I skipped writing last week because I was too close to the end of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (about which I wrote last time) to talk about it without muddling my own reading experience. I finished it late Sunday night, and I’ve already moved on to something else (which I’m sure will find its way here in due time) but… the novel has stuck with me still. There will be spoilers here, if you’re planning on reading it, but I’m not sure knowing them would diminish your reading experience.
The first and last sections of the book are the ostensible diary entries of one Juan García Madero, first as he makes his way into a circle of Mexico City poets who call themselves the visceral realists, and then in the final part as he, the two leaders of the movement (Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano—guess which one is a stand-in for the author), and a prostitute named Lupe roam the deserts of Sonora looking for a lost poet from the 1920’s.
In between is a story that will ring true with so many creative people: told in interviews with various people from 1976 to 1996, the story of how a movement of poets led by two revolutionaries went nowhere and those young people who had been so passionate about literature and politics and literature-as-politics scatter as they become adults (and/or die).
It resonates. I was a teenager who thought I was going to upset the established orders of the world with poetry. I was a guy in my early twenties who thought I was going to change the consciousness of the masses with my howling, feral electric guitar. The minor disappointments of failing to spark a literal revolution are eventually overcome by life, which moves on inexorably anyway, and you either leave those desires behind and learn to create things for the sake of creating them, or you get hung up on What You Could Have Been. Except, as The Savage Detectives will remind you, you never Could Have Been that anyway, and maybe it wouldn’t have mattered all that much if you had. At the end of the day, that’s not really the measure of the worth of these lives.
The dissolution of the visceral realists—both the movement itself and the lives of those involved—still strikes a hopeful note. You can love poetry and write it and no one can read it, and that’s fine. You can make a living as a dishwasher in a foreign country and write at night, and that’s fine. You can be so on fire for language that it alters your experience of life, enriches it, deepens it. That has to be its own gift. This is a lesson that I certainly need to re-learn every year or two.
It’s impossible to imagine a literary movement among poets that could challenge our political system. Maybe that’s one thing about the book that is specific to its late 20th century Latin American setting, but I don’t think it is. As Bolaño himself said:
‘We fought for parties that, had they emerged victorious, would have immediately sent us into a forced labour camp’, Bolaño writes of his generation. ‘We fought and poured all our generosity into an ideal that had been dead for over fifty years’.
Which means, perhaps, that The Savage Detectives is more of a Quixote for failed poets than anything else. And aren’t we all failed poets, anyway?