Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2751
Roberto Bolaño was a writer’s writer. Literature was his subject matter. The fictions that people make out of their own lives constitute his primary theme, and the dangers of those fictions, especially as manifest in obsession, ambition, and self-deception, provide the narrative suspense of his plots. Moreover, he readily displays his debt to his favorite authors: Chilean writer Nicanor Parra, Argentine writers Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, American writer Thomas Pynchon, and Irish writer James Joyce. Scores more are mentioned in his works, as well as literary movements, aesthetics, contests, prizes, and films. Each novel opens a panorama on modern literature, and many novels are interrelated.
Bolaño himself frequently appears as a character in his fiction, named directly or as “B” or as his alter ego, Arturo Belano. In fact, he draws much of his material from his own experience and that of people he knew. The Savage Detectives, for instance, borrows from his times with his friend Santiago, so much so that its second section is practically a roman à clef. This foundation in actual history helps give his fiction its exuberant immediacy and restlessness. Nearly all characters live wandering existences, and the hint is that those who settle down lose the vitality that sets them apart, for better or worse. Many fictional characters also appear in more than one of Bolaño’s novels, and passages in some novels give rise to later novels, as is the case with Estrella distante (1996; Distant Star, 2004), which expands on the ending of La literatura Nazi en América (1996; Nazi Literature in the Americas, 2008).
Bolaño makes use of several genres, mixing them, so that his narratives emerge from literary conventions but are not bound by them. Detectives and the pursuit of a mystery are central to his plots, either actual detectives like Romero in Nazi Literature in the Americas, amateur detectives like Belano and Lima, or scholars like those in the first section of 2666. There are also scenes appropriate to satire, crime thrillers, romantic comedy, and the coming-of-age novel. Many stories are told by first-person narrators. This technique intensifies the immediacy of the narratives, but additionally Bolaño creates a prismatic effect in such novels as The Savage Detectives by using dozens of narrators, so that a story is not so much told as pieced together from every possible viewpoint.
Neither the intense literariness of the novels nor their manipulation of popular genres are ends in themselves. Quite to the contrary, Bolaño undermines conventions and foils the expectations of genre. His protagonists end up antiheroes, usually near death or left in fear and doubt at a novel’s end. The effect is to remove literature from its usual status as an artifact, an entertainment created by satisfying typical plot and character patterns, and to impel readers to see the characters not as simply literary creations but as possible lives. In other words, when a fiction is not conventional, it seems more individual and lifelike. His innovation appears most strikingly in his refusal to offer neat resolutions for the conflicts that power his narratives, leaving unclear, for example, the fate of central characters or the truth about a mystery. This is a crucial quality to Bolaño’s work, which Spanish critic Ignacio Echeverria termed the “poetics of inconclusivness.” Much of previous Western literature, especially that of Latin America, has been criticized for becoming moribund because writers are content to satisfy the generic norms for closure or are obsessed with the aesthetics of aging literary movements. Bolaño makes a departure. Because he does, his stories appeal more to readers’ knowledge of life rather than to their understanding of literary traditions.
Accordingly, Bolaño’s fiction expresses human relationships and thereby reflects society, particularly politics. Having himself lived through political turmoil, he investigates the mechanics of moral failure and competition for power under the guise of ideology. To one of his translators, Chris Andrews, Bolaño’s novels are an anatomy of social evil. Andrews distinguishes “four faces” of turpitude among Bolaño’s characters: dictators, because they seek superiority; administrators, because they are concerned only with their own advancement within a system; accomplices (those who simply go along with events), because fear governs them; and sociopaths, because they care only for themselves. In a complementary approach, critic Siddhartha Deb argues that Bolaño’s novels break down the distinctions between the past and the present, the imagination and experience, and the conscious and subconscious. Above all, Bolaño possesses a superior power among experimental writers to involve readers in the chancy, vital world of his stories.
The Savage Detectives
First published: Los detectives salvajes, 1998 (English translation, 2007)
Type of work: Novel
An avant-garde movement in Mexico colors the lives of a disparate group of poets, revealing the symbiosis between society and literature.
The Savage Detectives recounts the history of avant-garde poets from 1975 in Mexico City until 1996 in Africa. Their literary movement, visceral realism, begins with a mischievous revolutionary fervor but later spins apart through jealousy, murder, flight, despair, insanity, and, in a very few cases, self-discovery. Although the underlying plotline is straightforward, the narrative structure and multiple points of view belong uniquely to this novel. It is divided into three sections that present the story out of chronological order.
