Friday, June 20, 2008

Regresando a Bolano

Some follow-up thoughts on Roberto Bolano and The Savage Detectives, about which I wrote at length last week.

1 In that post last week, I wrote:
[O]ne of the most interesting aspects of The Savage Detectivesis that, much as long stretches of it are about living a bohemian poet's life in Mexico, the country itself is in an odd way not that central to the novel. . . .[U]ltimately Mexico is simply another stop on the anti-bourgeois world circuit of crummy apartments and beater cars and bad neighborhoods that serve as the unwilling refuge of Arturo Belano, Ulises Lima, and their ilk, from Paris to Israel to Liberia to San Diego. Mexico City is perhaps more compelling, more unforgettable than those other places because the poets' circle of compatriots and enemies is ultimately concentrated there, woven into the very fabric of the streets and cafes. But the book--like its subjects--is too big for Mexico alone; it is determined to encompass the world.
Via e-mail a few days later, Scott Esposito, editor of the Quarterly Conversation, argued that the role of Mexico in The Savage Detectives is a bit more important and complicated than I'd made it seem:
I think what you say about the Mexico in the book is true--it being one of the many bohemian destinations on Ulises' and Arturo's paths, and the political aspects not taking very overt form--but I also think the place holds special meaning for Bolano. To me, this comes out most in the final part when they're off in the desert looking for Cesaria. This Sonoran landscape, the utter bleakness mixed with these sunbleached villages, seems to have fascinated Bolano greatly and I think is tied up in this search for purity and fathers that is so central to his books. Of course, part of this reading is based on 2666, in which this Mexican landscape plays a far more central role. For what it's worth, I lived in Mexico for about 14 months, and Bolano's descriptions of that country seem completely accurate to me, not only in the way things are described, but in the parts of Mexican society Bolano chooses to highlight as meaningful and/or idiosyncratic. They're always exactly the things I would be telling my friends about whenever I discussed Mexico.
I love that both Scott and Bolano, a transplanted Chilean, hit upon the same aspects of Mexican life as being noteworthy. And he's definitely right about Bolano's fascination with Mexico; I didn't write about this before, but for all of Bolano's attention to people and their peregrinations, he also offers, here and there throughout the novel, effective and even lyrical descriptions of the cities and landscape of Mexico, accounts that are can only be the product of careful, even loving attention.

Now I'm even more excited about 2666. Must be patient. Plenty of other things to read.

2 If, after all my raving, you're still not sure that The Savage Detectives is for you, try this test: go to your local bookstore (or, if you're too lazy to put some pants on, to Amazon, where you can use the "Search inside the book function"), turn to page 222, and read the testimony of Joaquin Font from El Reposo Mental Health Clinic in Mexico City. It begins:
Sometimes I think about Laura Damian. Not often. Four or five times a day. Eight or sixteen times if I can't sleep, which makes sense since there's room for a lot of memories in a twenty-four hour day.
And it gets sadder from there.

Font's account runs about two pages, and, plucked out of Bolano's six-hundred-plus-page novel, it can stand on its own as a compact and powerful short story, impressionistic and moving. (I know because I couldn't help reading it aloud to rocketlass.) Set in context, it becomes wrenching and almost unbearably sad. If, on reading it in the bookstore, you aren't impressed, this book is not for you.

3 In my earlier post, I pointed out that though it's entirely possible that Bolano invented some of the many books mentioned in The Savage Detectives, the sheer number of unfamiliar titles was going to prevent me from adding any to the ever-growing catalog of the Imaginary Library. I'm confident enough about the spuriousness of one book, however, to go ahead and add it: The New Age and the Iberian Ladder, by Hernando Garcia Leon. A three-hundred-fifty-page account of a religious dream vision, it appears in a section at the end (one of the book's few ineffective sequences) where Bolano lets a handful of writers--successful and unsuccessful, artists and hacks, collaborators and resistors--tell of their careers.

If the author's relatively brief summary of his vision is anything to go by, The New Age and the Iberian Ladder must be at least as awful and unreadable as its title, a book that is likely to sit forlorn on the imaginary shelves of the imaginary library and grow imaginary cobwebs for a very real eternity.

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