Thursday, August 5, 2010

Observations of the Visceral and Real (The Trouble With Poets)

The late Roberto Bolano has been celebrated as one of Latin America's finest writers. He has been compared to the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. ( Love in the Time of Cholera, One-Hundred Years of Solitude) After reading The Savage Detectives I'd have to agree with that assessment for two reasons ; First  is the feel for authentic setting. Both writers are easy-going educators. After reading their work I felt as though I'd actually gained some knowledge of Latin American culture. Let me also say that learning direct from the source is far more useful than three to four years of Spanish class. At least here in the States, where it seems as though the question of cultural education can be answered by three very basic components.  What they wear,  what they eat, and what holidays do they celebrate? What we see here is something very human and very real. This brings me to the second point of comparison between G.G.M. and Bolano ; The characters, of which there are many. What is so impressive when dealing with extensive casts, and in the process spanning many years - is that each author is able to do so, and at the same time present characters that are strong, and fully-realized individuals. (in Marquez's case this is even more awe-inspiring when so many of those characters have similar names, and can be mistaken for one another if you attempt to read too fast.)

Last week I expressed apprehension about reading supposedly literary novels.  Yet here I am again, reading and writing about reading and writing.  Thankfully once again I thoroughly enjoyed the book in question and thus I feel only slightly snobbish blogging about it. The way I figure it is that you can't get any more self-important once you start a blog in the first place, right?  The Savage Detectives may seem like a misleading title for this book, being that it ins't about detectives at all. Instead The Savage Detectives is about poets. More specifically it's about a group of poets who call themselves visceral realists. What visceral realism means is never quite clear, even for it's adherents.  What is clear is that they are a sort of new guard for Mexican poetry, brash, severe, and excited about the world. The novel's narrator for the first and last sections of the story is Juan Garcia Madero.  Juan arrives in Mexico City to study at the university, although once he falls in with the visceral realists he stops attending classes.  Juan is endlessly knowledgeable about poetic terms and the intricacies of form.  This fact is what draws the groups founders to him when they are on campus looking to recruit.  His fearlessness at showing up a local poetry professor also earns their respect. The two founders are Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano (who is a younger representation of the author even in his Chilean background)  The two sections with Juan as narrator move exceptionally fast.  This is helped by the dairy format which lists the day and is followed by a brief account of the relevant happenings. This might seem like something that would hurt the overall storyline by only skimming events but for me it provided plenty of information. Juan's connection to the reader here is very important because his introduction to the group is our introduction as well. This bit ends with Juan, Ulises, Arturo, and a whore named Lupe riding in a pimp's camaro into the Sonoran desert in search of Cesarea Tinajero, who they consider the mother of visceral realism

The middle portion of the novel ( which is the real meat of the book) is also where the name comes from.  The formatting here is set up as a long series of interviews with various characters and spans three decades. (76-96) Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano are mentioned frequently although no one can seem to get a fix on either for long.  For a time Lima vanishes in Nicaragua. Belano is spotted abroad in Paris by old friends. One interviewee recalls the time Belano discovered a 500 franc note on  the ground, and says now, he always walks with his head down.  Rumors are started and spread about both men although you don't find out why they are being sought out until the novel is just about over. Even the interview styled format isn't explained to the reader, yet that makes it more rewarding when it eventually clicks and you can savor the 'aha' moment. 

The third and final section of the book resumes the story from the beginning and ties things together in a mostly tidy fashion.  In all honesty there are more than a few interviews from the middle which probably could have been left out, although I won't complain.  As I said there are some enlightening things in this book which make it both educational and entertaining.  In addition I feel it is only right to praise the translator of this novel, which like all of Bolano's works was originally printed in Spanish. So, big ups to Natasha Wimmer.  She did an amazing job translating this into a smooth and effortless reading experience. At least as effortless as a 577 page novel can be. Of course from my recent review of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones it is only more apparent what damage a poor translation can do. This has also restored some of my faith in the 1001 book you must read before you die list.  Having never read Bolano previously I was skeptical of how great of an impact a writer with just two novels to his credit could have - Still having not read much Latin American fiction I feel somewhat ill-prepared to make grand statements ; What I am sure of is Bolano's talent. The Savage Detectives proves something I've said of poetry for some time - Observation is the key, after which everything else falls into place.

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