Daniel Gumbiner: The Last Book I Loved, The Savage Detectives

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When does writing about ourselves become narcissistic? Are we ever not writing (or reading) ourselves?

Some Thoughts After the Mezcal Ran Out:

“And I asked the boys, I said, boys, what do you make of this poem? I said, boys, I’ve been looking at it for more than forty years and I’ve never understood a goddamn thing…I remember that while I was drinking the coffee the boys sat down across from me again and talked about the other pieces in Caborca. Well, then, I said, what’s the mystery? Then the boys looked at me and said: there is no mystery Amadeo.” (398-9)

Today I finished Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives – a 650 page chronicle of two Latin American poets, their search for the Mexican poet Cesarea Tinajero, and their infant literary movement, “Visceral Realism.” Bolaño’s protagonists are thinly veiled stand-ins for himself (Roberto Bolaño = Roberto Belano) and his real-life literary companion (Mario Santiago = Ulises Lima). The novel, additionally, appears to be a partial biography: Santiago and Bolaño both traveled to Europe (like Belano and Lima), and “visceral realism” seems to be an parody of their real-life movement, “Infrarealismo.”

The novel is sprawling and fractured and Bolaño has a tremendous talent for creating authentic voice in his characters – probably because he knew many of them. There were times when I found myself thinking: “Hey, this isn’t fair, this is fiction, you can’t just, you know, write about yourself the whole time.”  But then I realized that is, perhaps, exactly what Bolaño wanted me to be thinking. Is a novel more creative if it is “all made up?”  If so, does that make science fiction the highest form of literature?  When does writing about ourselves become narcissistic?  Are we ever not writing (or reading) ourselves?

Bolaño strays from his literary predecessors of “the Boom” era (Marquez, Fuentes, Llosa etc.): eschewing magical realism for a less mythologized realism and presenting his poet protagonists as the antithesis of the socially-inclined-left-wing-radical-Latin-American-writer stereotype (e.g., Pablo Neruda, who everyone always seems to be hating on). So where does that leave Bolaño?  His realism is far from a 19th Century William Dean Howells novel (it makes no attempt to recreate the thing-in-itself and, even further, makes an attempt at developing plot, which [God knows] Howells & co. never did), but more maximalist than a Carverian short story. It feels unedited like Kerouacian stream of consciousness and then, at times, concise, poetic and crafted (Bolaño always thought of himself as a [failed] poet not a prose-writer). His narrators are many (over fifty in the novel) and their narration trends towards the prolix end of the spectrum. To complicate this categorization even further, his realism has a meta-fictional aspect: he is, after all, writing in a new-realist style about the attempt of two poets (who he makes very little effort to cover up as being modeled after himself and his friend) to form a new-realist literary movement. Artifice, may you be layeth’d bare.

In a sense, I think Bolaño’s drive can be summed up by a quote from García Marquez’s recent autobiography, “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”  At its heart, Bolaño’s work is a beautiful mediation on how we process the past – how we choose (if we do indeed choose) what stories to tell ourselves about our lives and, from these stories, forge some sort of self. It is filled with the lust, insecurity, ambition and excitement of youth. It makes us feel adventurous and hopeless, epic and self-conscious. It can do all of this because it is not overbearingly ideological. Kurt Vonnegut said, “There are two sorts of artists, one not being in the least superior to the other. But one responds to the history of his or her art so far, and the other responds to life itself.”  Now it’s probably a little more complicated than that, but Vonnegut gets at the essential point: its useless trying to codify Bolaño’s realism, because to a certain extent, it is beside the point. The beauty of Bolaño’s work is not in its style or purported innovation in relation to his predecessors (which everyone seems to be harping on about: “OVER 50 NARRATORS! OMG, WTF”), but in the way it tells us stories about the world that feel true and real, and make us think about living. It is how he frames notions of experience and the past in ways that connect with us, but refrain from imposing “meaning” on us (the novel is not, in other words, modernist in the T.S. Eliot/New Criticism sense: using the poetic object to hem in/make manageable the chaos of the real world). For Bolaño, chaos is what’s it all about, and that’s what makes reading him so much fun.


Daniel Gumbiner is a student at UC Berkeley. He has lived in Chile and Argentina. He blogs with his brother, David, at smartwool.tumblr.com More from this author →