THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES
Roberto Bolaño Trans. Natasha Wimmer
Returning to SD after so long, because its lasting impression is of a world succumbing to an entropic darkness. Like Saramago, Bolaño was a writer and a left wing fellow traveler. Say what you will about anarchism, but a majority of the time they strive to make their writings accessible to all. I had bracketed this question: why do my own tastes in literature go to the difficult, experimental, and pyrotechnical styles over simple and direct prose? I was content to have my aesthetic and political interests run as two separate trains, hopefully in the same direction.
Yes, in the rise of Trumpland, even I am wondering about what to do with my art. I’m searching for an alternative to the predictably moronic response of the imploding democratic party and the neoliberal consensus that has been given its biggest rebuffs in a long while. I’ve never been keen on “activist art.” That’s a niche market for commissions. Writing doesn’t change the world; riots do. Bolaño’s novel provides a foothold to come at this issue with a little more dialectical thinking.
First, something from the Paris Review’s interview of William H. Gass:
If you start talking about speech acts, what you are doing is connecting the notion of writing with a concept of performance. I think contemporary fiction is divided between those who are still writing performatively and those who are not. Writing for voice, in which you imagine a performance in the auditory sense going on, is traditional and old-fashioned and dying. The new mode is not performative and not auditory. It’s destined for the printed page, and you are really supposed to read it the way they teach you to read in speed-reading. You are supposed to crisscross the page with your eye, getting references and gists; you are supposed to see it flowing on the page, and not sound it in the head. If you do sound it, it is so bad you can hardly proceed. It can’t all have been written by Dreiser, but it sounds like it. Gravity’s Rainbow was written for print, J.R. was written by the mouth for the ear. By the mouth for the ear: that’s the way I’d like to write. I can still admire the other—the way I admire surgeons, bronc busters, and tight ends. As writing, it is that foreign to me.
I won’t outright say DETECTIVES belongs in the second “printed page” category, but it’s not interested in doing the things Gass’s prose does. It lights matches, it doesn’t set fireworks. (And as much as I love Gass and believe he wrote some of the finest American literature of the last century, lighting fireworks all the time has its own flaws.)
In a big set piece a little early on in the big middle part of the novel, our section’s narrator Auxilio Lacouture recounts hiding out in a UNAM campus bathroom as the military massacres the students:
Then I took the toilet paper that I’d written on and threw it in the toilet and pulled the chain. The sound of the water startled me, and I thought I was lost. I thought: what a poetic act to destroy my my writings. I thought: I should have swallowed them instead, because now I’m lost. I thought: the vanity of writing, the vanity of destruction. I thought: because I wrote, I stood my ground. I thought: because I destroyed what I wrote they’re going to find me, beat me, rape me, kill me. I thought: the two acts are related, writing and destruction, hiding and being found. (204)
This thematically salient moment comes after many pages of language that is a little more figurative and lyrical — Lacouture’s a poet, the “mother of Mexican poetry.” She clings “like a limpet” to theater groups, and what have you.
We can locate her in that turning point Gass identifies between the performance and printed page prose styles. Bolaño’s kinda making fun of an idiom that is on its way out, but he’s also celebrating it for what it was. I’m less interested in that masculinist notion of the artist as conquerer, or the totally free agent. The more serious I get about writing, the more it feels more like a surrendering. To what? Not necessarily a metaphysical flow of creativity. Just to the material conditions of our time. Certain ways of writing are closed off for good. Classical forms can be used, but usually with a postmodern irony. The legacy of artistic history can weigh down like a nightmare, or it can be the wind in your own sails.
I’m pretty sure there are over fifty different speakers in this second part of DETECTIVES. It really is a tour de force for Bolaño to differentiate among the characters so successfully. Sure there are tics of verbiage and diction: there’s a snob who spits out latinate phrases, and there’s a painter on whom the mystique of the visceral realists is completely lost — for him Belano and Lima were just the gentlemen losers who sold him pot. At a deeper level, Bolaño seems to have thought about each person’s relationship to language. Barbara Patterson, the American gal who swears a lot, also doesn’t have the inner eye of a poet, she sees the “Arab” eyes of her Mexican boyfriend and goes right to kitschy cliches of camels and tents. Is Belano travelling the world with a tape recorder to take down these long yarns of speech?
And then, in the third part, we have Madero’s doodles. They’re riddles, where simple shapes have to be identified. A dot with a tight circle and wide circle with a little black wedge sticking out. It’s a buzzard wearing a cowboy hat. And so on.
They’re related to the one piece we get by Cesárea Tinajero, the object of their quest in the desert (while on the run from Lupe’s pimp). In that poem, called “Scion,” a square is on a flat horizon line, then the line becomes a sine wave, then a distressingly jagged line. The boys “read” it as a ship on the horizon, and behind the title is not only “Zion” but “navigation.” Riddle solutions lock things up, but the meaning of poetry is none the less probelmatized.
I was chilled by the final pages, which devolve into doodles. The riddle is “What’s outside the window.” A triangle sticks in from the left edge. The answer is a star. But that’s not what stars look like: that’s just the formalized convention, or conventionalized form, of a five point star I used to draw in kindergarten.
In the final riddle, the window’s border is a dotted line. Is it gone, with only an outline for where it should be, like in a cartoon? Is the window mutable, able to expand, like Derrida’s discourse, so that there is no “outside” of it?
The novel “gives up” on language in a way, but it’s also magesterial in its range of discourse. You could plunge through all the name-dropped authors and avant-garde movements it touches on, but you could also enjoy the shaggy detective story. There is a dialectical relationship between advanced modern art, arbitrary, artificial, and alienated, so hard-pressed to communicate itself, and a popular mass art produced by the culture industry that communicates too much to too many people. Neither kind is enough by itself; but together they generate sparks. It is mechanical reproduction that conditions us to what the aura of fine art is by showing us the David and the Mona Lisa repeatedly on postcards and TV commercials and so on. It is art that retreats from the world that can generate the utopian space, the conditions for a new world.
What’s outside the window?