Thursday, December 12, 2013
Purple State of John
Thoughts of a wordslinger…
Let’s suppose that you as a reader don’t care much about the lives, loves, successes, failures and deaths of a generation of Mexican poets. Fair enough. So here’s another way to look at the late Roberto Bolano’s strange and magnificent novel The Savage Detectives.
Imagine, for a second, that it’s about the lives, loves, successes, failures and deaths of punk rock musicians in New York City or better yet Seattle or even Dubuque. It’s about the life and death of a scene, in other words, the fate of a group of loosely connected individuals who are bound by a single moment in their lives, probably in their early youth, and perhaps by a single incident or a pair of individuals that may or may not have anything to do with music and yet connected everyone who passed through the scene for the rest of their lives and even conferred a kind of confused, obscure but very powerful meaning on everything, so that the individuals in the scene every so often looked back on the experience and say, that was amazing, and that was me.
Such was my experience of reading The Savage Detectives.
Here’s a paragraph from late in the novel. It may give a sense of what I mean. The scene or group depicted in Bolano’s novel is centered on a group of poets calling themselves the visceral realists, a mostly unknown movement in Mexican poetry that nevertheless finds its chronicler:
“Ernesto Garcia Grajales, Universidad de Pachuca, Pachuca, Mexico, December 1996: In all humbleness, sir, I can say that I’m the only expert on the visceral realists in Mexico, and if pressed, the world. God willing, I plan to publish abook about them. Professor Reyes Arevalo has told me that the university press might bring it out…Yes, you could say I’m the foremost scholar in the field, the definitive authority, but that’s not saying much. I’m probably the only person who cares. Hardly anyone even remembers the visceral realists anymore. Many of them are dead. Others have disappeared and no one knows what happened to them. But some are still active. Jacinto Requena, for example, is a film critic now and runs the Pachuca film society. He’s the one who first got me interested in the book. Maria Font lives in Mexico City. She never married. She writes, but she doesn’t publish. Ernesto San Epifanio died. Xochitl Garcia works for Mexico City newspaper magazines and Sunday supplements. I don’t think she writes poetry anymore. Rafael Barrios disappeared in the United States. I don’t know whether he’s still around. Angelica Font recently published her second collection of poetry, only thirty pages long, not a bad book in a very elegant edition. Luscious Skin died. Pancho Rodriguez died. Emma Mendez committed suicide. Moctezuma Rodriguez is involved in politics. I’ve heard that Felipe Muller is still in Barcelona, married and with a kid. He seems to be happy.”
You get the general idea. Now, instead of Bolano’s names, substitute your own, whether we’re talking about the names of the punk scene in New York or Seattle, or the students in a graduate program in Iowa City, or your era as part of an expat group in some farflung city in the world, whomever and wherever.
There is a time in youth when a certain kind of mysterious bond forms between people, a connection made up of sex, faith, alienation, ambition, adventurism, affinity and often enough poverty. The bond seems to dissolve quickly, but over time it assumes a sort of magical quality; it endures in ways than even individual friendships don’t. You belonged to something. You were part of something—maybe it was nothing more than a circle of people who all wanted to be writers, or maybe it was a collection of assorted gorgeous misfits who worked at the same legendary bookstore.
One way or another, the poignant thing about most scenes is the contradiction between their momentousness for the individuals who belonged to them coupled with their triviality in the eyes of the world. Most scenes come and go with the evanescence of fireflies in the dusk; weirdly, their power seems to derive from their transitory nature. They matter because they happended once and briefly. They can never recur, in other words, and often enough, their meaning can only be glimpsed in memory, and perhaps only collectively, as people go on with their lives and find to their surprise that their recollection of the scene won’t simply dissipate with the years.
In The Savage Detectives, we get dozens of memories of the visceral realists in two separate formats. The first is a journal kept by the youngest and most obscure member of the group, a young man that almost no one else in the circle even remembers. The second is a series of responses to interview questions that we never read, in which the respondents tell us what happened to the two most prominent members of the group, the poet-slash-drug dealers-slash-nomads Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima.
The novel has a random feel at first, which can make it difficult going, but as it progresses, it obtains force. Bolano makes us feel two things at once: the visceral realists matter more than any other circle of their time, even though none of them went on to become famous or well-known, despite brushes with such luminaries as Octavio Paz and Trotsky’s daughter; and the visceral realists don’t matter at all; they are, in fact, the very definition of the firefly scene that burns once and vanishes forever.
The distance between those two sensations accounts for the momentum of this book, which by its very nature as a collection of the memories of people who knew each other briefly before moving on with their lives is mostly a collection of short stories. People shack up and then break up. They get crap jobs. They see their dreams dashed. They surprise themselves with careers they never envisioned. They hear from old friends. They see strange things, end up in wild and dangerous places, die of disease or car crash, lose their minds, commit murder, get married, have children and grow old.
If someone wanted to understand how a life without an orthodox or rigid belief system can nonetheless be meaningful, beautiful and profound, they could do worse than try on this maddening, ground-breaking novel. In a moment when the entire world of print seems on the verge of collapse, taking down countless unknown yet fondly remembered literary circles as it sinks, Bolano summons up a way of life that embodies so much of what stands to be lost—a way of life that finds its heart and soul, sex and fire in books, in reading, in writing.
In words, in other words, but they have already vanished by the time the novel ends, burst like soap bubbles, and we understand that, for these people, the words were merely the pretext for the connection, which grows more ominous and mysterious with the passage of time, outliving whatever poems were written on its behalf.
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