“Mexicans Lost in Mexico” concerns the last two months of 1975 and takes place wholly in Mexico City. It is told through the diary entries of Juan García Madero, a seventeen-year-old whose ambition is to study literature and become a poet. He encounters two older poets, Arturo Belano and Ulysses Lima. Belano and Lima are poètes maudits, the founders of visceral realism, which is defined mostly by its vigorous opposition to mainstream Mexican literature. They gather about them a variety of younger poets, painters, and dancers, publish magazines, organize or invade poetry readings, and migrate from one dive to another in endless discussion. To finance their literary work they peddle marijuana. By chance, the pair discovers that a previous poet also used the term visceral realism to describe a literary movement. This poet is Cesárea Tinajero, a shadowy figure from the 1920’s known for a single published poem. Belano and Lima decide to track her down.
Meanwhile, García Madero helps rescue a young prostitute, Lupe, from her pimp. As the section draws to a close, the pimp threatens violence if Lupe is not returned to him. With the timely help of Belano and Lima, García Madero and Lupe barely escape a shootout. The four flee Mexico City, heading for Sonora and the last known location of Tinajero
The long middle section, “The Savage Detectives,” leaps forward in time. Belano and Lima have fled to Europe; no mention of García Madero or Lupe occurs until the last pages. The section comprises a series of testimonies about Lima and Belano told by former visceral realists and some others whom the pair interviewed about Tinajero. Although there is much humor (often bitterly ironical), sex, emotional and situational drama, literary and political quarreling, and historical anecdotes, the tone of these testimonies is curiously flat, as if they are legal depositions. With occasional exceptions they are presented in chronological order from 1976 until 1996. As each person tells a story, the reader gradually accumulates information about Belano and Lima. The reader learns that something bad has happened to them, and they live like lost souls, bouncing from one place to another in Nicaragua, France, Spain, Austria, and Israel. Lima eventually turns up in Mexico City again, years later, a broken man. Belano continues to write, makes a modest living for himself in Barcelona, marries, has a son, divorces, falls desperately sick with pancreatitis, and slides into despair. Knowing that he is dying, he goes to Africa as a correspondent, hoping to be killed in action. He is last seen near Monrovia, Liberia, trying to evade a rebel army.
“The Sonora Desert” reverts to García Madero’s diary, which records the events of the first six weeks of 1976. Belano, Lima, Lupe, and García Madero speed north in a borrowed car, pursued by Lupe’s pimp and his henchman. Searching throughout Sonora, Belano and Lima at last succeed in their detective work: They find Tinajero working as a washerwoman in a border town of down-and-out killers. Although her life has been a long decline into poverty, she has filled notebooks with her writing. Just as the four fugitives contact her, the pimp finally catches up. In a scene that bursts from tranquility into violence, Belano and Lima kill their pursuers with Tinajero’s help, and she is killed in the process. In a cuttingly ironical twist, they never have a chance to talk to her about visceral realism. The four fugitives then split up. The final pages concern García Madero and Lupe, who have become lovers. He finds Tinajero’s notebooks and reads them. Although he does not describe their contents in his diary, he refers to them as if they are a disappointment. He is forced to see beyond his ambition to become a poet, and the future looks as bleak as the desert that he and Lupe continue to roam.
Like García Madero, the antitype of Belano, Belano himself comes to recognize that the frame of his literary interest—visceral realism or any literary program—affords too narrow a perspective on what is really visceral in a person’s experience. As a character remarks about one seriocomic episode, “It gave us a glimpse of ourselves in our common humanity. It wasn’t proof of our idle guilt but a sign of our miraculous and pointless innocence.” That is the real savagery of The Savage Detectives.
By Night in Chile
First published: Nocturno de Chile, 2000 (English translation, 2003)
Type of work: Novella
On his death bed, a priest and literary critic seeks to justify his life, a life that is emblematic of Chile.
By Night in Chile opens with Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a celebrated literary critic and poet, on his deathbed confessing to the reader that although once at peace with himself, he no longer is. He is tormented by accusations from a mysterious “wizened youth” and struggles to justify his life. What follows, printed in a single paragraph, is a turbulent montage of images, anecdotes, stories, allegories, laments, and delusions.
Who the wizened youth is and the exact nature of his accusations provide the tension. There are hints of illicit sexuality, beginning with Urrutia’s own father, who is remembered only in shadowy, phallic imagery, yet sex is but one of several diversionary leitmotifs. Urrutia enters the seminary at age thirteen, against his father’s will, and soon after graduation in the late 1950’s decides to become a literary figure. He allies himself to Chile’s preeminent literary critic, who writes under the pen name Farewell. The mentor is indeed an old-fashioned example of the Western literati, effete, independently wealthy, and sterile. Through Farewell, young Father Urrutia socializes with the cultural elite, meeting such luminaries as poet Pablo Neruda and eventually becoming a prominent critic and university professor himself.
