The Resilient Works of Roberto Bolaño’s Raccoon-Resistant, Water Resistant, Immortal

There are certain books that mark generations. That is the case, in the English-speaking world, with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which left an indelible imprint on the generation that came of age before World War II. It is also the case with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which more than any work seems to capture the self-obsessed, hyper-kinetic madness of the ’90s.

Such milestone books don’t come along that often, and it is always a risky proposition to try to single them out. It’s possible that in another decade, Infinite Jest will seem less relevant, and another novel will rise to take its place as the book that marked Generation X or Y, whichever ends up being the paradigmatic millennium-straddling class.

The English-speaking world, though, is only a slice of the literary universe. I have lived my entire life in a state of linguistic schizophrenia, dividing my brain between English and Spanish. That means I am a confused person, but there are also compensations to be had for living with such dual-mindedness.

One of the most rewarding experiences in my reading life has been to observe the meteoric posthumous ascent of Chile-born novelist Roberto Bolaño, who died at age 50 in 2003. Even before he died, his 1998 novel Los Detectives Salvajes (just published by FSG in English as The Savage Detectives) was being hailed as a literary landmark, of the kind that only comes along once in a generation. At this point, it seems safe to say it will exercise a dominant influence on Spanish-language readers for many years to come. Curiously, for a generation-marking novel, it is not so much about the times in which it was written as it is about the disillusionments of the late 20th century, namely the foundering utopias of the ’70s, decades of ugly violence in Latin America.

Crossing Over

In his books Bolaño does a kind of post-mortem dissection of the dreams that flourished in that decade of hippies, guerrillas, and gurus. He sifts through the rubble of political deliriums, drug-fueled bohemian lifestyles, and forgotten artistic vanguards. What he finds is not comforting. He discovers that the heart of his generation is blackened by disenchantment. He looks to the past, and all he finds is violence, or cowardice. Most of his characters are Latin Americans who, like him, were exiled, scattered to the four compass points. He sees that all of them have been living a sort of anticlimactic conclusion to their failed spiritual or artistic battles waged in the frameworks of the counterculture and the Cold War.

I wrote a cover article on Bolaño in the San Francisco Bay Guardian‘s monthly book review in January 2005 (“The face in the mirror:

Late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño was a chronicler of Latin America’s dashed utopias” . At the time, he only had two short novels translated into English, both published by New Directions: Distant Star and Chile by Night. Outside of literary circles (Susan Sontag was an early fan) Bolaño was mostly unknown in the United States. Now, two years later, thanks to the translation of Los Detectives Salvajes, his work is suddenly, seemingly everywhere. ” Bolaño fever is spreading faster than Spring fever this season,” proclaims New Directions on its web page. New Directions has been faithfully translating Bolaño ‘s short novels and story collections, while FSG has taken on the task of publishing his longer works.

For me, it’s a happy experience to observe this instance of a literary “cross-over”. It isn’t common for a writer from the Spanish-language world to suddenly become ubiquitous in book reviews and intellectual magazines in the US and England. Arguably, not since Gabriel García Márquez, who achieved worldwide fame with One Hundred Years of Solitude in the late ’60s and early ’70s, has a Spanish-language author exhibited the same potential to shape imaginative worlds in languages other than his own. Time will tell what happens to Bolaño ‘s legacy in the murky seas of translation, but so far the signs are good.

Reader Seeking Author

I’d like to tell the story of my acquaintance with Los Detectives Salvajes, because I think it shows how circuitous and yet — in retrospect, how seemingly inevitable – are the routes which unite reader and author.

In November, 2003, the New York Times Magazine published an extensive profile of Márquez, written by Francisco Goldman, a Guatemalan-American novelist. In the article, titled “In the Shadow of the Patriarch”, Goldman made passing reference to Bolaño, then recently deceased, invoking him as one of the Latin American writers that new generations might look to if they wanted alternative literary lights to follow. I looked Bolaño up, remembering only then I had come across one of his books (La Literatura Nazi en América) in Buenos Aires bookstores, during my frequent trips to Argentina.

