Monday, January 30, 2012

Still, my story won’t be as coherent as I’d like.

Roberto Bolaño has been such a disappointment.  His over-inflated reputation would have been so much fun to puncture.   No, I’m not that kind of writer, but it would have been satisfying to read other people take down that fraud Bolaño and the fools who praise him.

Instead, the balloon seems to have been inflated to the proper poundage.  Oh well.  Maybe the next big hype will be a con job.  Let’s hope.

I liked them.  They reminded me of the beats. (The Savage Detectives, 183)

Did they ever.  If I had picked up The Savage Detectives without knowing anything about it, the first part of the novel, 137 pages of the diary of a seventeen year-old Mexico City neo-beatnik who has just discovered poetry and bohemianism, would have done me in.  Here’s the unimpressive page 90 test:

November 30

Last night something really bad happened.  I was at the Encrucijada Veracruzana, leaning on the bar, switching back and forth between writing poems and writing in my diary (I have no problem going from one format to the other), when Rosario and Brígida started to scream at each other at the back of the bar.  Soon the grisly drunks were taking sides and cheering them on so energetically that I couldn’t concentrate on my writing anymore and decided to slip away.

The voice of that kid is all too plausible.  650 pages of this - forget it!  Details of the Mexican setting aside, and the details do have their interest, I have read this book before; it’s just more of that kind of thing.  I would wonder why everyone was getting so hopped up about it.  Unless I had been lucky enough to flip ahead fifty or a hundred pages.

The idea of not knowing anything about The Savage Detectives before reading it - I just said that as a joke.

I’m not trying to justify myself.  I’m just trying to tell a story.  Maybe I’m also trying to understand its hidden workings, workings I wasn’t as aware of at the time but that weigh on me now.  Still, my story won’t be as coherent as I’d like.  (297)

I knew a lot about this book before I read it.  For example, that once that kid goes on the road with his angel-headed poet pals, on page 139, the one voice becomes many more, dozens more, and the single story shatters.  This is the flashy show-off section of the book, as Bolaño wanders the globe and mimics all sorts of different people, including an impressive variety of madmen, at the same time telling the story of a couple of the Mexican poets, but obliquely, and perhaps also telling yet another story in the negative space of the first one.  I would bet you eleven dollars that at least two of the sections were separately written short stories that were retrofitted into the novel. Bolaño expands one of the best of them into an entire novel.

Then after several hundred pages the party is over, everyone goes home, that proto-poet and his diary return, and I finally discover why Bolaño has made me spend so much time with that kid.  The key sentence, on the next to last page, was “I’ve read Césarea’s notebooks” (646).  I might well have said aloud, “Oh, I get it.”  But I should have gotten it quite a bit earlier.

I could go on and on like this.  It’s the great strength of book blogs, yes, that personal voice, my reaction?  Even though I haven’t said a dang thing.

Richard and Rise organized the shindig and link to even more fragmented voices.


  1. Is this post a trap? Tee-hee.

    There may be a clue earlier, a possible slip by Amadeo (p. 198 in a different edition): "When I found my copy of Caborca I cradled it in my arms, I gazed at it and closed my eyes, gentlemen, because no one is made of stone."

  2. Oh my God! Amadeo is the real killer! He means Caborca-the-knife, not the magazine!

  3. He could get a bit creepy.

    These guys couldn’t go on asking around for that long. Maybe the first two years, tops. Somebody else picked up the tape recorder by the '80s.

  4. So the "slip" - let's see if I am following Rise - is the word "gentlemen," assuming that it is addressed to his interviewers, of whom there would then seem to be at least two, both men.

    The poets Belano and Lima are the subjects of the interview with Amadeo, which is about an important encounter he had with them, so they cannot be the interviewers. Plus, the interview is in January 1976; Belano and Lima are wandering the Sonoran desert, as are my two other key suspects, who must be in some combination the later "somebody else" Rise mentions.

    I am entertaining an idea in the "terrible irony" category that poor Amadeo is actually spilling all of this to Alberto and his hired muscle, although I do not see how they could be patient enough to sit through the enumeration of the Directory of the Avant-Garde, the toast to the dead, which is frankly, a pretty unlikely part of any kind of interview.

  5. The Alberto + thug theory could work, in theory. It’s plausible they would listen patiently to the insufferable litanies about the stridentists. (They may have to kill Amadeo afterward.)

