“Everything that begins as a comedy ends as a horror movie”

September 30, 2010 § 3 Comments

Writing about The Savage Detectives will not be easy, I thought, as I ploughed through its 570 or so odd pages, and now that I’ve started, writing about it is not easy. This is more of a record-keeping; an attempt to make a note on my blog that I’ve read it and spent about two weeks in the company of a large rotating cast of characters whom I’ve not met before but with whom I’ve consented to go on a road trip. The book itself is centred upon a road trip – a road trip that is actually a calculated getaway – that starts on page 124, and then not mentioned again until page 527. The time in-between is the time you spend in a dodgy rest-stop with people who come up to you and tell you their fractured stories; stories that have absolutely nothing to do with what you started out doing but which draw you in anyway.

Beginning with the journal entries of one seventeen-year-old Juan Garcia Madero, who is invited to join a literary movement of Mexican poets, the visceral realists, where he meets the enigmatic poets and men of letters Ulises Lima and his Chilean literary comrade Arturo Belano, the book segues into 400 pages of first-person narrations of various people who have met Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano in various places and in various guises, before returning us into the journalling hands of Madero again for the final 70 pages. This story is not a story, and The Savage Detectives is not really a novel. And the plot that is not a plot focuses on Belano and Lima’s quest for a Mexican poet, Cesarea Tinajero, whose work and person is spoken of in tones of reverence, but without any of this work or person present.

What is astonishing about The Savage Detectives to 21st-century sensibilities finely-attuned to short blocks of texts, sentences in under 140 characters, and BULLET! POINTS! is the incredible depth and breadth of its prose. It soars, it swoops, it lingers on windowsills, it sticks its beak into fountains, it spreads its wings, and it flies, thanks in large part to Natasha Wimmer’s translation, which seems to have been a stupendous labour of love. The Savage Detectives is, in essence, formless as far as novels proper go, but it creates its own form in the polyphony of voices that take up the role of one or several key traditional narrators. Bolano’s early training in poetry is apparent in the supple grace of his prose, where regular sentences thrum with an intrinsic rhythm and an ever-present stamina that allows them to go on for what seem like miles and miles of page before coming to a breathless but triumphant stop. If T.S. Eliot measured out his life in coffee spoons, then Bolano’s characters seem to measure their lives in gulps – as much as they can drink, consume, breathe, and take in where people, reading, writing, sex, experiences, and ideas are concerned.

The heart of the story ostensibly concerns Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano’s hunt for Cesarea Tinajero, a heart which then shrivels into a primary obsession of knowing about Lima and Belano, before blooming outward into an orchestra of voices determined to go about the business of knowing themselves. There is no single story that takes us through Lima and Belano’s path; instead, the heteroglossia of Bolano’s prose sends the reader hurtling through time and space with disparate memories stemming from disparate subjects as the sole existing map. The increasing thinness of Lima and Belano’s characters are little pinpricks to the consciousness and they disappear, then reappear – don’t forget, Bolano seems to say, it’s them we really want to know – while the chorus of narratives keep getting louder and louder, taking us away from what we really set out to learn at the start of the book.

In The Savage Detectives, Bolano has made a case for all knowledge being primarily selfish – in that, we crave knowledge of others, ideas, and events in order to better know ourselves. In Bolano’s hands, this isn’t a hearkening back to Enlightenment values of the liberal individual so much as it is a reaffirmation of Bakthin’s concept of the Rabelaisan carnival in which the collective body (or is it the bodies of collectivity?) influence one another and circulate amongst each other precisely to subvert the status quo. Humour is an essential component of Bolano’s sensibility, with a finely-attuned ear for both the absurd and the sweet, where women tell sexually-insecure burgeoning poets things like, “You are who you are and you have a cock that’s worth its weight in gold.” Madero masturbates to poetry; there are intense discussions among the visceral realists about the difference between “queer and faggot poets” that is futile and doomed to its own feeble circulatory logic from the start. Bolano has the ability to invite the reader to laugh – fondly – with and at his characters.

Bolano, as depicted by The New Yorker

While the ribald humour is often undercut by sadness and isolation, the plurality of consciousness is the truth; there is no truth that is unified and knowable by one subject. Each of the characters the reader meets in the book are pieces of the puzzle, but because they’re animate beings instead of bits of little cardboard, you can never really expect them to come together in a perfect finish and provide the single solution to all your questions. One gets the sense that each of the narrators is rebelling against a preconditioned sense of self as determined by society – particularly in the character of Joaquin Font, the town lunatic with the mental resources to pierce into the profound but more often banal unvarnished reality.

