taking the low road, in search of truths long ago discarded in murky swamps; futilely wooing unattainable women, or being rendered incapable if indeed they should acquiesce, and rarely admitting the logic of an interlocutor’s argument, as their reasoning is based on a false reality. Following such debates, which range in tone from profound to hilariously puerile, the taciturn protagonist will just nod, shrug or offer a cigarette (after all, you can’t save them all, let alone yourself), and then ask if there’s a decent rock nearby, under which they might sleep that night. And all the while they read, read, read; every sort of book they can get their hands on, usually stolen — a sign of any true Infrarealiest. Bolaño attributed the gaps in his education to shopkeepers keeping certain books higher up on the selves, thus making them harder to filch.

What exactly it is his characters are searching for is often vague, or seemingly random —a carrot dangled a few feet ahead and pursued with complete alacrity because it’s the sort the hare might nibble once. The search is often a sort of convoluted and existential MacGuffin. But it is all they require to trudge through a world of arbitrary destruction, rancid or disappointing sex, violent boredom and, of course, poetry. These individuals have no armor or steeds, sidearms or buddies on the force, or damsels to save. They are, as designated by the title of one of Bolaño’s finest novels, savage detectives.

The Savage Detectives is a highly autobiographical account of Bolaño and Mario Santiago’s turbulent lives. The novel is book-ended with the diary entries of Juan Garcia Madero, a young college student living in Mexico City who, like Bolaño, has given up his institutional education for that naively thought attained living as a bohemian poet. Madero befriends the members of a minor poetic movement called the Visceral Realists, and comes into his own as he interacts with lustful waitresses, vengeful pimps, the “established” literary community and an off-kilter architect, who champions the Realists while slowly losing his mind as he watches his daughters and the young poets slowly desiccated by Mexican society in the Seventies. Madero also befriends the VR’s leaders, the beguiling, at once profound and fatuous, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima (Bolaño and Santiago, respectively), embody the reincarnations of Kerouac and Cassady, Butch and Sundance and, at times, Beavis and Butthead.

In the second half of Madero’s adventures, he, along with Lima and Belano, and a prostitute named Lupe, search through the Sonoran desert for Cesárea Tinajera, the leader of the stridentists, a predecessor and inspiration for the realists. Tinajera’s only known poem was constructed using only three literal lines: one straight, one wavy and the other consisting of jagged peaks.

Between these two episodes involving Madero, consisting of a total of a 124 pages, is the testimony from 38 different people, spanning two decades and over 400 pages, all relating their interactions with either Lima or Belano after the two had returned from the desert searching for the lost poetess.

Separating after leaving Mexico, both men head for Europe, where they struggle to keep their heads above the water while meeting a cavalcade of souls, all with different takes on the two wayward travelers, and all telling their tales of Lima and Belano in a monologue format as if some reporter (or private eye) had asked the same question, pressed record on his or her handheld and then just leaned back and listened without further comment.

A few of the interviewees see the men as divine ascetics, roaming the world to preach their message simply by letting themselves be seen, occasionally heard and, at their more destitute hours, whiffed. Other accounts are more objective, with fleeting memories of either man being held by a gossamer thread, secured by the unusual circumstances in which they met, or the uncanny essence both men are said to exude. And the third group consists of naysayers who see Lima and Belano as nothing more than con men, lice factories, drug dealers, and sexual deviants.

Reading each of these recollections, these interweaving and often brilliant short stories (a format Bolaño was no slouch at either), it becomes difficult to pin down who Lima and Belano really are. It’s clear they are certainly not saints. But at the same time they are obviously so much more than callow types who panhandle and couch crash because they’re unable to cope with reality. When their need becomes so great they are forced to temporarily seek regular employment, we are shown just how adroitly they can work, often earning the respect of their employers. But then, after the body has mended, the stomach stretched back out to its normal contours, and cuts and bruises have been coated with plasters, the road calls out again, and their quixotic hunt for ineffable truths begins anew.

If anything, one might call The Savage Detectives a filthy hagiography. And seeing that, like Hemingway, its author wasn’t known for his modesty, it’s not unseemly to say that in case everyone else forgot to, Bolaño wrote Detectives to beatify himself and Santiago.

As it turns out, the rest of the Latin American literati didn’t forget him. In addition to Detectives, other works of Bolaño’s have also been heralded, most notably his novella By Night in Chile, along with many of his short stories and, finally, his magnum opus 2666, which is due for an English translation release sometime next year). And in 2003, just a few weeks before his death, many of Latin America’s great writers and critics congregated to discuss Bolaño’s oeuvre. It was the opinion of the symposium that Roberto Bolaño’s work is some of the most important in Latin America, placing him in the company of his heroes Borges and Cortazar. In addition, many Latin American critics have proclaimed 2666 the most important novel of its generation. And this is a book that Bolaño had only finished as a first draft before passing. Not bad for a failed poet.

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