    For the interviews of the rest of the year, Garcia Madero could have sensed the right suspects. (I just couldn’t understand why Garcia Madero and Lupe weren’t present at the meeting with Amadeo. Where were they? The dates in his diary entry were unreliable too—see Feb. 2 entry.)

  6. The funny thing about your retrofitted short story wager, Tom, is that even though I think you're on the right track, I think Bolaño is kind of uneven as a short story writer--outside the pages of The Savage Detectives at least. Given that you appreciated the middle section's mini-narratives much more than García Madero's diary entries, though, are you at all surprised at the backlash this "flashy show-off section of the book" seems to get or do you think that's just an expected reaction from a certain type of reader? One of the things I like about Bolaño's narrators is how untrustworthy they are--not in the shifty sense of an unreliable narrator exactly but more in the real life way of untrustworthy like the character who confuses one of Duchamp's big works with a Picasso! That's my kind of in-joke anyway.

  7. Ah, I hadn't thought of that. Can the Belano & Lima meeting with Amadeo be linked in some more or less precise way with García Madero's diary? Thus identifying the date & more importantly his activities and Lupe's.

    García Madero's confusion about dates is almost too good to be true, but would clear some things up.

    "and then I looked at them and I saw them as if through a window"

  8. Slipping the never-quite-successful short story into the novel can give it extra meaning. I would guess, for example, that a version of the "Chasm" story existed before The Savage Detectives - could have even featured "Belano," given how Bolaño worked. By itself, it might be too much of a black hole - figurative language very much intentional. The novel has its own weight and is able to resist the pull of the Cave of Montesinos.

    As for the reaction to the brilliant, confident, skillful middle section, um, I'll go with "expected... certain... reader." Readers who "find it harder to suspend disbelief and be touched by made-up troubles and triumphs" but "notice a skilled and unexpected use of the tools of fiction" will be amazed.

    Completely agree about the good Duchamp joke. "Confuses" almost gives that character too much credit, doesn't it - he is wrong with great gusto.

  9. Ah, GM and Lupe could not have met Amadeo because
    Sometime in 1975 - Only Ulises and Arturo met Amadeo to talk with him about Cesarea.
    Jan. 1976 - Ulises, Arturo, Garcia Madero., Lupe on the run out of Mexico City, aboard the Impala.
    Jan. 1976 - Some "gentlemen" interviewed Amadeo in Mexico City.
    End of Jan. 1976 - The pimp caught up with the four.

  10. Yep, read the first section: dull account of clueless teenage fascination with literature and playing at poetry - and gave up. Not reading the rest; not going back to it.

    I remember a friend once saying about one particular British film: but you should have watched it to the end because the ending is extraordinary; to which my reply was: I don't care how extraordinary the ending was, I'm never going to get there.

  11. I would get to the end. I am much more tolerant of artistic tedium and more neurotic about completeness than you are.

    I think I can defend the first point. Not so sure about the second. We both made it through The Melancholy of Resistance - that scene where we watch the characters walk alongside a blank wall for however many minutes!

    Has everyone been reading obooki's series on Vilas-Matas? It is highly relevant to Savage Detectives. One good game to play with SD would be "Spot the Bartleby."

    Rise -yes, that is one technical reason (aside from the good symbolic ones) that the Jan. 1 date is used, so there is no ambiguity about the year of the action.

  12. But that was a film (at least, I don't remember such a scene in the book): I can sit and watch two men walk along a black wall for hours. (Actually, I gave up on my first attempt to watch that film, and also The Man From London).

    Scott E: I’d like to ask you about your friendship with Roberto Bolaño ... Did the friendship leave traces in your literature?

    V-M: Meeting Bolaño in 1996 meant that I no longer felt alone as a writer. In that Spain, which was trapped in a provincialism and an antiquated realism, finding myself with someone who from the very first moment felt like a literary brother helped me to feel free and not consider myself as strange as some of my colleagues would have me believe.

  13. I would bet you eleven dollars that at least two of the sections were separately written short stories that were retrofitted into the novel. Bolaño expands one of the best of them into an entire novel.

    I would like to know if we can know which way this happens--are they retrofitted in, or yanked out and expanded?

    Anyway, I'm not a fan of this theory that it could be Alberto plus his thug that are interviewing Salvatierra. Do they not follow the kids out of Mexico City right then and there? Why would they think to go to Salvatierra? There's just not enough time--they're spending January 1976 in Sonora too, and then dead.