Bolano’s female narrators are particularly arresting, their voices imbued with a percolating sense of energy that propels the story forward in new and exciting ways. This is interesting, as some of his male narrators reveal themselves to be absurdly stupid in sexist ways – not least Arturo Belano himself, modelled after Bolano (if the name wasn’t a hint), and prone to occasionally slapping women both for sexual excitement and out of anger – but his female narrators, particularly Xochitl Garcia, Maria Font, Angelica Font, and Auxilio Lacouture, always seem to exist on the periphery of what’s acceptable, negotiating and renegotiating their space in society. Auxilio, in particular, comes fully-formed with a distinctive voice and a bizarre, captivating story centred on her hide-out in the bathroom of the National Autonomous University of Mexico as the army invades the campus before the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. It’s no surprise that Amulet, a novel that Bolano wrote after The Savage Detectives, is hers alone. Auxilio’s voice is a voice that deserves its own novel.

The book ends with a question written in Garcia Madero’s journal, reaffirming what one of the narrators earlier said: “Everything that begins as comedy inevitably ends as mystery.” But it’s also a strange and lonely ending; the laugher and freedom and potential of the start both of the book and their journey are marred by inexhaustible problems brought upon by mercurial temperaments and uncontrollable destinies. This, then, brings to mind the words of another narrator: “Everything that begins as comedy ends as a comic monologue, but we aren’t laughing anymore.” The end is a comic monologue by Garcia Madero, but somehow along the way the punch-line was forgotten. The end, however, is a stark reminder of the nature of things in life – you set out asking questions and are rewarded for your brazen curiosity with more questions capable of scrambling your mind beyond recognition to yourself or others.

In terms of its prose, The Savage Detectives is as egalitarian as one could hope, shading Mexico in a rainbow of colours and hues, with narrators coming from diverse layers of society, presenting all the good with all the bad in a way in a way that isn’t good or bad but just is, in a way that only a non-native probably can. (Bolano is Chilean, but lived in Mexico during formative years.) There is a yearning in this reader from the “East”, this third-world location of brown folks, to claim Roberto Bolano as our writer as much as he is yours and the “West’s”. Though The Savage Detectives is deeply rooted in geographic space and location (it feels like Mexico’s dust comes floating out of the pages with every turn, along with its sights, the smells, the sounds), the book itself can compel the average reader to read in Bolano some vestige of a particularly rootless “we are the world” strain of thinking. Therefore it does come as a bit of a disappointing surprise to learn that Bolano had once said in an interview, “Basically, I’m interested in Western literature, and I’m fairly familiar with all of it.”

Say what? Just “Western literature”?

But we all need to have standards and for some of us that means splitting the world in two. Bolano would probably not have cared what some blogger from the non-West would have thought about his book, but now that I’ve read it The Savage Detectives is mine – and yours – as much as it is his. Perhaps that’s the best revenge a non-Western reader can have on Works of Western Literature, but I suppose, really, who’s keeping tabs? Once in awhile a book like The Savage Detectives comes along, rendering borders moot even the creative force behind it sought to keep those borders in place.

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§ 3 Responses to “Everything that begins as a comedy ends as a horror movie”

  • Joe Hoover says:

    Hi, it’s 3:18 AM where I live, in West Virginia, in the U.S. I’ve just finished Savage Detectives. At around 9:30 I decided to finish the last 250 or so pages in one shot. And now, here I am on your blog, which I found rather serendipitously through a random google search of “Everything starts as comedy and ends as a dirge in the void.” I read your review, and I agree with most of what you’ve written. Likely, I would have left it at that, especially considering the hour, however since you just posted this, and inferentially have just recently finished SD, I thought I would share a few brief thoughts. I’m most curious about your classification of the novel as a non-novel, and as formless. While it certainly has both feet planted firmly in the avant garde, it still has a discernible structure – though this structure is itself an amalgamation of individual and disjointed narrative frames. First, it can be broken down by books, a division provided by the author, that carry out the progression of the story: the first establishes the initial setting, the key characters, the general themes of the novel (art, poetry, the excesses, joys, and tribulations of experience, etc.); the second, which comprises the bulk of the book, expands on Lima and Belano through a collage of recollections that, while admittedly unconventional, still serves the common cause of character and narrative development; the third, as you note, completes the story of Tinajero (one of the few completions the reader gets), but it leaves open the story of the others, in a sense it rewinds the narrative, collapses time, emphasizes the uncertainty and instability of living, in short, restates the major theme of the novel, which I think is analogous to the basic POMO interpretation existence as irreconcilably fragmented and incomplete. So in that sense, the books state and restate a theme and develop characters, which, I think, is what most novels do. And of course, for the most part the novel progresses temporally – each book moves forward through time, excluding some of the stories in the second book.

