And then Laura asked me, pretending as if she didn’t know, how the young poets of Mexico were faring, whether my daughter had brought me news of their long, bloody march. And I told her they were fine. I lied, saying: they’re fine, almost everyone is publishing… (II.17)
The speaker is a madman, the context is a dream, but here we have an accurate description of The Savage Detectives. Roberto Bolaño’s novel is about the vocation of the poet. Who is a poet, and how can you tell? To a clear-minded fellow like me, the answer is obvious – a poet writes poetry. Bolaño is more sympathetic to other ideas, a classic Romantic. Perhaps poetry is a way of life. A poet is a person who lives like a poet.
The multiple examples and twenty-year scope of the novel allow Bolaño to see what some of those lives look like. Publish a single word and vanish, but keep writing. Writing what, only García Madero knows. Write feverishly, but publish nothing. Write as inspiration strikes, publish as opportunity allows. Work to become a professional writer. Hustle, or retreat. Bolaño gives us a little bit of everything.
Much of the argument, the possible arguments, are not about writing but publishing, which is central for the professional writer but more questionable for the vocational writer. Chapter 23 is composed, mostly, of a series of interviews with professional writers at the 1994 Madrid Book Fair. Bitterness, envy, crackpot ideas, social striving, greed – what fun a book fair must be. Spanish writers “act like businessmen or gangsters.” Writers must “resemble a newspaper columnist,” or a dwarf. This last writer, at least, is audibly insane. Another describes his career as a combination of discipline and “charm,” “telling [influential writers] exactly what they want to hear.” A poet, another crazy one, “smile[s] to keep from howling” and “sing[s] so I won’t pray or curse.”
In summary: professional writers are twisted madmen. This chapter was the comic high point of the novel. Everything that begins as comedy ends as comedy. Perhaps it is worth noting that in 1994, Roberto Bolaño, his first* novel published the previous year, was one of those professional writers. Was he also sitting in one of those booths at the Book Expo? Too bad he was not interviewed.
And I say (or if I’m drunk, I shout): no, I’m not anybody’s mother, but I do know them all, all the young poets of Mexico City, those who were born here and those who came from the provinces, and those who were swept here on the current from other places in Latin America, and I love them all. (II.4)
Part of the novel’s story of Arturo Belano parallels the author’s own long, difficult discovery that despite his deep love for conceptual poetry, he was not himself a conceptual poet. I have no idea what the fictional Belano wrote about, but the real Bolaño slowly shaped himself into a novelist whose subject was poetry. The Savage Detectives is Bolaño’s ironic and chastening love letter to the young poets.
* First novel, and book, I think, of his own, fifteen years after all of the infrarealist fun captured in The Savage Detectives. What do you think goes on in the 1984 Advice of a Morrison Disciple to a Joyce Fanatic, co-written with A. G. Porta?