    From what I can see there are three questions that must be answered to narrow down the field here:
    Who was in Mexico City in January 1976?
    Who would have had an interest in asking questions about Belano and Lima at that point?
    Who would have known Salvatierra was a good source?

    And there have to be more than one person, and they have to be male.

    I think these are really tough questions. The best thing I can come up with is "any combination of the male visceral realists left behind in Mexico City," or perhaps someone involved in publishing, or Quim (when does he end up in the asylum exactly?). But I think the thugs are gone too soon for it to be them.

  14. The retrofitting and expansion goes both ways. The guy who sees numbers, that's a story from the slush pile (I am guessing) that is trimmed and shaped to fit the novel. Auxilio Lacouture's chapter is expanded into the novel Amulet. That one is not a guess.

    The timetable: Alberto loses Belano & Lima immediately. They start poking around at Belano & Lima's circle and follow the trail to Amadeo (this step is a stretch - but why does anyone at all know about Amadeo?), who inadvertently puts Alberto on the right path, to Sonora.

    That part is a problem. But the timetable is OK. Alberto is not spotted in Sonora until Jan. 20. So: 17 or 18 days to do detective work in Mexico City & then drive to Nogales.

    The biggest issue is that Sonora is a huge place and the characters should never cross paths at all, but that's Bolaño's problem, not mine. Maybe Alberto is also tracking Tinajero, knowing that's where his quarry will be.

  15. Yeah, I don't know why I am so unchill on the Alberto-as-interviewer thing, but I still am. I always assumed that the issue of them not crossing paths again for 17 or 18 days was due to the size of Sonora and the path of escape (not exactly direct). Don't a bunch of people know at least in some vague way that the gang is headed up there? I mean, Alberto&thug searching for Cesárea would, of course, make for some very nice "savage detectives," but I find it really hard to imagine them listening to so much from Salvatierra. So much that doesn't matter at all for their purposes.

  16. "hard to imagine" - ludicrous, even! It's just loaded with irony.

    See beginning of Ch. 3, where Belano, Pequena, Barrios, and filthy-mouthed B. Patterson are described as interviewing Arce. Lots of people going around interviewing each other. I will bet if you made a list of characters and checked them all off against the facts (e.g., rule out Barrios and Pequena because of his chapter), who would end up with no one. Ha ha ha ha!

  17. Who is it, Vivian Darkbloom, or Charles Kinbote, or someone like that, who advises us to cut the book up and read it in a more helpful order? Not this book, of course, but I feel like I should.

  18. On the identity of the various interviewers, didn't Quim Font spill the beans on where the white impala people were headed? Alberto could have learned that info from him and not from Amadeo. Also--and not that I necessarily believe in this theory, which isn't particularly satisfying--but there's no real reason García Madero's diary entries couldn't have been written by somebody else under an alias. Like either Belano or Lima, the January 1976interviewers of Amadeo, the grad student who wants to write about the visceral realists, or that 17-year Chilean that the grad student struggles to recall by name. All sorts of choices, too many in fact!

  19. Have to say I'm not too bothered about who interviews who but felt that Alberto probably had information from his connections in the police that allowed him to 'run into' Belano, Lima et al. Did Quim Font not say (I'm too lazy to check) that he had given Alberto some directions?

  20. The retrofitting-expansion thing is logical, considering RB's writing method (if he practiced what he preached to short story writers): it's best to write 3 to 5 stories at a time, and if possible, 9 to 15 stories at a time.
    More savage speculations: Amadeo's interviewers may be an older set. If they were the visceral realists he would have called them "boys" as with Ulises and Arturo. The Quim Font betrayal is in Jan. 13 entry. He's probably pulling their legs. The poor thing missed Lupe and the Impala. The 30-something García Madero interviewing the "expert on visceral realism" had a nice ironic ring to it.

  21. Kinbote actually suggests - or demands - that the reader buy multiple copies of his book so he can chop them up and lay the necessary sections side by side. Many authors read that part of Pale Fire and nodded along - this chap's not so crazy after all.

    Séamus - "bothered" is the exact wrong word.

    The false García Madero has promise, as does the blatantly lying García Madero - some of his sex acts lead to me to some degree of doubt - but given the special status he achieves at the end of the book, I think it is fruitful to keep him around.