    I also thought your final comments about Bolano’s allegiance to Western Lit. were interesting. I don’t know much about him, but I was surprised by the quotation you provided. I wonder if he was joking? It seems arrogant to an almost comedic extent. From the novel, and the introduction by the translator, I assumed he would have been opposed to such divisions. What do you think?

    I’m also curious, seeing as your from the East, what your relationship to Western Lit. is like? I guess you’ve probably read more Western Lit than I have Eastern: I’ve dabbled a bit in India (Rushdie of course); I have an anthology of Middle Eastern poetry; I’ve read my share of Zen poetry; Haruki Marukami. But, at least in my experience, Eastern literature is still regarded as exotic, despite the varied attempts of post-colonial crit. In your cultural climate is Western Lit given a proportionately excessive amount of attention compared to your own culture’s lit? Or is it perhaps regarded with a similar sense of otherness? What ever you’d like to share in reply, I’d be interested to read.

    Now it’s bed for me. Maybe I’ll dream of Angelica or Maria. Or find out what happened to Belano in Liberia.

    Joe Hoover

    • Subashini says:

      Hi there! Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment.

      You make some good points in favour of why SD is a novel, and perhaps I should have been clearer in my own thoughts – it seems to be to be an antinovel, precisely because it subverts all those things it purportedly laid out from the start. The main protagonists are ostensibly Belano and Lima, yet not everything that happens throughout the middle section of the book is necessarily relevant to their chronology of events, or even in terms of establishing character. Also, the establishing of Garcia as the narrative voice is abandoned midway. But yours are good points worth pondering further…

      About Bolano’s comment – I’m not sure, but I assumed he wasn’t joking, if you read it in the context of the entire interview. I find it odd for the same reasons you do, but I suppose it is what it is. His whole focus on Western lit could simply mean that he could care less about literature produced outside of the West, or it could mean that he has read some and does not care for it or find it worthy of study. Or perhaps it just means that his area of interest is in Western literature and nothing more can be attributed to that. (To be fair, I’d also find it equally perplexing e if someone were to say “I’m basically interested in Eastern literature.”)

      My thing about being from the “East” was a bit of a sullen jab at Bolano ripping the world into halves like that, although he’s just one person in a very long tradition. 😉 It just seems strange to continue to use the binary of East and West as a defining characteristic well into the 21st century. I mean, if we use it at all, which granted… most of us still do, I think it should be done with an awareness of the completely arbitrary nature of the division.

      But to answer your question – my relationship to Western literature is intimate. 🙂 And I think this is the case of most English-speaking middle-class folks in Malaysia, to some extent. I mean, being the former colony of England means that some of us actually come out of the womb with an Agatha Christie and/or P.G. Wodehouse paperback in hand.
      Sure, Wodehouse and Christie aren’t part of the “Western canon”, but I remember being exposed to the Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, D.H. Lawrence from a young age because this was what People Read. Also, the older education system in Malaysia included complete and/or abridged texts of the English “classics”; bookshops are well-stocked with Anglo-American literature. There’s no escaping it, and yes, it’s certainly been given more preponderance in the market over homegrown literature in the past, although this like everything else is more complex than what I’ve stated and is constantly changing. I don’t think I can adequately summarise the intricate relationship between postcolonial societies and the “West” (and in turn, to itself) in this reply without falling into huge generalities, but that certainly colours aspects of how we consume culture – and that includes literature produced out of the US, UK, and Europe.

      But isn’t it interesting that the same people who say believe in or agree in things like “the world is flat” also continue to believe and construct the East to be entirely “exotic”? Why would half the world be considered exotic when it simply is?

      If you’re interested in SE Asian writing (fiction and nonfiction), some writers I would recommend are K.S. Maniam, Brian Gomez, Lloyd Fernando, Preeta Samarasan, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Amir Muhammad, Angelo R. Lacuesta (whom I’ve just discovered), Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, Alfian Sa’at, Dina Zaman, Farish Noor, Kam Raslan… these are just some of the few. Hope you enjoy discovering them!

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