Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The poem is a joke, they said, it’s easy to see.

he even liked Agatha Christie too, and sometimes we would spend hours talking about one of her novels, going over the puzzles (I have a terrible memory, but his was excellent), reconstructing those impossible murders. (II.7)

We, the gentle detectives, readers of The Savage Detectives, all had good fun on Monday, didn’t we, when in the comments, not even in the main post, I suggested a crackpot solution to one of the minor mysteries of the novel, one that sent everyone off in enjoyable directions.  If nothing else*, wild misreadings force readers to abandon general impressions and reactions and love and antipathy and just look at the dang text.

Assuming the text is text.  The most explicit riddling in The Savage Detectives takes the form of pictures, cryptic little hieroglyphics, some in the form of a children’s game used to kill time while driving, but also in Cesária Tinajero’s only published poem, "Sión":

Image borrowed from Archivo Bolaño (dig their website name).  Readers of the novel know that I am cheating.  This is not Tinajero’s poem, but a later interpretation of the poem.  I am tempted to say that it is not Tinajero’s poem at all.

Do you understand now? They said.  Well, to be honest, I don’t boys, I said.  The poem is a joke, they said, it’s easy to see.  Amadeo, look: add a sail to each of the rectangles like this: (II.18)

and the interpreted poem follows.  So the reader who wants to see the original image needs to imagine – or perhaps print out and then erase – the sails and mast.  Belano and Lima, the young poets turned critics, begin by arguing that the lines represent the sea, calm or agitated – fair enough, a good start – but they cap their interpretation by simply adding the missing pieces to the work. They do the same thing to the title: Sión is short for navigación.  They’re right, this is easy!

I suppose the only difference between what they are doing and what a less physically assertive critic does is that they write their interpretation into the text.  They could have said “imagine that the little boxes have sails.”  What else does a critic do?  We begin with the parts that are there and fill in the parts that are not, in a useful or creative or at least thorough way, so I hope.

The character who reports all of this to us is himself deeply skeptical of the interpretation, and the interpreters themselves remove the sails, invoking Moby-Dick and working through a series of rectangles (“in a universe where rectangles are unthinkable,” ahem, see last page), which they equate with “the desolation of poetry.”  As always in The Savage Detectives, no claim to certainty (“it’s easy to see”) is left standing.

* We did accomplish something else – we demonstrated a fundamental principle of the novel – but I want to save that for another day.


  1. What else does a critic do? We begin with the parts that are there and fill in the parts that are not, in a useful or creative or at least through [sic] way, so I hope.

    Indeed—with "reasonable assumptions"—or not-so-reasonable ones!

    How many other things could we draw on the rectangles for a different interpretation? Wheels, say.

  2. Lemme fix that little typo there.

    Did you like how the rectangle turns into Queequeg's coffin? I did not notice that until I went back to this passage. Nor did I remember the strange profusion of rectangles, clearly obscurely relevant to the very end of the novel. What's outside the window? "The desolation of poetry."

  3. The rectangles are clearly books, the first causing no reverberations; the second minor ones and the third (clearly a work of visceral realism) causing a virtual earthquake! And it's clearly a series of adobe houses - the first on the plain, then the hills and then in thw mountains.

  4. Adobe houses I like; books I like a lot.

  5. I've been wanting to come back to this post ever since you put it up, but time... Anyway, the comments are adorable. "the strange profusion of rectangles" - triangles too, including one added to a rectangle (again) at the novel's end (did RB read Flatland?). But yes, so easy to diminish the fascination of something by a too facile interpretation, by trying to box it in (at least leave the borders of one's interpretations porous...). I can't help coming back to Tinajero's "poem" Sión as playing such a central role in the novel (and why would such a thing send aspiring poets off wandering in the desert to find its author?). Three fun things I've learned that I just love in relation to this:

    1) Caborca (the town, the municipal area in the Sonora desert) is well known for its petroglyphs.

    2) One referent for Sión is La Prieuré de Sion, that religious cabal for which a fictitious history was invented in the 1960's by Pierre Plantard.

    3) The meaning of "ludibrium."

    Will the fun of this novel never cease?

  6. I always like to hop in with replies, to liven up the joint, to keep things hopping, but sometimes someone leaves a comment that so nicely caps a thread that I do not want to say anything else, like seraillon's comment, which I just stepped on a bit here, oh well.