I've just finished reading one of the best novels I've seen this year, easily one of the best five novels out of the past fifty or so that I've read. A few months ago when I read By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano I was enormously impressed by the literacy, the political engagement, the psychological insight and significantly by the attention to the pleasure of the reader. Talented and generous writers are rare. So I Amazoned up a copy of The Savage Detectives, the 648-page novel that established his international reputation virtually overnight when it was published in Spanish in 1998.
I read the 2007 English translation by Natasha Wimmer. I do speak and read Spanish fairly well, but ambitious novels with their slang, wordplay and dense vocabulary - lots of lampposts, boat keels, dustballs, grackles, rolling pins and so forth - are the last frontier for the non-native reader. Having said that, the Wimmer translation is delightful and obviously excellent, a serious literary novel in its own right, funny when it should be, disturbing when it should be.
Like the man says in Baby Snakes, what can I say about this marvelous elixer? Let me start with the heart of the matter: this is a novel about poets and about the practice of poetry. It's not about poetry. There are occasional snippets of poems, cited and invented, but these verses are presented without any pretention that they are necessarily good. Some of the most prominent "poems" are actually punning little line drawings of no great originality. There is much (endless) discussion of whether this or that character is a good or a bad poet, this or that poem a good or a bad poem. There are lists (at one point going on for pages) of poets, mostly actual poets. But it is poets, the practice of poetry and the cultural role of poetry that is the subject.
It is a long love prose poem to Spanish-language poetry, the product of an intense love-hate relationship with poetry and literature. A great joke is that poets are memorialized by having abuse heaped upon them (one minor character has a system by which he divides all Mexican poets into two categories: the "queers" and the "fags"). Poetry for these characters is something for which one gives up one's life, something more important than life itself, and the reader plumbs the text in increasing amazed realization that the author has, must have (Bolano died in 2003 at the age of fifty) thrown himself into this passion to bring this crazy testament back to us.
But that makes it all sound so serious. It's a bawdy picaresque about bohemian students, drifters and drunks, oversexed pot-peddling bums and mentally unstable minor literati at the very margins of the publishing industry, people who live in the bottommost depths of obscurity. They hang around cafes in Mexico City (this is a fantastic novel about Mexico City), wander around Europe working as dishwashers and night watchmen, float around South America, move to California with their mothers. They drink a lot, they smoke a lot, they have lots of sex. Years go by. It's really fun to read about. As I said, this is a remarkably generous writer. He's giving us everything he's got.
It's a novel about the written word, the word is more real than reality. Place names, for example, are handled with a lexicographic meticulousness: obviously the name of a place is one of the most important things about it. Oddly enough this cultish devotion to the Logos, self-consciously echoing Cervantes (or more accurately Don Quixote himself) is tied to the theme of authenticity (the defining obsession of the modern poet). Odd, also brilliant: the fictional Arturo Bolano and Ulises Lima as latter-day Quixotes reveal a gnostic, subversive Cervantes, the Quixotic champion of mythic culture vs. modern reality presented as a visionary rather than a fool. Public acknowledgement is corruption, the true artist (and the true philosopher) must defend their obscurity or lose their voice. And modernity, urbanity, secularism are the ultimate enemies of poetry: the heroic poet is Don Quixote, and that's not a windmill at which he is tilting, it's a dragon.
Speaking of bad attitudes, I've thought so far of two people who I feel I need to contact personally. One was Phil Lumsden who went to New College in Sarasota with me in the late 70s. Out of about 300 students we had a pretty good-sized contingent of poets, under the guruship of A. McA. "Mac" Miller, who only brought enough beer for himself to class in his six-pack-sized carrying case (we had to bring our own), an ex-military man with a complicated home life and a taste for Hughesian poetic violence. There were Southern boys who struck manly, racist poses, Bay Area-style hippies whose apartments would be condemned by the health authorities, do-it-yourself punkers who dutifully broke all of their empty beer bottles on the wall, the Russian literature professor was an incomprehensibe fanatic for structuralist theory, one of the English lit professors was on his second student wife and apologized to me for hitting on my girlfriend (he hadn't known she was, he explained to me), the other once had a conversation with me in the dark with his head face-down on his desk (I suspect strong drink), road trips to Tallahassee or Jacksonville to see Kesey, say, or Ferlinghetti (no, Ferlinghetti was a road trip to Buffalo when I was in high school), one night in a bar in Fruitville a drunken man started to recite The Wasteland much to our amazement as we were working through reading the allusions and Pound's editing with Mac - the man said he'd memorized it while he was in the state prison. Later I had to persuade him to get out of the car (of course we had invited him along) when he started to get violent and threaten the girls, I remember seeing him chasing the car in the rearview mirror.
The friendly neighborhood Marxist generally finds the local poets to be dilettantes, decadently apolitical, even frankly antisocial, lost in their cups, penniless moochers. All true. But there is something inevitably subversive about the poetic act, at least there has been since, say, the Industrial Revolution. Bolano recognized that poets in the developed world in the 20th century are crazy, useless, wretched: sacred.