On one website, I came across an excerpt from Los Detectives Salvajes which revealed one of the many facets of the book: its gleeful deflating of some of Latin America’s most outsize literary reputations, especially that of Nobel Prize-winning Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz, author of Labyrinth of Solitude. In the excerpt, the narrator (one of dozens, if not hundreds, that fill the pages of the book) is Clara Cabeza, Paz’s fictional secretary. Through her description of clerical tasks she undertakes as an employee of Paz’s literary empire, Bolaño gently lampoons the idea of literary reputations that become their own industries:

I was Octavio Paz’s secretary. You wouldn’t believe all the work I had. From writing letters, to finding this or that un-findable manuscript, to telephoning contributors to the magazine, to getting books that were only available at one or two universities in the United States. After two years of working with Don Octavio I had chronic migraines that attacked me at around eleven in the morning and didn’t go away, no matter how many aspirins I took, until six in the afternoon.

It went on from there, a subtly satirical and engrossing look at the mechanics of literary fame and the collateral damage it wreaks on the innocent civilians that surround writers. I was completely taken with what I read, and asked my mother to bring me back the book from Argentina, where my extended family lives.

Raccoon Attack, Missing Pages

Soon, I had the book in my possession. On its cover it had the arresting image of three men in ominously nondescript white shirts and black hats and ties, walking down a beach on which heat ripples blend with the ocean surf. To me, it looked like a scene from a Quentin Tarantino movie. If there had been a sequel to Reservoir Dogs filmed somewhere near Acapulco, the movie poster might have looked like the cover of my pocket edition of Los Detectives Salvajes. The book, I knew, was put out by legendary Spanish house Anagrama, which published a constant stream of Bolaño books in the ’90s and early 2000s, during the author’s feverishly busy last decade of life. (Posthumously, Anagrama has continued publishing all of Bolaño ‘s fiction, essays and poetry, including his monumental, 1,119-page novel 2666, which he nearly finished before he died of liver disease in Barcelona).

I didn’t read Los Detectives Salvajes immediately. I was immersed in my own experiments with writing and I knew I would be unduly influenced if I opened the book. Looking at the table of contents, and the seemingly interminable list of places, dates and character names that designated the chapters, I knew it was the kind of book that would fascinate me: geographically expansive, many-voiced and chronologically complex. A few months later I began to read. I finished it in the Spring of 2004, on a short vacation to visit a friend in Charleston, South Carolina.

But along the way, I discovered my battered copy was missing a good number of pages. At one point, it was also partially eaten by muddy-pawed, starving raccoons.

The friend I visited lived on a large property outside Charleston. One day, I went to the beach and returned to the house he had lent me to find it had been invaded by raccoons. The screen door was wide open, the kitchen was a mess, and there was trash all over the floor. For some reason, the creatures had pulled Los Detectives Salvajes out of a beach bag I left on a couch and had gnawed vigorously on the book. There were black paw prints all over it and its corners were shredded, the pages ruffled and claw-torn.

It could have been worse. I determined the book was still readable. And after wiping it down to remove vestiges of raccoon drool, I continued to read.

But not all that was amiss with my book was the fault of the raccoons. It seems Anagrama, the publishing house, despite its literary pedigree, had a loose gear somewhere in its book manufacturing mechanism. My copy of Los Detectives Salvajes, about halfway through, was a mess of repeated or out-of-order pages. It took me nearly a half-hour to figure out exactly what was going on, and I realized that all told, my book was missing a sizeable chunk of a chapter. I still haven’t read those missing bits, but it’s a testament to the book’s strength that it hardly seems to matter. One day, I know, I’ll actually “finish” the book. Until then, it’s pleasing to know that a part of the novel still awaits me.

Built to Last

This essay wouldn’t be complete unless I gave readers an idea of what The Savage Detectives was actually about, and why it is such a compelling read, even from a mauled and mangled copy.

The main characters are Arturo Belano, the author’s alter ego, and Ulises Lima, who is based on deceased Mexican poet Mario Santiago, one of Bolaño ‘s best friends in the ’70s. Together Santiago and Bolaño founded a poetry movement they called “infrarealism”, which becomes “visceral realism” in the novel. At the heart of the book is a pilgrimage the two make to Sonora’s deserts, searching for visceral realism’s founder, a Mexican poetess from the 1930s named Césarea Tinarejo. The novel celebrates eccentric characters like Tinarejo, Belano, and Lima, who practice literature on society’s margins with little or no support, recognition, or success.

It’s fundamentally a book about writers and readers, but it is written like an adventure novel or a detective story.

My favorite character is Lima, who among other things (poet, pot dealer, unlucky lover) is a voracious reader. He is so attached to books that he reads even while in the shower. In one episode, another character observes him as he disappears into the bathroom with his head bent over a book, and then emerges with a towel around his waist, the book dripping.

It only seemed appropriate, then, that my copy of the novel, too, took its own dose of punishment. Yet still, I read on.