    Having said that - the no García Madero, but only Bustamante idea is fantastic. My one complaint about it is that it is too purely stolen from Pale Fire, with Bustamante playing the role of Botkin. One more Pale Fire idea - the diary is dictated, or the interviews are conducted, or both, by the ghost of Laura Damián. Or, no, it's the ghost of Laura who -----

    The Quim Font telephone conversation is a perfect place to end this nonsense, because it encapsulates how Bolaño creates these possibilities and simultaneously knocks them out. Here is a seemingly crucial piece of information, the only source of which is one of the novel's many madmen, and one with clear ulterior motives (bring my car back!). You can keep it, you can throw it out, you can somehow try to do both. No stable interpretation is possible.

  22. Good, I see having read your reply too hastily, I managed to disprove my own point. Most satisfying.

    I've often wondered (well, rarely) whether there was a connection between Arturo Belano and John Fante's Arturo Bandini.

  23. I think the usual speculation, Obooki, is that Arturo is for Arthur Rimbaud and Belano is for some Chilean novelist you don't appreciate. Makes sense to me--but you weren't asking me, were you?

  24. What, what. No, people in comments should talk to each other. Otherwise it's like a class where we dutifully answer the teacher's questions but refuse to argue with or extend an idea of one of the other students.

    I was actually never a student in one of those classes, because I gleefully argued with my classmates, but I have taught them.

    Boy, now I have made the internet sound like fun, haven't I?

  25. Tom, thanks for the reassurance, but please pay no mind to my only semi-polite heteronym who was answering Obooki like the 17-year old Poeta García Madero!

  26. Tom—Hahaha, truly you have. And you certainly have the happeningest comment section of any blog I read tonight.

    Richard— know, with everyone pointing out how unpleasantly immature García Madero is (and rightly so, such as with Tom's above quotes from the diary), I keep finding it surprising that he didn't annoy all. I found him sort of endearing I guess—at least, he made me laugh, not unlike your heteronym!

  27. Yeah, Garcia Madero irritated me too, almost as much as the four shallow academics from the first part of 2666. It's funny how both his big books start with fairly offputting scene-setting. Perhaps Bolano poking fun at the pretenses of his younger self in various ways.

    Still, I think Detectives is pretty darn uneven overall and far from his best work. For every excellent section like the campus siege, there's a bit of insider baseball that didn't grab me. By Night in Chile is probably the strongest piece of work I've read by him, along with some of the stories in Last Evenings on Earth and the fourth section of 2666 (the murders).

  28. Hmm. Maybe there is a downside to this heteronym business.

    I should be clear about the way in which García Madero annoyed me. He annoyed me because he began the book, and wrote like, a stock character. I am neutral on his youth, immaturity, braggadocio and so on. My annoyance was on artistic grounds.

    I prefer the stronger control or focus of By Night in Chile as well, but I am violating a couple of cherished a couple of Bolañese aesthetic principles in doing so. He values elegance and the illusion of perfection a lot less than I do.

    As for the inside baseball, I am so hot on Nazi Literature in the Americas that all I can say is: come inside, folks!

    nicole - you see why I oppose and do not understand people's use of threaded comments or whatever they are called, where the streams of thought are segregated and presumably safely ignored by new participants.

  29. "Oh my God! Amadeo is the real killer! He means Caborca-the-knife, not the magazine!"

    That is genuinely funny. Have you read James Thurber's "The Macbeth Murder Mystery," by any chance?

  30. Threaded comments are well-known as an abomination of the internet! For exactly that reason!

  31. The Thurber, yes, but a long, long time ago. Now there's a classic.

  32. He could have called him Arturo Bellendo.

  33. Phew! I'm not alone in my disdain. Over-inflated to say the least. Glad you punctured his balloon in your own inimitable style.

  34. Uh oh. That first paragraph was just a joke! One of those dang ironic inversions.

  35. You don't actually think Bolaño is a fraud, right? There is some strong evidence that he is a significant and good writer: many good readers find to be a good writer.

    Your disdain is actually disdain for Bolaño's readers. Like you think they're suckers.

  36. I came to this page by googling "bolaño is a fraud" because I just had to know if I was alone in this. Couldn't finish The Savage Detectives, there's just so very little to think about on any page, and so many pages. THANK YOU for saying it for me.

  37. I wonder if Unknown is a bot. I cannot tell.

    If not, or also if, you got caught by irony, and verb tenses. Bolaño's works are also pretty thoroughly saturated with irony. He's a tricky writer. He has given me and many other readers a lot to think about.