The Savage Detectives
The Savage Detectives. Roberto Bolano. 610 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007.
2666. Roberto Bolano. 912pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008.
By Daniel Meier
English major, philosophy minor, ’18.
March 30, 2017.
“Life left us all where we were meant to be or where it was convenient to leave us and then forgot us, which is as it should be.”
Roberto Bolano, The Savage Detectives
Chilean-born author Roberto Bolano (1953-2003) received national fame for his literature during his lifetime but only cult success in the United States. However, two of his novels, The Savage Detectives, and 2666, are regarded as some of the finest works of fiction in the Latin American canon by American readers. His prose, dark and complex, reflects the desperation of the Mexican working class, crime-ridden South American streets, the passions of youth, and the overwhelming desire for art and meaning amidst chaos.
Bolano’s novels are experiments in structure, manipulating time and space, while narrating in a feverishly clear style enhancing his already disorienting plot. These literary manipulations, while revealing the solipsism of the individual, binds the gap between literature and reality. Through these two novels, Bolano showed the world how the structure of a novel can alter the experience of the reader. The Savage Detectives (1998), was described by Bolano as “a love letter to (his) generation” (Vagabonds, The New York Times). Set in the 1970s of Mexico City, The Savage Detectives revolves around a gang of renegade poets beginning a literary movement coined “visceral realism”. Bolano divides his work into three parts, the first of which is narrated through the journal entries of the 17-year-old poet, Juan Garcia Madero, a member of the visceral realists, whose entries cover the few months prior to 1976. An orphan living with relatives, he documents the lives of his youthful contemporaries: their sexual pursuits, study of classic poetry, and search for identity, as well as his own life endeavors, from the loss of his virginity to his love affair with a prostitute.
The second part of the novel rapidly increases in scale, covering the time between 1976 to 1996. Voiced by over forty different narrators, each relay their personal experiences with the two leaders of visceral realism, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, as their bohemian lifestyles take them across the globe. The narrator’s experiences with Lima and Arturo range in objectivity from friends/lovers to complete strangers, yet each in some way cross paths with these two men and opine on their character. One narrator describes a sexual love affair and short-term relationship with Belano, another encounters Lima in an Israeli prison, while some may only know of these men as distant acquaintances. Bolano goes so far as to cast some narrators who barely interact with them at all, rather describing their own lives and knowing Lima and Arturo as nameless anecdotes–silhouettes on a distant bridge.
This drift into increasing subjectivity of the text mimics the English modernist, Virginia Woolf, specifically the novel Jacob’s Room in where the narrative voice, while never entering into the consciousness of Jacob, instead describes him through the observations of different people in his life. Similar to the character of Jacob Flanders, who in a sort of metaphysical sense, “disappears” from the text, leaving behind only the objects in his room, fragments of his being scattered across reality, so too do Arturo and Ulises, (their lives becoming increasingly absurd, involving a sword fight with a literary critic and a third-world uprising), morph into legends, the idea of them transcending their actuality.
Bolano’s work frequently touches on themes of the individual’s relationship with reality; just as Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima become myths, impersonal entities with no bearing on “real life”, so too does the ongoing femicide of Mexican factory workers blend into obscurity of the plot in 2666. Bolano’s last novel, (written while death from liver failure threatened his life) is also his longest; at over 900 pages, 2666 creates an atmosphere comparable to any American high-noir film, with corrupt cops, desperate and frightened civilians, and unsolved murders haunting the minds of the working class. Set in the fictional city of Santa Teresa (a stand-in for Ciudad Juarez), over one hundred female factory workers have been raped, mutilated, murdered, and left in the desert to rot in the Mexican sun.
Though not explicitly formulated in the text, 2666 subtly questions the ethics of NAFTA and its benefit for the Latin American working class. Bolano’s support of socialist Salvador Allende’s regime in overthrowing Pinochet’s dictatorial rule clearly parallels 2666’s presupposition that free market economy is a kind phrase for corporate enslavement. The non-fictive border town, Ciudad Juarez, is a sprawling landscape of low rent districts, vice-ridden cities, and American-owned Maquiladoras, turning people into commodities for profit; and Santa Teresa, it’s fictive counterpart, is suffering the consequences of this human objectification in the form of rampant sexual assault and murder of adolescent female factory workers. Bolano’s prose style caters to this heartless atmosphere through combining forensic report-like descriptions of each victim as their bodies are discovered, with miscellaneous personal sentiments of the victim’s life, unexpectedly appealing to their humanity. For example, a victim may be described with short factual statements such as: “In February Maria de la Luz Romero died. She was fourteen and five foot three, with long hair down to her waist,” and then “although she planned to cut it someday soon, as she revealed to one of her sisters” (450). The beginning of the previous statement could be the transcript of a police report while the second part would appear out of place in an atmosphere of science and facts.
The effects of industrialization are apparent in 2666 and acts as a dehumanizing agent towards the Spanish factory workers who are, as critic Sharae Deckard writes, “the zombie, the embodied dispirited phantasm that is historically linked to periods of drastic change in control over the production and circulation of value” (355). This idea of spatial partiality towards the lives of the dead relates to 2666’s post-global scope. With five parts, each being able to stand alone, yet all circulating in some vague way around the Santa Teresa femicides, Bolano moves away from the Latin-centric narrative of The Savage Detectives into a fragmented, post-enlightened world, which according to critic Patrick Dove, lacks a significant experience of totality (145).
From a group of European literary scholars to a Harlem reporter to a Nazi writer fighting in World War Two, the scale of 2666 de-centers it from its subject. As in The Savage Detectives where the plot drifts into subjectivity as it’s narrative voice distances itself further away from Lima and Belano, thus turning men into mythological archetypes of youth and poetry, so too does the structure of 2666 force the victims of Santa Teresa into mere anecdotes within an overwhelming canon of human information. Bolano’s encyclopedic style works devoutly to this purpose of creating informational white noise, deadening the emotional element of his work.
The labyrinth that results from Bolano’s novels as pieces of “literary architecture” undermines and mocks the human desire for a center/whole.
With the narrative subjectivity of The Savage Detectives and the deliberately unfocused plot of 2666, the ability to understand and “make sense of” is as futile as the efforts of the police in understanding the source of Santa Teresa’s crime rates. One of Madero’s journal entries, containing two sentences, reads: “Nothing happened today. And if anything did, I’d rather not talk about it, because I didn’t understand it.” (51). If writing is used to fill in the voids of human understanding, then this quote instead creates a new void where that which could be said is kept silent. In this manner, Bolano contends with the notion that art is meant to fill a void and suggests that structuring the novel with informational overloads, un-centered plots, and distance between narrative voice and subject can create a more authentic experience for the reader living in a capitalistic, post-global world. Amidst the chaos, the traditional platonic view of “art as order” is eliminated and replaced with a structure in which the fragmentation of the novel is as important as its plot.
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