However, as he seeks to foster Chilean literature in the patronizingly European mode of his mentor, Urrutia himself is suborned by politics. A conservative, he joins Opus Dei and is recruited by a Mr. Raef (fear) and Mr. Etah (hate) on a secret mission to save the great churches of Europe from deterioration. There follows black comedy, variously hilarious, touching, and outraging, as Father Urrutia travels through Europe and discovers that the greatest danger to the physical church is from the excrement of pigeons and doves, traditional symbols of peace.
Father Urrutia returns to Chile in time to witness the coup by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte and the subsequent rule by a military junta. Again, Mr. Raef and Mr. Etah recruit him on a secret mission, this time to lecture the ruling generals on the fundamentals of Marxism, so that they better understand the mentality of their enemies. Another episode of dark comedy ensues as the generals behave like teenagers.
Meanwhile, Father Urrutia has to cease publishing his own poetry because he discovers, to his own horror, that themes of desolation, heresy, and despair irrepressibly emerge. At this point in his recollections, Father Urrutia comes to recognize that like many of his literary compatriots, his appreciation of Chile’s underlying culture is selective, often precious, and self-deceiving. It is the Catholic Church and the voracious, militant conservatism of people such as Pinochet Ugarte that represents the real motive force in society. “Is it always possible for a man to know what is good and what is bad?” he asks piteously, understanding at last that the answer is no and that he, like other intellectuals, has let himself be used, out of vanity, by those in power for the maintenance of power. Two final recognitions come, both devastating to the priest: that “what we call literature” is simply a means to avoid a collapse into barbarity and that his mocking nemesis, the wizened youth, is his own conscience.
Nazi Literature in the Americas
First published: La literatura Nazi en América, 1996 (English translation, 2008)
Type of work: Novel
A faux biographical encyclopedia, this novel satirizes fascist literature, whose violent milieu entangles the central character, the author himself.
Nazi Literature in the Americas has the appearance of a biographical encyclopedia. The entries, varying in length from half a page to nearly thirty pages, discuss writers from throughout the two continents and from early in the twentieth century to as late as 2029, with Argentina receiving the most attention (eight entries) and the United States placing second (seven entries). There are writers of nearly all genres. Through most of the book the tone is detached, judicious, and scholarly. Gradually, however, as the author discusses thirty-one authors with fascist sensibilities under thirteen headings, it becomes clear to the reader that he is far from detached and that his purpose is ridicule. Moreover, he becomes involved in their world despite himself.
The headings provide a major clue to the author’s attitude. The first is benign, “The Mendiluce Clan,” about a wealthy poet and essayist who becomes a friend of Adolf Hitler, and, along with her daughter and son, are doyens of nationalistic, conservative literature in Argentina. As the book progresses, the headings turn increasingly sinister, for instance, “Poètes Maudits,” “The Aryan Brotherhood,” “The Infamous Ramírez Hoffman,” and finally the “Epilogue for Monsters,” which lists secondary writers, publishing houses, and books. The writers themselves, despite their varying styles and genres, reflect a reactionary vision of utopia, using such jingoist jargon as “golden age,” “new order,” “American awakening,” “will,” “new dawn,” “rebirth of the nation,” “resurrection,” and “the absolute.” Their underlying yearning is for autocracy based, variously, on race, creed, ideology, or class.
While espousing “family values” and other standards of conduct, few of the writers practice what they preach. Herein lies the book’s mordant humor. These writers are violent (soccer thugs, mercenaries, torturers, and murderers), sexually promiscuous and deviant, sometimes ignorant, and treacherous. As the author comments about one writer, “Real life can sometimes bear an unsettling resemblance to nightmares.” About Max Mirabilis, a writer who plagiarizes and lies shamelessly, the author observes that he learned two methods to achieve what he wanted—through violence and through literature, “which is a surreptitious form of violence, a passport of respectability, and can, in certain young and sensitive nations, disguise the social climber’s origins.” A coward, Mirabilis chooses literature. Others are lunatics, such as the Chilean Pedro González Carrera, who reports having been visited by “Merovingian extraterrestrials” and admires the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
The last writer is a figure of horror. A Chilean, Carlos Ramírez Hoffman is an air force pilot who creates poetic skywriting over Santiago. He is also a member of a death squad, murders a series of people, tortures others, then disappears. At this point the author, Bolaño, enters the novel as a character. Abel Romero, a private investigator on the trail of Ramírez Hoffman, asks for Bolaño’s help. Together they track him down, but Bolaño begs Romero not to kill Ramírez Hoffman: “He can’t hurt anyone now, I said. But I didn’t really believe it. Of course he could. We all could. I’ll be right back, said Romero.” The ending insists that literature, even literature written by the lunatic fringe, has a way of turning personal.
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