[by Patrick Newson]
Seminar Title: “Roberto Bolaño: State/Art/Violence”
Guide: Benjamin McPherson Ficklin
Texts by Roberto Bolaño:
The Savage Detectives
Bolano: Art, State, Violence
My first encounter with Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives was an audiobook version I bought in San Francisco several years ago. My friend, BMF — now a DELVE Seminar leader through Portland’s Literary Arts organization — and I had each written a short story which we had screen-printed on opposing sides of the same poster and my intention was to distribute them internationally that thus, our work as writers might not fade into the complete obscurity often reserved for independent publications and fledgling poets who talk further than they walk. I was about to leave the country with a backpack full of idealism.
After diligently copying the 24-CD volume to the arthritic hard-drive of my outdated laptop, I transferred the data to my equally decrepit music player. I often set this device to shuffle, plugged into the sound system of the former slaughterhouse where I worked, processing wine through the same concrete channels in which blood once ran. Because the audiobook, like the novel, is broken into scores of discrete sections that oscillate in time and perspective, that I first came to The Savage Detectives sporadically and interspersed with music and lyrics led me to believe that Bolaño had written some postmodern bildungsroman of a ghostly poetics that exists only through reputation, rumor, and echo.
BMF highlighted this smoky quality on the first day of class with the short piece “Beach”, a first-person story written as one long paragraph completely devoid of punctuation. The essential closeness of the piece to the subject (heroin addiction) prompted a discussion that would linger throughout the rest of the class sessions as we continuously reckoned with truths, and facts, and fictions, and a mystique of variable authenticity. How close to life does Bolaño make his art, we wondered. He seems to write about subjects familiar to him, and he uses characters and events and referential material grounded in reality, but processed through a medium in which all is variable, often explicitly so, often in contradictory ways, often disregarding the authenticity of a memory or an event while simultaneously rendering it with such detail that the author/narrator blurs the line between representation and projection, fact and fiction.
This quality is evident in the extended metaphor of skywriting that Bolaño employs in Distant Star, a short early novel. An aerial “poet” (also a government assassin) makes work that literally evaporates, although it achieves great cultural saturation in the skies above Chilean cities during and after the vicious regime change of 1973. The characters of Distant Star inhabit the world of poetry workshops, where writers congregate to discuss literature; to read and discuss Bolaño in this setting parallels the experience of these characters, constantly in the process of discovery and recontextualization, wrung through literary theory and a litany of the underground Latin American canon. And some of the poets and some of the events actually happened, and some didn’t, and Bolaño’s refusal to define which is which or even claim the validity of his position contributes to an acceptance of inherent insecurity, the critical distance of distrust.
As we engaged with this Bolaño-oriented meta-workshop, we began to unpack the darker elements of his work. Distant Star’s subject is manifest in the brutality of the skywriter, Carlos Weider, who documents the atrocities he commits, the “disappearances” he orchestrates, in a series of graphically violent photographs which he then, after a daredevil series of increasingly sinister and intimate Latin phrases painted across a tempestuous sky, presents, casually and intentionally, in a gallery setting, as art. Following this, Weider himself disappears and the workshop members follow his mythos, his rumor, through the rest of the book, watching as the intersection of state-sponsored violence, an independent evil, and a sadistic aesthetic manifest, crystalize and dissolve into the mists of social acceptance, and the suggestion of a deeply flawed civilization.
These fissures of society, where either violence or art must erupt, are nowhere more evident than in Antwerp, a very short work comprised of a series of prosaic vignettes that seem at once to represent internal observations and obsessions, while simultaneously reverberating with fragments of kaleidoscopic conversation and bursts of surreal imagery. Often, these vignettes lack immediate context, swirling instead through myriad and undefined possibilities ranging from interrogations, interviews, depositions, and the neurotic immediacy of sex and hyper awareness. Antwerp is a pressurized book, pulsing with the possibility of interpretation, and BMF introduced the group to the concept of apophenia, the recognition of patterns in a non-patterned field, the search for meaning that may or may not exist, a quality consistent in Bolaño’s work. Even in a book woven with care and precision, nothing is obvious, and the more one pushes toward a concrete understanding, the more another area unravels, as though the limitation is not necessarily in what we as readers can potentially comprehend, but that we don’t actually have enough thread to hang ourselves on a singular interpretation.
Similarly, the invocation of Bolaño’s “Infrarealist Manifesto” as a tool to leverage the daunting cover of The Savage Detectives, was another fine choice on the part of BMF. The manifesto, written by a young, contentious poet calls for the dissolution of canon and a complete re-imagining of the Latin American diasporic conversation, one in opposition to colonialism, in opposition to bourgeois society, and alarmingly utilizing aggressive, destructive, violent rhetoric to contrast what Bolano regarded as complacency, particularly in the repeating and familiar examples of “peasant poetry” and “the dictator novel”. This manifesto resonates with the first part of the novel, “Mexicans Lost in Mexico,” as it follows a wide-eyed teenage poet through initial encounters with drugs, sexuality, and group of writers, the visceral realists, led by the translucent figures of Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano (a recurring stand-in for the author). This rendering, rife with the explicit and problematic issues of misogyny, machismo, sexual violence against women, and male sexual gratification presented a laborious supplement to the barrage of high-concept poetic solipsism populating the early pages of the novel, a stark contrast to the pilloried declarations made by a young Bolaño decades before this novel.
Although it begins in Mexico City DF of late 1975 and ends through a disappearing window of the Sonoran Desert a few months later, the principal narrative of The Savage Detectives involves the recollections of those characters who brushed against Lima and Belano throughout the subsequent decades as they travelled, loved, lived, and worked through the maturation of their visceral realism. Here BMF presented us with two possible methods of competing narrative interpretation. One is to take the anecdotes simply in the order as they are presented, allowing them to create a diachronic synthesis of story which progresses forward unilaterally to expose the nascence and death of a literary movement. The episodic interpretation, in which each segment acts as complete example of one instance in the life of Belano or Lima, allows for the flexibility of space and time, in which two diametrically oppositional accounts can both be taken as valid and independent of each other, allowing the reader’s psyche as thread which stitches them together. This aggregate of stories, connected by the disappearances and reappearances of Lima and Belano, and the shifting perspectives of those they encounter, illuminates the inherent instability of a true “reality” as encouraged by existential philosophy, nationalistic politics, and an acceptance of “fiction” in the form of magical realism as the prevailingly authentic representation of Latin American literature. However, we see nothing of their work. No evidence of visceral realist poetry. Nothing concrete exists of Belano or Lima except hearsay. Like the Infrarealists of Bolaño’s youth, the visceral realists of his fiction fade from the activist preoccupation of passionate aesthetics coupled with anti-establishment politics, to the tepid and regular lives of teachers and journalists, bleeding the lines between fact and fiction like an inkblot through newsprint. Temporal.
The Savage Detectives serves as a mirrored window in which Roberto Bolaño reflects his fictional self and his fictional work and his fictional friends. But behind the mirror are the conflicting truths, untouchable, unchangeable, and accessible only through the medium he has created. Although the names have changed, and the the stories have been adulterated, Bolaño’s intense rendering of late 20th Century Mexican poetics, however adjusted, has resulted in the exploration and publication of previously unsung writers in Bolaño’s circles. Like the visual rendering of straight lines, wavy lines, and jagged lines, that represent the sea in both Antwerp and the poet Amadeo Salvatierra’s recollections late in The Savage Detectives, Bolaño’s creation allows his rising tide of popularity and recognition to float the boats of the obscure poets, the Infrarealists, and visceral realists and idealists.