Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Roberto Bolaño - The Savage Detectives and The Last Evenings on Earth

Ben Richards reviews Roberto Bolaño's Last Evenings on Earth and The Savage Detectives
The poet's troubled odyssey is the dominant theme of both Last Evenings and Bolano's novel The Savage Detectives (both brilliantly translated). The latter begins in the 1970s in Mexico City, where two poets - Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima - are leading a literary movement called visceral realism. The first part of the novel is told in diary form by one of their young disciples - a puzzling figure not remembered by others in the movement - who interrupts observations on Belano and Lima to recount his early sexual encounters. This section ends abruptly with the poets, in the company of a whore fleeing her pimp, commandeering a car and heading for the desert. Their quest is to find a lost poet from an earlier literary movement, the wonderfully named "stridentists" (lost, missing, exiled and orphaned poets are - along with prostitutes - a key motif in Bolano's work).
It is a shaggy dog story, but is the dog chasing its nose or its tail? The second part of the novel gives a dazzlingly different perspective (or multiple perspectives) on Belano and Lima by introducing a series of diverse witness testimonies from those who encounter them. These include descriptions of their behaviour on their return from the desert and the various roads of madness and ruin that they travel. In the final phase, we return to the first youthful narrator, who gives an account of the dramatic events during the quest for the lost poet.
Bolano is not reticent about mixing his life story - or at least a mythologised version of it - with his work. He pops up in various guises, principally as the Chilean Arturo Belano, so it is worth pausing to consider his biography. Bolano left Chile when young to live in Mexico, returning briefly to his home country just before the Pinochet coup; he was briefly detained but then reverted to a nomadic, bohemian, heroin-fuelled existence as a vagabond poet before settling in Spain. He turned to prose to pay the rent, and there were times in reading The Savage Detectives when I wondered if it represented Bolano's revenge on the novel for this enforced career choice. Exercised by the "who's-the-daddy?" bickering that is a lamentable aspect of Latin American literature, he was not short of acerbic opinions on his peers. He was scornful of Isabel Allende, whose healthy sales figures and ability to smile on her book jackets have irritated more than a couple of his male contemporaries too. At times the obsession with the role of enfant provocateur , which surfaces repeatedly in Bolano's fiction, becomes tiresome. In the short story "Dance Card", he assumes the mantle of literary drama queen to demand rhetorically: "Do we have to come back to Neruda as we do to the cross, on bleeding knees, with punctured lungs and eyes full of tears?" And it is difficult to resist a shrug. Well, not if you don't want to, Roberto.
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